Selective sharpening

August 3rd, 2010 by Richard Peters

This week we're running a series of workflow tips by pro photographer Richard Peters.  Check back each day for a new tip!

Another of my quick processing techniques, sharpening for web sized images. Whenever you re-size an image for the web you’ll find it looks a tad soft (if you think your images don’t, apply some sharpening and see how they suddenly seem to pop from the screen more than before), it’s easy to get back that nice crisp, clear look though. As usual there are many ways of doing it…I keep it nice and simple as this article below will show.

Finished

No sharpening and selective sharpening

Whilst the image above looks quite sharp to start with, I wanted the fine feather detail and head area to stand out just that little bit more, and this is how I did it. Remember, sharpening should always be the LAST step in your processing!

 

Step One: Duplicate your layer
You don’t need to duplicate your layer if you want to sharpen the whole image but if you want to selectively sharpen part of it, say the eyes in a portrait or in this case the bird but not the OOF background (sharpening this will potentially increase noise, especially with higher ISO shots), duplicating the layer is a must. To duplicate your layer, right click on it in the layers palette and select duplicate layer. If you wish to just sharpen the whole image, you can just see my sharpening method for web images in step two then skip straight to step five.
To make this tutorial easier to follow, I have renamed the two layers as soft and sharp.

The two layers we need

The two layers we need

Step Two: USM filter
Making sure you have your SHARP layer selected go to Filter – Sharpen – Unsharp Mask and the following box will pop up.

USM box

USM box

The settings you use here can be adjusted to your taste and/or the specific image you use as not all photo’s will require the same settings. Personally I always use a RADIUS of either 0.2 or 0.3 for web and always leave the THRESHOLD at 0. Simply slide the AMOUNT adjustment left and right until you get the look you are after. If you make sure the preview box is ticked you can see how your settings will look. If you find your sliding all the way to the right and it’s not sharp enough, that’s when you need to up the radius to 0.3 and adjust the slider again, this time adjusting the AMOUNT slider will increase in strength faster.

*A quick tip here, as soon as you have applied your USM, go to edit – fade unsharp mask, a pop up box will appear, keep the opacity at %100 but change the Mode from normal to Luminosity in the drop down menu.

Step Three: Create a layer mask
Because we don’t want the whole image sharpened the next thing we need to do is create a layer mask on your sharpened layer. This is done by making sure your SHARP layer is selected then simply clicking the layer mask button in your layer window, marked with the Red 1 in the image below. This will in turn create your mask, marked with a Red 2.

Creating a layer mask

Creating a layer mask

Step Four: Painting out the areas we DON’T want to be sharp
Because we now want to paint out the parts to the image we do not want to be sharpened, we need to select the paint brush tool and make sure our colour is black. A good tip I have is to make your SOFT layer invisible at this stage, you’ll see why in a minute. Click the little eye icon on your SOFT layer, marked with the Red 3, to make the eye disappear…your bottom layer is now invisible.

Hiding the soft layer

Hiding the soft layer

And here is the reason why I do this…now, select your brush tool with the colour set to black, make sure you are clicked on the layer mask for your SHARP layer, and begin to paint out the areas on the image you do not wish to be sharp…you’ll notice as you paint the image is disappearing. This is because the layer underneath is invisible. The reason for doing this is so you can see more clearly the areas you have masked off.

Masking off the coot

Masking off the coot

Now, don’t worry if you paint over an section that you wanted to remain sharp – simply change your brush colour to white, this will then allow you to paint back areas of the SHARP layer. So, black is REMOVING the sharp layer and white is BRINGING IT BACK. If you look at the layer mask in your layers palette you will see the area that you have been painting out (marked with the Red 4) but it’s quite small, again this is why I hide my soft layer, so that I can see more clearly where I have gone over with the brush on the main image.

Layer mask after masking

Layer mask after masking

Step Five: Save!
That’s pretty much it, all you need to do now is click that little eye icon for your bottom layer to make it visible again, flatten the image and go save it!

Finished

No sharpening and selective sharpening

A couple more examples
Below are a couple more images to show the before and after effects. I usually tend not to go to over the top with sharpening so not to create any nasty artifacts around edges, sometimes I just add a touch to remove the slightly out of focus look and others I add quite a bit to really pop the image – it all depends on the photo as every one is different.

Heron before and after

Heron before and after

The image below I have done twice, the first time with just the babies eyes sharpened…

No USM & just eyes sharpened

No USM & just eyes sharpened

And finally, the second one to show no USM and the whole image sharpened…

 

No USM & whole image sharpened

No USM & whole image sharpened

Learn more about Richard, read his articles and view his videos on his blog:  Richard Peters Photography Blog

Check out Richard's  YouTube channel for great video content, and follow him on Twitter.

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