18. Photoshop Elements Tutorial: Adjust Sharpness vs. High Pass

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:

Pin It

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?


  1. Lisa
    Posted on September 9, 2011 at 9:41 am

    I like the adjust sharpness much better. I can see a big difference in the high pass, with it being too washed out! Your blog is great! Thanks!

  2. ingrid Says :
    Posted on September 9, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Awesome! Thanks for sharing Erin! I’m gonna try it out this weekend.

  3. Kat Sloma Says :
    Posted on September 9, 2011 at 10:12 am

    Great comparison! I’ve never been enthralled with the results of the high pass filter for sharpening, and I think you’ve pinpointed why. I love the deeper colors. Thanks for a great post.

  4. Mary B Says :
    Posted on September 9, 2011 at 10:15 am

    Without revealing trade secrets…do you know what the Pioneer Woman “slight sharp” does? I struggle with finding the right sharpness for prints.

    • Erin Says :
      Posted on September 10, 2011 at 2:03 pm

      Hi Mary, they’re not trade secrets because anyone with full PS can see the exact settings. Slight Sharpen is unsharp mask with these settings: 75% amount, 2 radius, 1 threshold.

  5. Karen
    Posted on September 9, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Such an interesting post. I nearly always use high pass, but sometimes remove it from parts of the picture that I don’t want sharpened. However I’ll now be trying the adjust sharpness option!

  6. Bonnie
    Posted on September 9, 2011 at 11:50 am

    Thanks for the tip for Before and After. That’s slick!

  7. DebC Says :
    Posted on September 9, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    I’ve used all three of these methods and I think I tend
    to use Unsharp Mask (used to use Adjust Sharpness) for people
    and High Pass for things. Although I can’t explain why.
    Thank you so much for the demonstration.
    This definitely clarifies (pun accidental) the sharpening issue.
    And, you said to sharpen after re-sizing for web.
    I’ve always done the opposite and I don’t know why exactly.
    Guess I make the photo totally “done” and then run the
    Process Multiple Photos option to web-size all my open photos.
    It’s a quick way to get my photos blog-ready and streamline my
    posting process.
    THANKS for the information, as always.
    Keeps me learning and improving what I’m doing.

    • Erin Says :
      Posted on September 10, 2011 at 2:01 pm

      Hey Deb, thanks for your post. There’s one thing I know for sure about Elements – if you have a system that works for you, don’t feel like you need to change it just because you hear someone tell you there’s another way. If your pix look good for you, there is nothing wrong with Process Multiple Photos!

  8. Larraine
    Posted on September 9, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    thanks for this- adjust sharpness definitely better –

  9. msn
    Posted on September 10, 2011 at 7:26 am

    So helpful. I have been struggling with the sharpening options for a year. The side-by-side comparison drives home the difference between these two options. Question: How do you know when you have gone too far in sharpening an image?

  10. Weekly Photography Links: 09-10-2011 | Photography for beginners Says :
    Posted on September 11, 2011 at 4:47 am

    […] I think sometimes it’s easy for those of us using Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture to forget just how powerful and versatile Adobe’s Photoshop Elements can be. Here’s a tutorial on image sharpening: Adjust Sharpening vs. High Pass. […]

  11. Marit Welker Says :
    Posted on September 12, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Hi! This was a fabulously helpful post. I have always done the adjust sharpness layer but it is one of the things I often do first. I am understand the benefits of waiting, after your suggestion. I just never thought about it. Thanks. This is a great tutorial and I definitely am going to continue with my method. I am interested in your opinion on how you know you have sharpened too much. I often wonder if I have the eyes too crisp. Thanks!

  12. Jackie S Says :
    Posted on September 16, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    Great tutorial and well written demonstration. I have always did the High Pass and notice a great deal of clarity in the images. I always save as, web save, and 100% high quality, which I found out it wasn’t necessary.

    Great information and I will absorb this stuff like a sponge! Keep it coming!

  13. Fiona
    Posted on September 17, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    Thanks sooo much! I often over sharpen and obviously don’t really know what I’m doing properly! I’m going to attempt this too :) Love your tips!

  14. kelly Says :
    Posted on December 3, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    This statement made my day – “No one, no matter how good their photographic skill, gets crystal clear eyes SOOC.” :) This post is excellent at describing the difference. Thank you!

  15. Suecan
    Posted on April 28, 2012 at 2:14 am

    What about the clarity slider in Camera RAW? Where does that fit in? I always use it before I open my photos in Elements. Maybe I should be waiting.

    • Erin Says :
      Posted on April 29, 2012 at 8:45 am

      Just depends on the photo. Clarity does not replace sharpening. But you don’t always need it. If you like the results of your editing, you’re doing it right!

  16. Michael Taggart Says :
    Posted on August 8, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    You are getting the washed out colors with the High Pass method because it’s being applied with the OVERLAY option.

    Switch to the HARD LIGHT blend option and that problem goes away.

    I usually use the high pass option on layers. I’ll do one at a higher radius – say 15 – and a 2nd at a smaller radius – say 5. (it depends on the size of the picture).

    Now you can use the layer with the high pass at 15 to enhance the larger objects in the image and give the overall image more pop.

    The layer with the smaller radius is used for the fine details (like eyes).

    I do a lot of theater photography with dramatic lighting and motion and I find these layers can rescue almost any image (as long as it’s not too bad)

    : ) Michael
    Vivid flower and model photography

  17. Ed Says :
    Posted on September 19, 2012 at 8:26 am

    If you want to get rid of the washed out look with high pass filter, change the blend mode to hard light. All the grayness will be gone.

  18. Jim
    Posted on January 24, 2014 at 11:47 pm

    I did a search re Hi-pass sharpening and came up with your site. I am aware of you and have visited from New Zealand before. Your example is very clear and useful – thank you so much !! In this case Adjust Sharpening is clearly the best.
    Warm regards

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *