To sharpen in Photoshop Elements, two of the most commonly used methods are High Pass and Adjust Sharpness/Unsharp Mask.
I used to use the High Pass method almost exclusively, but lately I’ve found myself going for Adjust Sharpening more.
It occurred to me that I should decide which was the best. So today, we’re going to have a Sharpening Showdown. Which method is the best for photos that you want to sharpen in Photoshop Elements?
This photo has typical focus for me. Eyes look ok, right?
The eyes look good until you zoom in, that is. Here’s my zoomed in pic with two sharpening options below it:
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.
Also, remember this: 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 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, stamp the visible layers of your image to create a duplicate of all layers to sharpen on. 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: Lens, Gaussian or Motion. Some 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.
High Pass Sharpening
To try the High Pass method, stamp the visible layers of your image again. 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.
Best Way to Sharpen in Photoshop Elements
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 did try 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 no matter how you choose to sharpen in Photoshop Elements. Here are the finals – what do you think?
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. I see it in his shirt and hair, in addition to the eyes.
As you can see from the comments below, a couple of readers suggested using the Hard Light blend mode instead of Overlay to reduce the wash out. Here is what that looks like:
And I agree. Hard Light is a better blend mode to use here, unless I wanted that slight desaturation (and I might, if I wanted a quick and easy way to brighten skin). However, when sharpening in Photoshop Elements, I think that Adjust Sharpness is the best way to sharpen in Photoshop Elements – looking at the catchlights in the comparison photo above makes that an easy choice. What about you?