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How to Sharpen a photo in Photoshop

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One of the first things people want to know how to do in Photoshop, is to sharpen a photo. This would seen pretty easy, right? It’s not really clear to a beginner, because, they would choose the sharpen filter. Strangely this isn’t the best option. In this tutorial I’ll show you the best option along with explanations of what the different sliders do when you sharpen in Photoshop. As well as this easy sharpening technique, I’ll show a second more advanced, sharpening technique in Photoshop.

Let’s start with this photo I shot of musician, Taylor Davis. Notice that Taylor is in focus and the foreground and background are out of focus. We want to sharpen the in focus area.


Choose Filter>Sharpen>Unsharp Mask

This is the easiest tool to sharpen photos in Photoshop. (The video explains its name and how it works).


Let’s look at the 3 sliders one at a time, I will overdo then, so you can see what they do, then I’ll show you the actual settings to use.

The Amount is how strong the sharpening effectis


The radius puts a halo around the edges, this adds contrast, which makes things look sharper. (Almost like clarity in Lightroom / ACR)


The threshold is how you adjust what gets sharpened.

  • 0 threshold: Everything is sharpened
  • 255 threshold: Nothing is sharpened is sharpened




24 threshold: Now it’s more the details, but the surfaces are largely not sharpened.


In reality, we wouldn’t use such aggressive settings, as over sharpened photos don’t look good. Watch the edges for a “sizzling” appearance or obvious halos, we don’t want that.

Here are the final settings I used on this photograph. 186 / 1.5 /2 (I don’t usually go above 2.0 on the radius)

This is working well.

High Pass Sharpening

Right now, we are going to look at an additional way of sharpening in Photoshop, this is called High Pass Sharpening and it allows us to selectively sharpen. (The proceeding method also can be selective if you use Smart Objects)


Begin by duplicating the layer


Change the Layer blending mode to overlay (More on Blending modes here)

It will look different, but don’t worry, this is just an intermediate step, it will look normal in a second.


Choose Filter>Other>High Pass

As you move the slider, you can see the effects of the sharpening. In a way this is also how the unsharp mask works, but you can see it more clearly here.

4. Now, I want to remove the sharpening effect from the hair; Sharpening hair can make it look dry and brittle.

Click on the new Layer Mask icon in the layers panel. (The rectangle with a circle in it).


Choose the brush tool (B) key. Use a soft edged brush.

Choose black as the foreground color.

Paint away the sharpening from the hair, and also the face.

I hope you enjoyed this fundamental tutorial, from our fundamentals series. For more of these types of tutorials, choose the Photoshop basics category from out free tutorials here at

By the way, if you would like to learn these types of thing throughout Photoshop, you really should check out my Flagship Photoshop training. Photoshop Secrets, Photoshop 2020 For Digital Photographers is the best investment you will ever make in learning and mastering Photoshop. It will take your knowledge leaps and bounds ahead.


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12 responses to “How to Sharpen a photo in Photoshop”

  1. Colin — I’ve been coming to the CAFE for years and have been loving it. I just wanted to say thanks for all of the hard work that you do with your tutorials. You’ve set the bar very high and I appreciate it. Keep up the good work and don’t worry about a little hair loss. Like the weather, it just happens.

  2. As always Colin. Very helpful reminders of what each of the sliders do and how you show us the results. I always forget about using High Pass.

  3. Excellent.I use Unsharp Mask but didn’t really understand what I was doing.
    Just the right amount of detail.

  4. Thank-you Collin. I do get confused with so many options and love how you make it seem simple.

  5. Hi Colin, I have always used High Pass for my sharpening because I have never really understood the Unsharp Mask, but now you have explained it all has become very clear, especially using the two methods in tandem. Excellent stuff.

  6. There are quite a few advocates of “Smart Sharpen”, saying that it’s the most up-to-date (and best) sharpening tool. It would be great if you could discuss Smart Sharpen vs. unsharp masking — these differences can be confusing. Thanks, Colin (your videos are a great learning tool!)

  7. Really enjoy your videos, Colin, they are wonderful and you are a Photoshop master! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and skills so generously!

  8. I’m looking forward to seeing your comments/comparison about smart sharpen (#9 above), and unsharp mask – first time on this site.
    Bill_2 (A different Bill)

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