I recently explored the web to discover different ways to sharpen pictures on Photoshop. Some techniques are destructive while other ways of sharpening can still be edited afterwards. In this article, I will focus on the High Pass / Gaussian Blur sharpening technique, which I will continue to use in my future portrait edits, as I liked it the most. This technique includes Smart Objects, meaning that you can easily change the values of the filters even after applying the filter. So, if you look at your edit after a long refreshing night and you are all like ‘meh’, you can still change the amount of the blur or the high pass without losing any details. If you are lazy and want to skip all this, go to the bottom of this article, I created an action and posted a download link so you can easily import it in Photoshop. The action will make all the following steps for you in just one single click automatically.
Create the Layer structure
An important thing to remember is, that you should do the sharpening step at the very end of your editing. So, put your desired color grading to your picture, do your Dodge & Burn and once you have done whatever you need to do in your edit, continue with the sharpening. For this technique, you need to create two copies of your background. Name the first copy ‘High Pass’ and the second ‘Gaussian Blur’. To do so, right click on your background and select ‘Duplicate Layer’. Alternatively, you can drag your background to the ‘Create new layer’ icon below to create a copy.
Once you have done that, you will want both layers to become Smart Objects. Right click on the two new layers individually and select ‘Convert to Smart Object’. The settings of any filter that will be added to the according layer can be changed afterwards. Select both layers, and drag them to the ‘Create new folder’ icon, right next to the ‘Create new layer’ icon. Name the new folder ‘Sharpening by Awesome Richie’. You are now ready to add the filters to your High pass and Gaussian blur layer to make your picture look bloody sharp. The graphic below shows what the structure of your layers should look like at the moment.
High Pass Layer
Click on the layer called ‘High Pass’ to make it active. Once it’s active, navigate to Filter > Other > High Pass. This will open a dialogue where you will have to define a radius with a px amount.
Set your radius and remember whatever your desired pixel amount for the radius you chose, as you will need it again in a second. I recommend you to leave the value between 2 and 4 px. I will stick to different guides I found online and will leave it at 3px. Click OK to apply the filter.
Spooky, right? – Go to your layers’ overview, click on the high pass layer to activate it and change the blend mode to ‘Linear Light’. Here again, you can choose instead of ‘Linear Light’ the option ‘Vivid’, ‘Soft’ or ‘Hard Light’ depending on what you prefer. I recommend working with ‘Linear Light’. You should now see your picture properly again.
Gaussian Blur Layer
Alright, let’s move on to the Gaussian blur layer. Click on the layer to select it and navigate to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. A new window pops up and asks you to set again a radius for the blur. Put the same radius as for the high pass filter and click ok to apply the filter. Boom, your picture should be from this instant way sharper.
Mask the whole thing
Now, to make it look even more sharp, you can put the sharpness to specific areas of the picture only. Instead of sharpening the picture as a whole, you can sharpen only a few areas of the whole canvas. For portraits for instance, I like to add some sharpness to the eyes, mouth, tip of the nose and to a few individual details that pop into my eye. To do so, add a mask to the folder and fill the mask with black color using the Paint Bucket Tool (G). You can reveal the sharpness by painting with the brush (B) on the mask (with white btw, duh!). This lets you add sharpness to only specific parts of the picture.
And voilà. Your picture should now look naturally CRAZY sharp. If you are lazy and don’t want to do all this super hard work, download the action for Photoshop by clicking here. Make sure that only a background layer exists before you run the action. If you have more than one layer, right click on any layer and select ‘Flatten Image’.
Below is the final edited version of the image I used as an example in this post. The picture shows a Bhikkhunī in Bagan, Myanmar. A Bhikkhunī is a female monastic in Buddhism. If you want to see more sharpening techniques, check this YouTube video by Kelvin Designs. It covers everything you need to know about different sharpening techniques on Photoshop. And if you don’t know how to import and use actions on Photoshop, click here.
Download the Action for Photoshop: Sharpening.atn