3 Levels of Sharpening You Should Be Applying in Photoshop

My name is Jake Hicks, and I’m an editorial and fashion photographer based in the UK. In this article, I’ll share a look at some of the sharpening techniques I use in Photoshop to give my images a little visual-pop before I publish them.

What is Image Sharpening?

This is Lightroom’s default sharpening settings as soon as you import your files. You can see that even the default setting adds a little sharpening to our shots immediately upon import.

Sharpening is one of those odd processes that we all do with our images even if we’re not aware of it. In fact, even the default import settings on a lot of raw processing software sharpens the images for us before we even look at them. Most of us don’t actually change that default setting because, let’s be honest, it looks better with a little sharpening to begin with. To see what I mean, the next time you import a raw into Lightroom or your preferred raw converter feel free to reduce the default sharpening settings to zero.

But even though our raw converters add a little bit of sharpening, I personally don’t add any additional sharpening until I’ve finished nearly all of my editing in Photoshop. Sharpening should be one of the very last things you do your image for a couple of reasons.

Firstly; the amount of sharpening applied to an image should be relevant to where you want it to be displayed. For example you would obviously apply a different amount of sharpening to a file being uploaded to the web as you would a file being printed out for a billboard advert. Applying the sharpening at the end of your post-pro workflow means that you can output several different versions with varying amounts of sharpening applied based on the final usage.

Secondly; sharpening in post-pro is a synthesised process. What I mean by that is that software plays tricks on the viewers eyes to ‘simulate’ an image being sharper and crisper than it actually is. We obviously can’t re-focus the image after the fact so we apply ‘sharpening’ to simulate it. During this process of our software synthesising sharpening it actually just increases the contrast of adjacent pixels thereby giving the image an overall sharper appearance. But that increase in contrast can also increase saturation in edge detail, which can be a problem if you haven’t finished editing your file yet.

The image on the right is simply a 300% zoom of a section of the left-hand image. In this particular shot you can see what happens when you sharpen a file, see how that increase in sharpening increases the contrast of those adjacent pixels and thereby the saturation. The result is often these unwanted color artifacts like we see here.

The Sharpening Trifecta

So which sharpening techniques do I use? Now that we’ve established that we aren’t really re-focusing our image in post, we can look at sharpening as more of a series of clever tricks to simply visually improve our images. With this in mind I actually do my sharpening in three…

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