Photoshop Tip: An Alternative Sharpening Method


Making sharp images is often the goal when using digital cameras, but it’s also one of the least understood techniques when it comes to editing. After getting by with the clarity slider and then learning the proper Unsharp Mask technique, I was shown an entirely different method with which to give a slight “pop” to my images: using the High Pass Filter.

The reason this works better than the other sharpening options, in my opinion, is that it highlights the edges and sharpest areas of an image first. Normally, sharpening and clarity adjustments are done globally, so your beautifully out-of-focus areas will get a little more micro contrast added to them, as opposed to remaining soft and smooth.

Here is the step-by-step procedure:

  1. Edit your file normally. Apply your adjustment layers and any other edits to your image as you would usually. Sharpening is almost always the final step of any post-processing workflow.
  2. Create a new layer that is a flattened version of all of your visible layers. (Command + Option + Shift + E on Mac)
  3. Go to Filters -> High Pass in your menu.
  4. Here you can adjust the strength of the effect to your liking. Make sure not to overdo it, you may need to experiment.
  5. Take that layer and adjust the blending mode to Overlay.
  6. Adjust the opacity for fine tuning of the amount of sharpening to apply.
  7. Export your image.

Above: original image, unsharpened.

Above: image sharpened using high pass.

Above: image sharpened using unsharp mask.

It’s just a couple of steps, and it can be sped up with the help of shortcuts and actions. This process is also very simple in its adjustments, since it only has one slider, and can be tuned with the opacity of the layer. A bonus is that it’s non-destructive, should you need to make changes to your images later on.


Sorry I don't like the halo around the lighthouse at all.

I will be using this method from now on, Thank    you very much, it's much more realistic than the unsharp mask.



I use high pass sharpening often and really like it for some images, like portraits.  But one thing you said confuses me..  You say that with other sharpening tools, like the Unsharp Mask, "sharpening and clarity adjustments are done globally, so your beautifully out-of-focus areas will get a little more micro contrast added to them, as opposed to remaining soft and smooth."  But I also have found it to be true that using High Pass sometimes causes more contrast in areas I want to remain smooth.  In your examples it is the High Pass image that shows increased contrast and loses details in the shadows, while the Unsharp Mask image does not.  In the case of this photo I prefer the Unsharp Mask.  In my editing I usually try both and see which I like best since the results vary from one image to another.

In the end everything will come down to personal preference, and in an effort to demonstrate the effect I can see that it may have gone a little too far with the sample imagery. Also, this photo is in focus throughout the frame, meaning that all parts of the image were affected slightly, resulting in potentially undesirable results. This article is meant to give another option to Photoshop users and as you state using different methods and seeing what appears better will always yield the best results.

Thanks for the explanation about the photo you chose to use in the example, Shawn, and how the choice of how far to go with the High Pass sharpening will affect the end results.  I've found that since each photo is different it's a try and see which works best, Unsharp Mask or High Pass.  I agree, HP is underused and many don't know about it.  Thanks for the article, it's good to be reminded of the benefits of High Pass.

This is the worst explanation I've ever seen. I have no idea what you're talking should give some specifics!