Introduction to High Pass Sharpening in Photoshop

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Introduction to High Pass Sharpening in Photoshop

This article is part of our series Photo Editing 101 by Ian Pullen. This series will cover all of the basics of using Photoshop for editing photos. If you’re just getting started with Photoshop or photo editing, or if you’re looking to improve your skills in this area, this series will provide an excellent foundation. If you want to make sure that you don’t miss future articles you can subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook. You can also find the articles that have already been published by visiting the Photo Editing 101 course page.

High Pass sharpening is just one of many different techniques that can be used in Photoshop to sharpen your photos. Where it differs from most of the others is that it isn’t one of the specific tools designed for sharpening that are located in the Sharpen sub-menu of the Filter menu.

Duplicate Your Background Layer


The first step is to create a copy of the original image as this technique calls for two layers to be blended together to achieve the effect. As with most things in Photoshop, there are several ways to duplicate layers, but one of the most straight forward is to go to Layer > Duplicate Layer.

Convert the New Layer to a Smart Object


This step isn’t essential and you can skip over this if you’re using an earlier version of Photoshop that doesn’t have the Smart Object feature. However, if you can convert the layer to a Smart Object, you will benefit from the ability to return to your sharpening layer at anytime and adjust the High Pass filter settings to increase or decrease the level of sharpening.

Just right click on the duplicated layer, the top one in the Layers palette, and select Convert to Smart Object from the context menu that pops up.

Apply the High Pass Filter


Now go to Filter > Other > High Pass to open the High Filter window. If you’ve converted your layer to a Smart Object, you can click the OK button and in the Layers palette, you’ll see a new entry added to the top layer labelled Smart Filters, which also contains a High Pass entry. At any time, you can now double click the High Pass label and the High Pass window will reopen, allowing you to edit your settings without affecting other aspects of your photo.

If you’re not using a Smart Object, you will have to adjust the filter’s radius before clicking OK and apply the filter permanently to the layer, meaning there will be no option to edit it later. I’ll describe how to set the Radius shortly.

Set the Blending Mode


At this stage, the top layer will be an almost solid gray shade, with the outlines of the image picked out in a darker gray tone and this probably isn’t the effect you’d been hoping for.

This technique requires you to use a contrast enhancing blending mode. Most commonly, users of this technique choose to use either Overlay or Hard light. However, you could also choose Soft Light, though this tends to give a more subtle effect.

To change the blending mode, click on the top layer to ensure that it is selected and then click on the drop down menu at the top of the Layers palette and change it from Normal to the blending mode that you want to use. I selected Overlay for my image.

If you zoom in on your image 100%, assuming that the filter Radius was set quite low to start with, you should be able to see the sharpening effect on your photo. Click the small eye icon on the layer in the Layers palette to turn its visibility off and on so that you can see the difference.

Adjust the Filter Radius


If you’re using a Smart Object, double click on the High Pass entry in the Layers palette to reopen the High Pass window.

Different images will require a different levels of sharpening and this is achieved by adjusting the Radius slider in the High Pass window. Ideally this should be kept quite low and the outlines in the preview window should only just be visible against the gray background. Often this setting will be around the 0.8 to 1.0, but you can strengthen the effect by setting this higher, though do be aware that the edges of the High Pass layer do start to soften and lose definition as the radius increases, which isn’t the effect that you want.


This is an easy and effective technique for applying sharpening to your images and it’s popular with many. However, for the best results, you may want to consider the Smart Sharpen filter that offers a greater degree of fine grained control.

See more articles in the Photo Editing 101 series.