Sharpening 101: The Basics Every Photographer Needs to Know

Before you save your images for print or load them to the web, are you sharpening them? What if I told you that with some quick and easy steps that you could increase the quality of your images for print or web use? I bet you would be just as excited as I was when I learned about the advantages of sharpening my images before saving them.

Why is this so important?

Sharpening will create more contrast and separate the color in your image. Sometimes I’ve just sat there staring at my screen thinking, “This image just looks so flat and it’s kind of gross.” Well, if you sharpen it, edges within your image will be more pronounced and will bring it back to life. The difference is amazing.

Oh, and if you are thinking, “But I have a super awesome and expensive camera and I only carry the best lenses in my very stylish camera bag. I don’t need to sharpen anything.” Oh honey…yes you do.

The more contrast you have between the colors in your images (black and white being the highest contrast) the more reason you need to sharpen your images. When you sharpen an image, you will increase the contrast between those color differences.

How do I sharpen an image?

I learned how to sharpen images using the Unsharp Mask (sounds backwards doesn’t it?). If you use the sharpen filters, you can end up with pixilated or ragged edges. So in order to have more control over the edge refinement and retain the quality of the image, you’ll want to use the Unsharp Mask.

In Photoshop, go to Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask. You’ll see three sliders: Amount, Radius, and Threshold.

The Amount slider is really just increasing your contrast by making your dark pixels even darker and lightening the light pixels. As you move the amount up, your image will become grainy, so you’ll want to find a good balance. The Radius affects the pixels on the edge of the contrasting colors. The more you move the slider up, the larger the radius (and the more pixels you’ll change). The Threshold controls the amount of contrast. As you move the slider up, the areas where you have more contrast will be sharpened even more. If the threshold levels are left at a lower level, the low contrast areas (like skin) will look grainy.

sliders Sharpening 101: The Basics Every Photographer Needs to Know
pin it4 Sharpening 101: The Basics Every Photographer Needs to Know

I set the radius first and I keep the percentage on the low end (under 3%). Then adjust the Amount, without making your image grainy. Then adjust the Threshold to smooth out the low contrast areas (like skin).

sharp Sharpening 101: The Basics Every Photographer Needs to Know
pin it4 Sharpening 101: The Basics Every Photographer Needs to Know


Web images do need more sharpening than print images—typically about three times more. If you are saving your image to the web, you’ll also want to change your pixels per inch from 300 (print resolution) to 72 (web resolution). In order to save myself time when I sharpen my web images and resize them, I use an MCP Action that is part of the new Fusion set. You can see how well it works in the “after” image below.

before after 600x450 Sharpening 101: The Basics Every Photographer Needs to Know
pin it4 Sharpening 101: The Basics Every Photographer Needs to Know

Kristen Hines is the owner of Anima Dolce Photography in Waterford, Michigan. She specializes in newborn and senior portraits.

 Sharpening 101: The Basics Every Photographer Needs to Know

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13 Comments and 0 Replies

  1. 1
    Abner Garcia says:

    Hi Jodi, Photoshop things is a very touchy subject for me. I just use it for images (obvious) and some titles and many other things. But for some reason I haven’t reach a good knowledge standing to create a great looking images. I do know that other than stock photos in the web if I have to take pictures I have to know basic photography principles just to have a nice looking shots like stock photos but that is my problem I don’t know a good course or trainer here in my country that could give me what I’m looking for in photography. Is there any training ebook or book that I can buy about this particular subject? So far your actions has help me a lot in my jobs with my clients. I have a creative and advertising agency but when I need to get an specific image or shooting session, finding a photographer that can offer me that quality is very hard and If someone finally appears the service charge is too expensive for my client budget. Thank you, I love your work!!!

  2. 2
    Tammy says:

    I knew how to do this but I just use YOUR AWESOME ACTIONS! LOL. They are perfect and fast every time. :)

  3. 3
    Caroline says:

    Thank you for finally explaining this. I have read and read about this an haven’t found anything that explains this so concisely and clearly. Thanks again!

  4. 4
    ~Shari says:

    How does one sharpen like this in LightRoom?

  5. 5
    kara says:

    LOVE THIS! Thanks for all the help !

  6. 6
  7. 7
    Michelle says:

    Fantastic!!!! I have been sitting and contemplating this very issue and wondering what everything in unsharp mask was doing! Thanks so much :-)

  8. 8
    kristin t says:

    Thank you! SUPER helpful! :-)

  9. 9
    jamie says:

    This works great. thanks

  10. 10
    Cindy Conner says:

    Thanks so much for this.

  11. 11

    Makes it seem so much easier than what I’ve been doing!

  12. 12

    uuum, THAT simple little trick is AMAZING! Thanks!!!

  13. 13
    Teri V. says:

    Finally, I can grasp what is going on in the world of unsharp mask! Thank you!

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