Photography Tips (#01): My Favorite Way to Sharpen Photos in Photoshop

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Today will start a new series of posts in which I’ll reveal my favorite tips, tricks and techniques related to travel photography and post processing. My goal is to provide you with easy and clear instructions on how to improve different aspects of your photography.

Today’s tip is about the fastest and the simplest way to sharpen photos in Photoshop. When I process my photos, I often use Topaz plugins (Topaz Detail and Topaz Clarity) ) to enhance details; however,  today’s  method does not require any additional plugins.

Every RAW image requires some degree of sharpening. When you shoot in JPEG mode, the camera performs the RAW to JPEG conversion automatically, applying different filters at the same time, including sharpening. This is the reason JPEG photos look sharper straight from the camera. When you shoot RAW you have much more control over the way you can process your photos but they always look softer than JPEG and, as a result, you need to apply sharpening during your post processing.

Sharpening is the essential step in my post processing workflow. As you may have noticed, I do a lot of HDR photography. The side effect of processing images for HDR is the excess of digital noise it produces. I use different techniques in Lightroom and Photoshop to deal with the noise and, quite often, I have to apply very aggressive settings to reduce it. As the result of noise reduction, the image becomes softer and therefore always requires sharpening.

In my sharpening philosophy I follow a few simple rules or practices

  • I never apply sharpening to the entire image but rather use selective sharpening with the help of masks.
  • I never sharpen areas of sky and water
  • Sharpening is the very last step in my post processing workflow. After I apply sharpening to the image, I save it as a JPEG and it goes to my portfolio on SmugMug.

For today’s demonstration I picked a photo of the beautiful California coast that I featured on my blog not too long ago. Here we have a foreground area with a wide variety of beautiful patterns and textures which require aggressive sharpening. At the same time we do not want to apply any sharpening to the sky and the ocean as we want to keep those areas smooth.

Travel Photography Blog - California. Montana De Oro State Park
I only applied sharpening to foreground elements of the photograph (rock formation, vegetation)
Watch video at the end of the post


Sharpening in Photoshop in 4 Easy Steps

At the end of the post you can find a short video that demonstrates the entire process in less than 2 minutes.

STEP 1 – New Merged Layer

Merge all visible layers on to a new layer.
Select the top layer in your Layer Palette and use shortcut:
Ctrl + Shift + Alt + E (Command + Option + Shift +E on Mac)
This combines all visible layers into the new layer at the top of the Layer Palette.

Watch video at the end of the post

STEP 2 – Blending Mode

Set blending mode to the newly created layer to Soft Light.

STEP 3 – High Pass Filter

Go to Filter > Other > High Pass

Now, you have to set the Radius value. Depending on the size of your image the Radius value will vary. My Canon 60D produces image size of about 5000px. The correct Radius value for this size is between 2 and 2.5 pixels.

Click OK

STEP 4 – Masking

Since you applied sharpening to the entire image you need to mask areas of the water and the sky.

There are many different ways to create and apply masking. This is my preferred method.

Create new mask by clicking the MASK icon at the bottom of the Layer Palette. Fill the mask with black color and use the soft brush to paint with white the areas to which you want to apply sharpening.

Please watch the short video below to learn all the processing steps. The best way to watch the video is in FULL SCREEN mode.



  • Rik Groves says:

    Viktor, Great tutorial! What made it even better for me is that you moved slow enough for me to easily follow! So many ‘tutes’ move too fast to absorb initially. Really good stuff. Bravo!

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