Secrets To Sharpening Photos

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As I work with a lot of photography students, the number-one mistake I see when reviewing their images is oversharpening. Too much sharpening makes photos look unnatural and is more distracting than pleasing to the eye. So, in this article, I’ll share with you a three-step formula you can follow to nail the sharpening and make spectacular photos! 

Something I see a lot of when I’m reviewing my students’ work is the Texture and Clarity at +100 and the Sharpening Amount at 150. It hurts the eyes! 


Let’s take a look at my formula for successful sharpening. 


My secret recipe when it comes to basic sharpening is to add some Noise Reduction as well as Sharpening Amount. The total amount of both sliders should add up to 100. Let me explain. 

This is a photo taken at Julia Pfeiffer Beach and the McWay Falls on the West Coast. It was a spectacular sunset, and I shot it with my Canon EOS 5D Mark II at 200 ISO, so there’s a bit of noise. For the Noise Reduction, I set the Luminance to 15, so to make a total of 100, I set the Sharpening Amount to 85. It works great to keep you from going overboard with your sharpening. 

You can also fine-tune the sharpening with the Masking slider. It’s a great tool to use, especially while holding down the Option (PC: Alt) key. When you drag the Masking slider with that key held down, you can see what’s being sharpened in white, and what’s not being sharpened in black. In this example, I set it to 65. Tip: Never sharpen the sky or water, it makes it crispy instead of flowy and fluffy. 


Sharpening isn’t always bad; it can actually transform your photo into a masterpiece, and here’s how! Click the new Masking icon (gray circle with dotted outline) below the Histogram and choose the Brush tool (or just press the letter K on your keyboard). In the Brush panel, add some Texture (38), Clarity (14), and Sharpness (55). Set your brush Flow, Density, and Feather to 100 so your edits will look natural. Now paint over elements in the foreground to sharpen them. Brush elements that are naturally pretty sharp, such as the rocks or the trees in this image, but don’t overdo it! 


Yes, you read that right! Let’s smooth out parts of the photo by doing the exact opposite of what we did above. Click the Create New Mask button in the Masks panel, and select Brush again. Set a negative Texture (–30), Clarity (–31), and Sharpness (–32). Now you can brush over surfaces, such as water, sky, or faraway elements, to make them smooth. 

Adding local sharpness in some areas and removing it from others will add a nice contrast of texture to your photo and make it much more interesting than just adding overall sharpness. It’s like the dodge-and-burn of texture. It also looks great when you make prints of your photos. 

I hope this has given you more tools to make your photos amazing!