Advanced Sharpening

By Mark

Last week we talked about sharpening in Lightroom.  This week we are going to move over to the more advanced capabilities found in Photoshop.  Here is our base image taken down in Williamsburg.  The lock has lots of interesting details and the boards show potential.  They just are not as crisp as they could be.

Fence Base Image

Fence Base Image

From LR, open your image in PS for editing.  As usual I try to make my workflow non-destructive, so the first thing I do is Ctrl-j, which duplicates the active layer.  This ensures you can always return to the beginning state even after you’ve closed PS.  The sharpening tools are almost all found on the filter menu.  The good folks at Adobe have continually evolved their tools and have added some interesting new ones.  On the menu, the first choice is one of the new features, called “Shake Reduction”.   It is an interesting glimpse of where they are headed as it mathematically reverses some of the camera shake that we introduce.

PS Filter Menu

PS Filter Menu

The next menu item “Sharpen” would be the logical choice for accomplishing your task, but it is in fact a very primitive tool.  In fact, our first recommended choice is the very last one on the menu with the really confusing name—“Unsharp Mask”.  Believe me that the folks at Adobe know that it is a lousy name, but it actually describes how the software works.  Behind the scenes, it applies a very complex Gaussian blur which when blended in with the regular image gives the appearance that the lines are crisper.    Don’t forget this is all designed to fool your brain.  Until PS CS5, this was the best choice.

Unsharp Mask Applied

Unsharp Mask Applied

Since then they have added an even better tool—“Smart Sharpen”.   We got to see Vincent Versace work through the multiple layers needed to actually accomplish this.  It made our heads hurt, and we really love this stuff.  I am happy the tool just works.

Smart Sharpen dialogue box

Smart Sharpen dialogue box

When you select Smart Sharpen, it opens its own dialogue box where you can adjust the sliders.  You control the amount, the radius, and the direction of the sharpening.  The feature which gives this the most power is the ability to control how sharpening takes place in the shadows and highlights.   Since most noise occurs in the shadow portions of your image, you may not want to sharpen as much there. 

Fence with Smart Sharpening

Fence with Smart Sharpening

The last technique is another trick and often gives more dramatic results.  It is not on the Sharpen menu, but is found down on the easy to remember “Other” menu.   It is the “High Pass” filter.  

Other Filter Menu for the High Pass Filter

Other Filter Menu for the High Pass Filter

When you run it on your image it finds the edges and really pushes up the contrast, while greying out everything else. 

High Pass Only

High Pass Only

Since it is on its own separate layer, just change the blend mode to “Overlay” or “Softlight” and it really creates dramatic impact on your image.

Sharpening should be done, but there is no “right” answer.  It is a case of try multiple techniques until you like the result. 

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