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Creative Sharpening In Photoshop And Lightroom

Last week I discussed the importance of capture sharpening, because RAW files don’t come out of the camera sharp enough. This week I want to talk about the next in the triumvirate of image sharpening: creative sharpening.

The term creative sharpening comes from the concept that this sharpening is done for more aesthetic reasons rather than to remedy a technical issue, which is the case with both capture sharpening and output sharpening.

Creative sharpening is any sharpening (or blurring, for that matter) that is done to selected areas of an image, rather than applied evenly to the whole scene. For instance, selective sharpening might be applied solely to the eyes in a portrait as the center of interest. Here are my favorite tools for selectively sharpening and blurring scene elements.

Before Creative Sharpening

Lightroom’s Local Controls

Whether you use an Adjustment Brush, Graduated Filter or Radial Filter, the local controls in Lightroom’s Develop module are a great way to put sharpness and blur exactly where you want them. To use these tools, first determine which one is best for a given task. If you have a single point of focus you’d like to sharpen, the Radial Filter may be the best choice, as it’s designed for single-point control, whether you end up blurring everything outside of the ellipse or sharpening everything inside it. If you want your adjustment to occur on one side of the frame and tail off as it approaches the other side, consider the Graduated Filter. Lastly, and perhaps for most fine-tuned control, consider the Adjustment Brush. This allows you to paint very small, specific areas (or big wide swaths) based simply on the size of the brush you select. Whichever one of these tools you use, the next steps are the same. With the correct tool selected, a drop-down menu will appear. If you’ve previously used the Adjustment Brush, those settings may still be loaded. So you’ll want to zero everything out before you get started. Then choose which tools you’ll use to do the sharpening. My suggestions are twofold, depending on the precise effect you’re going for. First you could use the Clarity slider, and dial it up to, say +25 for a strong midtone contrast increase—which is also a great way to increase the appearance of sharpness.

Photoshop’s Sharpen and Blur Tools

Living together in Photoshop’s Toolbar are the Sharpen and Blur Tool. They’re two sides of the same coin. Booth tools can be sized like any brush-based tool in Photoshop, and they allow you to selectively paint sharpness or blur onto a given area of the scene. You can adjust the tools to various mode settings (like Darken or Color) but in reality, the tool is most useful, I find, when you’re simply adjusting the brush size and the strength of the tool. These two tools are a simple way to add a little sharpness—to eyes and teeth, for instance, in a portrait—or to take the focus off something by adding selective blur. This latter approach is a great way to ensure that out of focus background elements that are a little too discernible really do fall completely out of focus. As with anything, it’s not as good as if it was done in camera, but in a pinch, this selective sharpening and blurring is easy and effective.

Photoshop Masks for Selective Control

Many years and several versions of Photoshop ago, I began using layer masks. It revolutionized my understanding of the software and what I could do with it. There’s a good reason why masks are so game changing: because they can take literally any Photoshop filter or adjustment and apply it selectively to a lot of a scene or just a little. It’s this power—the power of precision—that makes masks perfect for creative sharpening. Because you can apply any overall sharpening or blur to a scene and then use a mask to limit the effect to only select areas, layer masks make any sharpening tool the ideal creative sharpening tool.

To use a layer mask, simply create a new layer that is a copy of the overall image, and then run your preferred sharpening approach on that entire layer. (Maybe that’s the Smart Sharpening Filter or a high-pass sharpening technique; both are explained in more detail below.) Then, click the Add Layer Mask icon in the bottom of the Layers panel. By default the new mask will be transparent, meaning the whole layer will be visible. If your sharpening will apply only to a very small area, you might be better off with a mostly opaque mask. With the mask active, you can either fill it with the paint bucket and pure black color; or you can invert the white mask (CTRL-I) to turn it from transparent to opaque; or when you’re clicking the New Layer Mask icon you can hold the Alt/Option key and the mask will default to opaque.

Next, to reveal the select sharpened areas (say, on eyes or other details) simply use a paintbrush set to white (or a light gray value if you’d like to paint on the mask with a less than 100% opacity) and paint on the mask to reveal the sharpness bit by bit. With the power of layer masks, any sharpening approach can be selective and creative.

But what about specific sharpening tools? Here are a couple of my favorite Photoshop sharpening approaches that can be selectively applied with layer masks.

Smart Sharpen Filter

The Smart Sharpen filter is found under the Filter menu’s Sharpen heading. When the popup window appears, it’ll show a preview of the sharpening effect, as well as provide sliders that should look familiar to anyone familiar with Lightroom’s sharpening sliders. The first is Amount of sharpening, followed by Radius (how far from the edge the contrast will appear) and a slider for reducing noise. Each of these adjustments will be followed momentarily by its effect on the preview image. This window also allows you to change the sharpening type, by telling Photoshop to remove Gaussian blur, lens blur (for poor focus) or motion blur. The last one is particularly useful if the blur is moving in a specific direction, as you can set the program to compensate for that sort of blur by adjusting the axis of the motion. There’s another modification you can do in this window by clicking on the option at the bottom of the box for Shadows/Highlights. These sliders give you the utmost control over how sharpness is applied across the entire scene based on the tonalities. Want to ensure the shadows don’t get oversharpened? Easy to adjust here by dialing the Shadows slider’s Fade amount toward 100%—which would equate to zero additional sharpening in these darkest tones.

High Pass Sharpening

High Pass Sharpening

A classic sharpening tool in Photoshop is High Pass Sharpening. Applied sparingly and selectively, the technique is still very valuable. To apply high-pass sharpening, duplicate the image to a new layer, and look for the High Pass filter under the Other heading at the bottom of the Filter menu. Adjusting the radius will impact how pronounced the effect is. I would suggest starting with a 10-pixel radius on an approximately 20 megapixel image, and adjusting up or down from there. With the High Pass filter applied, the image turns gray, with all of the scene’s edges revealed. To turn this funky affect into sharpening, change the layer mode to Overlay. Now, by toggling on and off the layer, you can see just how much sharpening the High Pass filter imparts. It’s probably way too much for the whole image, but it’s the perfect solution, perhaps, for select areas. Let’s say you want to apply this level of sharpening to a single flower in an otherwise busy scene. You would create an opaque layer mask on this High
Pass Overlay layer, which would hide all of that sharpening. Then with a paint brush set to an appropriate diameter and a fairly soft edge and moderate opacity, click on the mask in the layers palette to activate the mask, and then begin painting away the mask, turning areas you want to reveal white. This way you can sharpen just the parts you want—the flower—while leaving everything else untouched. And the low opacity brush allows you to subtly build up toward the complete revelation of the High Pass Sharpened layer that’s hidden by the opaque mask. For anyone familiar with layers and masks, this technique makes selective sharpening super simple.

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