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Sharpening An Image In Photoshop


You’re going about your business, taking pictures with your smartphone, or dslr camera, and you’re just about to upload them to your post, your Facebook wall, Instagram account, or elsewhere until you notice something’s just not right. Your photo is blurry or out of focus.

How can you fix this?

You’re in luck.

Adobe Photoshop has some of the best tools for tweaking and manipulating images, including a set of advanced filters for sharpening – which is just what we need to take care of blurry image.



Some things to know about sharpening beforehand

So there is hope that we can salvage this image. But can we save or adjust any image that comes out blurry or out of focus?

Take this below image for example. From one point of view, you could say that the focal point of this image would be the woman’s hand in the foreground, showing off the ring on her ring finger. That’s assuming that this image was taken with a shallow depth of field, where the background has been deliberately blurred out, so that we can focus on the subject in the foreground – which would be the woman’s hand.

And there’s nothing wrong this point of view. Perhaps the photographer wants our focus to be on the ring. We could use this for some wedding photos or brochures, or advertisement perhaps for selling diamond rings


But suppose we wish to bring the woman’s face into focus? Is this possible? Technically – yes, but because of the shallow depth of field and the tremendous amount of blur, her face has already lost so much fine detail, that we may not be able to fix it. If we were to somehow sharpen the background in this image, there would be some issues.


Some issues may include balancing the Noise Reduction. As the amount of sharpness increases, it increases the pixelization and other grainy details to the point where it may obscure the image. So somehow we would need to balance this as we increase sharpness. I feel like that background in this image is so blurry that there may not be any reasonable way to sharpen it.


Still, for the sake of understanding how sharpness works in Photoshop, I think we can come up with a better example. And by better example, I mean an image where we only need to tweak the sharpness a little, like this example below. Here the subject is in the proper focus in the foreground with a limited depth of field in the background. In this case, if we wanted to touch up or tweak a few things in the background, like the bushes, or perhaps the reflections on the car, then this is possible, and will only take a few minor adjustments.




Different types of Sharpening

This blog isn’t really a step by step tutorial, but more of an introduction to different methods that we can use to sharpen our images in photoshop.

After opening this image in Adobe Photoshop, I proceeded to make a copy of the background layer, as it’s best practice to keep the background layer untouched. First, it gives you a layer to resort back if you discover that you don’t like any of your changes to the image. Second, while you’re making changes to your image, you can always turn off the top layers and view the background layer, which contains the original, unedited image. It’s like viewing the image “Before” and “After” the applying your changes. Another note that I’ve learned is that if you sharpen your image on a separate layer, it helps to set the layer’s blending mode to Luminosity to avoid any color shifts along the edges.


In my next steps, I’m going to create a smart filter, which I create after converting my layer to a smart object. I talk about this in a separate post, along with some advantages of using smart filters as well.



Smart Sharpen Filter

This is the one of the built in filters that you can try to sharpen your image in photoshop. You can locate it in your menu across the top of your interface, by selecting Filter->Sharpen->Smart Sharpen.



The Smart Sharpen filter has a few options for sharpening your image.

  • Amount – controls the actual amount of the sharpness that is applied to your image.
  • Radius – controls the width (in pixels) of the edges that the filter will modify. The higher the value, the wider the edge that’s affected. This can vary and depends greatly on the resolution of your images, and particular areas, whether they’re in the shadow or highlighted area.
  • Reduce Noise – if an image has a lot of noise or graininess, this third setting will decrease it as you increases the percentage

The Preview window also gives you a preview of what your changes will look like before applying them. Once you’re satisfied with your settings, you can click ‘OK’ to save them.





Unsharp Mask

The Unsharp Mask is another one of the amazing filters that are found in Photoshop to help us sharpen our images. This filter works by actually increasing the contrast along the edges in your image. It locates specific pixels that have different values from the surrounding pixels, and increases the neighboring pixels by the amount that you set in the filter. In short, if a nearby lighter pixel gets brighter while a nearby dark pixel get’s darker.


This filter is located in the same location in the top tool bar. You can select Filter-> Sharpen-> Unsharp Mask.



The Unsharp Mask filter has the following options:

  • Amount – this setting determines the amount of contrast in the pixels. It greater the value, the greater the contrast in your image. For higher resolution images, a good ballpark range would be somewhere between 150-200%.
  • Radius – this setting is used to determine the number of pixels surrounding the edges that affect sharpening. So a small amount here indicates that only a few pixels are affected, as the radius would be very small. A wider radius means a greater range of pixels are affected and the sharpening would then be more extreme.

The Unsharp Mask’s Radius with a Radius of 1.0 when compared to a Radius of 200.8 shows a greater difference in the contrast among the range of pixels surrounding the edges.


  • Threshold – this setting is one that I rarely touch, as I always keep it set as 1. Basically, the threshold determines how different these surrounding pixels need to be for them to be affected, by a difference in the tonal value. If the threshold is a small amount, like 1, then will affect those pixels that differ by that amount – for example, if one pixel has a tonal value of 254 and the pixel next to it has a tonal value of 253, then only these pixels will be affected.



Other options for Sharpness

Sharpen, Sharpen Edges and Sharpen More are other filter options available, but the glaring difference is that these three filters do not have any properties panel or controls to adjust the amount. Photoshop applies sharpness automatically to your image without giving you an option to adjust the settings to your liking. The Smart Sharpen and Unsharp Mask filters clearly provide us with better control and flexibility when applying sharpness.




The Smart Sharpen and Unsharp Mask are a couple of ways you can sharpen your blurry images and make them more presentable when posting them online. I’ll be discussing other methods in my later posts. But for now, I hope you’ve found this helpful!




  1. Harrison Elfrink Sept 14 7 S. Broadway

    Yeah, it always stinks when I am taking photos, important photos of a person at that! Then when I get home, look at them and upload them, I feel embarrassed that those photos turn out badly and are blurred.

    It is always nice to know that these common, yet really annoying and deadly photography problems can be fixed with some software.

  2. Rafferty Sept 14 7 S. Broadway

    Great suggestions for fixing out of focus images, Isaiah! Thanks for the amount of detail in your article as it’s definitely pointed out a few things I hadn’t thought of for touching up my images!

    • Isaiah Burch Sept 14 7 S. Broadway

      Thanks for the feedback! I’ll continue to provide more tips going forward.

  3. Shelley B Sept 14 7 S. Broadway

    Thank you for this info. I love taking pictures of all the moments that I cherish! I’m not the greatest photographer but, i do love learning how to make pictures look as good as possible. Thank you for this information I will be sure and use it. Great post, very informative!!!

    • Isaiah Burch Sept 14 7 S. Broadway

      Thanks Shelley. Glad you found this helpful.

  4. Ivan Brozincevic Sept 14 7 S. Broadway

    Thanks for sharing your step-by-step guide. I’m not yet skilled in Photoshop but I think it would be an awesome skill to have. I’ll take your site as a reference for the future. I see you are very good at it. Thanks again! Ivan


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