Sharpen Your Photos

Most of us upload and view our pictures the way they were captured by our digital cameras. Beginners are disappointed that their images look “soft.” Their images certainly do not look like the sharp images they see taken by pro photographers. They wonder whether they need to upgrade to a “better” camera. The good news is, you don’t.

It’s the dirty secret of pro photographers that they also take “soft” images. The difference between their images and yours is that the pros will post-process their images using a technique called  “Sharpening.” If you are comfortable using a computer and can load an image into an image editing software (such as Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, GIMP, or another image editing software), then you can also sharpen your images for maximum display impact, just like a pro!

What Is Sharpening?

Sharpening, at its most basic, is enhancing the edges of an image. This edge enhancement technique involves isolating the edges in an image, amplifying them, and then adding them back into the image. In Photoshop, amplifying the edges is accomplished by locating pixels of greatest contrast, lightening one side and darkening the other. Once sharpening is appropriately applied, people’s reactions is usually, “Wow! It jumps right out at you!

Perhaps the simplest way to understand sharpening is for us to do one using an image editing software, in this case using Photoshop Elements (the screens may look different, depending on the version of PSE you are using).

Here is our original unsharpened image we will be working with in this tutorial. It is a “soft” image, even appearing out of focus in some places. Don’t be deceived by appearances.

Original unsharpened image
Original unsharpened image

Make A Copy

Open Photoshop Elements and do FileOpen – select the picture you want to work with.

Immediately, save it as a different name, with a psd (Photoshop) extension. For example, if your original image was named IMG0001.JPG, then save it as IMG0001.psd (i.e. use the default extension of the image editing software you are using). This way, you will preserve the original file (IMG0001.JPG).

If the Layers Panel is not on your desktop, drag it from the tabs at the top into your work area. If necessary, drag the bottom edge down so you can see more than one layer. You will see your picture (probably named “Background”) in a layer.

Double click on that layer and rename it as original. (You could leave it as “Background” but renaming it is a good habit, since you may want to add a real background in some cases.)

Now, drag it to the new layer icon (in my case, it is the the middle one at the bottom of the Layers Panel) to create a new layer, original copy.

Click on the original copy layer to select it as the one you want to work with. (Remember, we never want to muck with the original layer.)

Your Layers Panel should end up looking somewhat like this, depending on which image editing software you are using:


If not already selected, click the original copy layer to select it.

You could just do EnhanceAuto Sharpen to let PSE take care of the sharpening for you.

Or, you could choose to do it manually. From the menu bar, select: Filter – Sharpen – Unsharp Mask… and type in Amount = 200%, Radius = 1.2, Threshold = 4. Click on Preview to view the original and sharpened version.

Yeah!, I hear you say already. You may want to play around with different values, being careful not to overdo the sharpening effect. You just want the subject to “pop,” not to appear artificial.

We will do just that in the following steps, but we will also separate the pixels into darken and lighten pixels for more precise control of the sharpening process.

Separate Darken and Lighten Pixels

Now, copy the sharpened original copy layer by dragging it to the new layer icon. You’ll end up with original copy 2.

Double click on original copy and rename it darken.

Double click on original copy 2 and rename it lighten.

Select the darken layer by clicking on that layer.

Set the blending mode to darken: See where it says, Normal in a drop down box at the top of the Layers Panel? Click on the down arrow and select “Darken”:

Select the lighten layer by clicking on that layer.

Set the blending mode to lighten: Click on the down arrow and select “Lighten”:

What we have done is separate the darken and lighten pixels into two layers. Now, we can control each layer separately.

Adjust Sharpness

If you are following this tutorial in your own Photoshop Elements and using our image, you’ll notice that the lighten pixels (the highlights) are a bit too bright. (You might have to zoom in 200% to see things clearer.)

Click on the lighten layer to select it and adjust the Opacity until you are satisfied. (Ensure Preview is ON.) In my case, I select 26%.

Likewise, select the darken layer and adjust the Opacity until the darken pixels (the dark edges) just “jump out.” I select 90%.

Each picture you sharpen will require different values, so if you are using your own image, adjust to your own liking.

Here is the original (unsharpened) version:

Original unsharpened image
Original unsharpened image

And here is my final (sharpened) result:

Sharpened image
Sharpened image

Save this final work (in our example, as IMG0001.psd) and publish for Web (File – Save for Web…) and choose as Medium or High quality.

There, you have it. Pretty simple, huh?