There are many different ways to sharpen images in Photoshop, such as the standard “Sharpen”, “Smart Sharpen” and “Unsharp Mask” filters.

I want to show you how to use a “High Pass” filter for easy and effective sharpening. Below is the photo that I will use to demonstrate the technique.

Ground Squirrel eating a nut

Step 1 – Duplicate layer

Open up the image in Photoshop and duplicate the layer. You can do this by right-clicking on the “Background” layer and selecting “Duplicate Layer”, or you can use the shortcut. Ctrl + J (Windows) / Cmd + J (Mac)

Screenshot of duplicate layer option in photoshop

Step 2 – Apply High Pass Filter

Select the new layer, you just created. Go to Filter > Other > High Pass to add the effect to the new layer.

Screenshot of High Pass filter in Photoshop

A dialog box will pop-up with a radius option. This will determine the amount of sharpness you will be adding to your image.

Screenshot of High Pass filter dialog box in Photoshop

In most cases, I find that somewhere between 1,5 and 5,0 does the trick. It all depends on the image itself. In this case, I want to sharpen the individual hairs and eye. Once you feel like you have the right amount of sharpening, click OK.

Step 3 – Blending the new layer to the Background layer

With the new layer selected, you want to click on the Blending Mode drop-down box.

Screenshot of blending new layer to a background in photoshop

Select the “Overlay” blending mode.

Screenshot of selecting overlay blending mode in photoshop

Step 4 – Adjust the strength of the High Pass Filter

You can adjust the strength of the High Pass filter by changing the opacity of the layer.

Screenshot of adjusting opacity of High Pass filter in photoshop

The final result is a much sharper image than what you had before.

Sharpened Image of a Ground Squirrel eating nut
Comparison between sharpened and unsharpened image of ground squirrel

Step 5 – Bonus Step

If you are happy with your image after step 4, you can save your image and call it a day. But, this High Pass filter method of sharpening can go one step further to the point where you selectively sharpen only the areas that you need to sharpen.

You can do this by applying a layer mask, to the duplicate layer with the High Pass filter applied to it, by clicking on the “add layer mask” icon.

Screenshot of mask layer button in photoshop

Make sure that the background of the layer mask is set to black. If your layer mask is set to white you can invert it by double-clicking on the layer mask and selecting “Invert”. (Invert shortcut – Ctrl + i (Windows) or Cmd + i (Mac).

You can also press and hold “Alt” + click on the layer mask to create a black layer mask. 

Select the brush tool (Shortcut: B)

Screenshot of brush tool in Photoshop

Set your brush colour to white and “paint” in the areas that you would like to sharpen.

Screenshot of using brush tool in photoshop

Your layer mask will look something like this:

Screenshot of mask layer in photoshop with black background
Screenshot of how layer mask looks in full screen in photoshop

Right-click on any of the layers and select “Flatten Image”. Now your sharpened image is ready to be saved or exported in any format you should choose.

Screenshot of flatten image option in photoshop

Now remember, sharpening isn’t going to fix a blurry shot, it’s only going to make an already sharp image look pin-sharp. As you probably already know (as with anything else), moderation is key! Over-sharpening an image can destroy it and make it look awful. But with the right amount of sharpening, you can really bring an image to life.

If you give this sharpening technique a try, feel free to tweet a before and after pic to @outdoorphotoza and @MotionFactoryM!

More tips:

  • To show layer mask – Alt + Shift + click on layer mask.
  • When painting the mask – make sure the brackets (indicating which layer is selected) are around the mask and not on the picture itself