Nature Notes

January 14, 2009

Photoshop Tutorial – Selective Sharpening of a web-sized image

Filed under: Photoshop Tutorial — Tags: , , — Harold Stiver @ 4:04 pm
Unsharpened Image

Unsharpened Image

With many of the images we wish to make sharper, often it is just a portion of the image that needs treatment. While this is especially true for nature photographers, it holds for other genres as well.

Too many photographers sharpen the whole image and the result is halos at areas of sharp contrast, artifacts, and unwanted noise in areas where smooth gradients are desirable like the sky.

The method I prefer involves selecting the area you want to sharpen, refining it to ensure minimal unwanted effects, and sharpening in a series of small controlled steps.

If we look at the above image, we could wish to sharpen the bird and perhaps the post a bit as well, but we want the background to remain smooth and without artifacts.

1. Our first step is to open a new layer {Layer-Duplicate} which we could name “Sharpened”

2. We then want to select what we want to sharpen. In the above image I want to sharpen the hawk, of course, but I also want to give some sharpening to the post. It is a simple matter to make a rough outline around these areas using the “Polygonal Lasso Tool” (its under the Regular Lasso Tool). We then could use the Magic Wand” set on subtraction mode and about 15 tolerance to remove portions we don’t wish to sharpen. A final cut with the Lasso Tool (on subtract) to get rid of any of the barb wire which is past the post, and we have our selection for sharpening.

Selected Portion

3. Since sharpening creates unwanted artifacts in areas of high contrast, we are not ready to sharpen yet,if we did we would have a thin edge or halo along the boundaries of the subject. But this is easy to fix. We simply reduce the selection by 1 or 2 pixels and we have eliminated the troublesome area {Select-Modify-Contract(Set to 2 Pixels)}. Now we are set to sharpen.

4. I apply sharpening in a series of steps. For each step I set it as follows

{Filter-Sharpen-Unsharp Mask (Amount 100%, Radius 0.2, Threshhold 0)} I apply this from zero to 7 times,watching the preview until I am happy with the result. If it becomes oversharpened, I can move it back a steo with the Edit-Undo command. It also allows me to provide different levels to different portions. In this instance I can do a couple of steps of sharpening, and then remove the post from the selection and apply a couple more. In some cases I might give a final step just to the eye of the subject, to add a bit of sparkle.

Sharpened Image

The “Sharpened” layer should be part of your master file. You can otherwise prepare your web sized image by “Saving for web”

You can downland the Sharpening Actions which include Contracting the Selection, and the Unsharp Mask Command.

Sharpening Actions

Index to Photoshop Tutorials.

This tutorial is a part of the Photoshop Workflow Series


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  1. Hello Harold,
    You have given me new inspiration to work on some of my GGOwls and GBHeron rookery shots. Also lots of other smaller feathered friends.

    Comment by Jim Bracegirdle — January 15, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

  2. Thank you Harold, this is just what I’ve been looking for!


    Comment by J. Young — January 15, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

  3. Great Jim.

    That will keep you busy inside when its this cold outside

    Cheers, Harold

    Comment by Harold — January 15, 2009 @ 5:14 pm

  4. Good stuff.

    If you set up the Unsharp Mask command in an action (or download it from the post), you’ll find it easier going.

    Thanks, Harold

    Comment by Harold — January 15, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

  5. Another excellent tutorial, Harold. Your folder is filling quickly. 🙂

    Many thanks once more.


    Comment by Bob Moul — January 20, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

  6. Thanks Bob.

    This one is real nice to set up in an action for fine control.

    Thanks again, Harold

    Comment by Harold — January 20, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

  7. Hi Harold,

    Thanks again for your words of wisdom on photoshop. I take it you don’t use the sharpening tool much? I use it to selectively sharpen the bird’s eye or some other important feature. Its fast and I have a terrible time with that lasso tool. With my lens (300 mm f2.8) I have found I actually don’t even need to sharpen an image if the depth of field is right. That is the best!


    Comment by Laure Neish — January 20, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

  8. Hi Laure:

    I often just circle the eye it give it a pass with the sharpening action, but I think you may have a better idea with using the sharpening tool. I’ll give it a try.

    Thanks, Harold

    Comment by Harold — January 20, 2009 @ 10:40 pm

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