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Photoshop Elements Tutorial: Adjust Sharpness vs. High Pass

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by Erin Peloquin on September 9, 2011 · 24 comments

In Photoshop Elements, it seems that the most commonly used types of sharpening are High Pass and Adjust Sharpness/Unsharp Mask.  These are two of the top Methods from my Top 12 list of sharpening methods.

I used to use the High Pass method almost exclusively, but lately I’ve found myself going for Adjust Sharpening more.  Why?  Because the Photoshop Guys told me to.  And I think the Photoshop Guys rock.

It occurred to me that I should decide for myself which was the best.  So today, we’re going to have a Sharpening Showdown!  Woohoo, right?!

This photo has been typical focus for me.  Eyes look ok, right?

The eyes look good until you zoom in.  Here’s my zoomed in pic with two sharpening options below it:

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You can zoom into any of the images in this post for a full size view.

Before we get into how to apply each type of sharpening and which is better, let’s talk a bit of theory.  That straight out of camera shot was good, right?  If I were just going to do a quick Facebook post or email to grandma, I really wouldn’t need to do anything.

So before you decide whether, how and how much to apply sharpening, you need to know how your photo is going to be used.  Before sharpening, your photo needs to be at its final size.  So if you are going to resize for internet purposes, do that before you apply sharpening.  If you’re going to print the photo, you’ll have no need to resize.  Sharpening should come last in your workflow regardless.

Here’s something else I was thrilled to learn from the Photoshop Guys.  No one, no matter how good their photographic skill, gets crystal clear eyes SOOC.  If you want that shiny sharp look, ya gotta use Photoshop.

What is Sharpening?

When Photoshop sharpens, it looks for lines and emphasizes them to create a sharper appearance.  This emphasis comes from making one side of the line darker and one side lighter.  Have you ever seen over-sharpened hair that looks crispy?  That’s the lighter side of the lines you’re seeing.

The standard sharpening tools in Elements – Adjust Sharpness and Unsharp Mask – ask for your input about the amount of sharpening to apply (how strong the effect is) and the radius, or size of the line to sharpen.  The higher the radius, the more likely you are to get crispies.

Adjust Sharpness

Adjust Sharpness is available in later versions of Elements – you find it in the Enhance menu.  If you can’t find Adjust Sharpness, use Unsharp Mask.  It’s almost the same.  To apply it, flatten your image and duplicate the background layer.  Apply Sharpening to the new layer so that you can adjust opacity if needed.

Adjust Sharpness gives you the option to select the type of blur to remove, either Lens, Gaussian or Motion.  The Photoshop Guys recommend Lens blur removal, but I got better results with Guassian on this photo.  And Removing Motion blur does actually work pretty well if you have a small amount of motion blur to fix.  I like Adjust Sharpness over Unsharp Mask because of this option.

Want a cool tip about sharpening in the Adjust dialog?  You can click on the preview window for a before and after.  As long as you hold the mouse click, you see before.  When you release it, you see after.  I love that!

High Pass Sharpening

To try the High Pass method, flatten your image and duplicate the background layer.  On the new layer, go to the Filter Menu and select Other, then High Pass.

 

 

Adjust the radius slider until you see no color in the preview window, and you can only see lines that you want to sharpen.  Click OK, and change the blend mode of the layer to Overlay.

 

The Sharpening Showdown

So which method wins?

Looking at the comparison images above, you can see arrows next to the points I used to compare sharpening results.  Looking at the catchlights, where the window bank reflects into his eyes, the Adjust Sharpness version is definitely sharper.  I tried a stronger High Pass layer, but it made his skin too grainy.

Also, I think the eyes lose just a bit of blueness using High Pass, as do his cheeks.

But, speaking of skin, I think the skin next to the left facing arrow on the Adjust version is showing more texture than the High Pass method – too much texture, in my opinion.

If I had to choose, I would probably use the Adjust method, and mask out some or all of the sharpening over his skin.  But if you want the colors to be washed out just a bit, High Pass wouldn’t be a bad choice.

And here’s the thing – unless you’re going to print this image at something like 30×20, I really don’t think you’ll be able to see the difference between the sharpening amounts.  Here are the finals – what do you think?

Adjust Sharpness:

High Pass:

 Can you see a difference?  To me, the color wash-out from the High Pass method is the biggest difference between the two, and it’s slight.

So for me, unless I want a slight desaturation (and I might, if I wanted a quick and easy way to brighten skin), I will go with Adjust Sharpness.  What about you?

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