Education Tutorial

3 Steps for Smarter Sharpening in Photoshop

October 30, 2016

Photoshop offers numerous ways of doing the same thing. The versatility of the tools available makes it easier for users to develop their own methods of editing and retouching images. Sharpening is one such thing that can be done in Photoshop in many ways. Some methods are easier while others may be complex and more time-consuming. Photoshop sharpening filters have evolved over the years and produce much better results than they used to many years ago. Here are three simple steps to get better sharpening results in Photoshop:

Step 1: Analyze the Image

Every tool has to be used when necessary and in amounts that enhance the image instead of degrading it. Excessive use of sharpening on images is very common among beginners. Let’s see an example:

Excessive Sharpening

Excessive Sharpening

The above image is a victim of aggressive sharpening, and as a result, it exhibits a number of problems. The most obvious issue with excessive sharpening is the halos around areas of high contrast, like the outline of the mosque in this image. The second most obvious problem is the distortion of fine textural details in the foreground as well as detail on the architecture itself. Similarly, there can be other issues if sharpening is applied in excess. Therefore it is important to analyze the entire image and decide how much sharpening is needed. Keep an eye on the following the next time you apply sharpening:

  • Pixel dimension or size of the image (width and height)
  • Areas of the image that have fine details (such as surface textures, trees, bushes, lines, patterns, geometric forms, and shapes etc.)
  • Areas of the image that are softer (such as clouds, running water, bokeh and maybe background elements)

Sharpening is dependent upon the size of the image. A higher resolution image will require more sharpening while a low-res image requires much less sharpening.

Step 2: Prepare the Image

Most images end up on the internet. Popular image sharing websites like Flickr and 500px allow images to be uploaded in full resolution but depending on the resolution of the viewer’s monitor, the website dynamically scales down the image. This dynamic scaling softens the image most of the time. Therefore stick to a standard resolution such as 1280px, 1600px, 1920px at the long end (width). You may go to 2560px or even 3840px (4K width) but most people still use 1920×1080 displays and won’t be able to see higher resolution images as good as you intended.

Step 3: Sharpen the Image

One of the quickest and reliable filters I have come to use in recent years is the Smart Sharpen filter (under Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen). As its name suggests, it is indeed a smart filter because it analyses the images and applies the sharpening effect in areas of the image which benefit from it most. Let’s see how it works.

Unsharpened (1024 x 768)

Unsharpened (1024 x 768)

The above image is downsized to 1024 x 768 pixels and no sharpening is yet applied to it. The image looks soft and can benefit from sharpening. For this image, I have used the following values in Smart Sharpen.

Smart sharpen

For an image of this size, the above settings are almost always great. The amount of 100% with a radius setting of 1 pixel is a shortcut to quick sharpening for images of this resolution. Let’s see how the image looks now.

Sharpened (1024 x 768)

Sharpened (1024 x 768)

There are times when an image may require slightly more sharpening. In that case, you can try the following:

  • Increase the amount to 120%, 150% or 200%.
  • Or instead, create a duplicate layer of the sharpened image (see below) and re-apply the Smart Sharpen filter with the same settings as before. And change the opacity of the new layer to control the amount of the combined sharpening effect.


And that’s all basically. Give it a shot and experiment it on different types of images to see what works and share your thoughts. And if you have any questions, feel free to drop me a line in the comment section below.


Hi, I am Hammad Iqbal, a professional photographer based in Doha. Welcome to the "HI Blog" where I share tutorials, tips and techniques about shooting and post-processing images using Lightroom and Photoshop. Follow my updates by subscribing to my newsletter and discover with me the art of photography and post-processing!

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