Introduction to Smart Sharpen in Photoshop

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Introduction to Smart Sharpen 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.

Smart Sharpen is one of the more advanced ways that photographers can apply sharpening to their photos in Photoshop. For many years, Unsharp Mask was the preferred sharpening choice for most users, but Smart Sharpen offers more fine grained control as well as the choice of superior sharpening algorithms.

Should I Use a Smart Object?


Photoshop’s filters, including Smart Sharpen, are destructive by default, meaning that if you apply a filter to a layer, it is irreversibly changed. Converting a layer to a Smart Object opens up the option to edit a filter at anytime if you find that you want to adjust the effect later on. You can also completely remove a filter without affecting any other aspects of a photo.

To take advantage of this feature, just right-click on the background layer of your photo and from the context menu, select Convert to Smart Object.

How Do You Open Smart Sharpen?


Once you’ve converted the image to a Smart Object, just go to Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen to open the window. If you click the OK button now, you’ll see that a Smart Sharpen entry has been added to the Layers palette. Double clicking that entry will reopen the Smart Sharpen window and allow you to adjust the settings at any time.

How Do You View Your Adjustments?


The Smart Sharpen window is dominated by the preview window which shows you a detail of your image at 100% by default. The + and – icons below the preview allow you to change the zoom level and you can click on the preview and drag it to change the view. You can also click on the main image and the preview will center on that point.

If you tick the Preview box, you also will see your adjustments applied to your main photo as you work.

How Do You Use Settings?


The Settings drop down will be set to Default the first time you use it. When you have finished applying sharpening to a photo, you can click the Floppy Disk icon to the right of the drop down and save the settings. For future photos, you can then select this saved setting from the drop down and apply it without having to adjust all of the controls again.

How Do You Use the Basic Controls?


The Amount slider simply adjusts the strength of the sharpening that is applied. The higher this setting, the greater the contrast that is applied to the edges in the photo.

The Radius slider adjusts how many pixels surrounding the sharpened pixels are affected by your adjustments. The higher this setting, the more pixels surrounding the edges in the image are affected.

Photoshop CC users will see that they have a Reduce Noise slider as well, which means you can balance sharpening with noise reduction without having to open a second filter.

Next down is the Remove drop down that offers three options. The Gaussian Blur option is the same sharpening algorithm that is applied by Unsharp Mask. Lens Blur applies a finer level of sharpening with fewer artifacts, while the last option will help to reduce the effect of Motion Blur in a photo. If you select this, you will also need to adjust the angle setting to get the most from this setting.

How Do You Use the Advanced Controls?


If you click the Advanced Checkbox, the Basic controls are moved to a tab called Sharpen and two more tabs are added to the window that allow you to apply different sharpening to the shadow and highlight areas of a photo.

The Fade Amount slider basically affects the strength of the sharpening that is applied, with the Tonal Width slider affecting how much of the image is affected. With lower settings, only the darker or lighter regions will be affected, depending on which tab you are working in. The Radius slider is the same as before, adjusting how many pixels around the sharpened pixels are affected.

How Much Should You Sharpen?


There’s no definitive answer to this question, but ideally you want to apply as much sharpening as possible without it being apparent to the viewer.

If you’re working on a photo that will be used online, you can accurately judge the amount of sharpening because the image will be viewed on screen. If you’re going to print a photo, you may find that you have to adjust the amount of sharpening after proofing a photo. That’s where Smart Objects are especially useful.


While Smart Sharpen can look a little more complex than Unsharp Mask, it does offer finer control and superior sharpening.

See more articles in the Photo Editing 101 series.