Selective Sharpening

By Ryan Pastorino on December 30th, 2011   |    Posted in:  Processing   |    3 Comments

I have seen various processing techniques shared among the community, but one area I rarely see discussed is sharpening.  Sharpening for me is the final step in the process to give the photo that extra punch.  However, I rarely sharpen in one quick step globally.  Much like the rest of my editing, I sharpen to taste using layers so I can selectively apply sharpening to part of the photo only.

First of all, sharpening is always my final step after I resize the photo to the desired dimensions.  For uploading to the web, I almost always upload at 1024 pixels on the wide end.  I want my sharpening to work best for that size so I always resize first before sharpening.  When I’m ready to sharpen the first thing I do is I always add a duplicate layer.

In this example I chose a photo that needs some sharpening but doesn’t need it everywhere.  In this case, I am talking about the sky. In my opinion there is no benefit to sharpening an empty sky, day or night.  If the sky has clouds, sharpening can really bring out the detail and add a bit of drama to the sky.  But in this case, I have a clear night sky.  Sharpening the sky would actually cause some problems.  This shot is on the noisy/grainy side and sharpening would make it worse.  I want a clean sky so I don’t want my sharpening to have any effect on it.

To sharpen everything but the sky, I would use either the magic wand to tool  to select the area I want to sharpen or an easier method that offers more control is to sharpen the entire top layer and then remove the sharpening from the sky using a layer mask.  I use the Unsharp Mask filter in Photoshop for all of my sharpening, but specific sharpening settings arent important here.  Use what works best for you.

Once the top layer is sharpened I will add a layer mask and erase the sharpening applied to the sky.  I deselected the bottom layer in the layers box so we can see that I have erased the sky. For sharpening the masking doesn’t need to be as precise around edges and details so a quick job around the trees and train station is good enough.

By making the bottom layer visible again, the sky from the bottom layer will show and you can see what the final image looks like.

Now, another example of selective sharpening is to remove signs of oversharpening.  A photo might require a strong amount of sharpening overall, but select areas might appear oversharpened.  For this photo, the problems areas or going to be on the monorail along the cheatline and windows.  I call the signs of oversharpening, “jaggies”.  Jaggies are bad!  So how do we fix it?  Just like the previous example, layers and masking.

When I sharpen the image globally, I get jaggies on areas of the monorail. So I sharpen the top layer, and then I create a layer mask and erase along the jaggie areas.  This time, however, I don’t want to completely erase the sharpening in those areas.  I want something in between.  So for the mask, I will use a brush with opacity of 30%.  This means wherever I paint, 70% of the sharpening effect will be removed instead of it being 100% erased. Some areas will require another pass with the paintbrush to remove even more of the sharpening on the jaggies.

Once everything looks good, flatten the layers and there you go!

So there’s a powerful sharpening technique.  Rarely does a global setting work for the entire photo and that goes for sharpening as well. I hope you find this article to be helpful.  Have a great weekend and a Happy New Year!




  1. Mike   |   Jan 1, 2012

    Great article Ryan! Thanks for sharing your technique. I’m relatively new to photography and always happy to learn new methods of making my pictures better.

  2. Angie   |   Jan 1, 2012

    So glad to see an article on this. I having just done some basic things in Photoshop Elements (got 10 for Christmas). I have never really understood the sharpening options much. This helps a lot. THANKS!!!



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