Sharpness – My “How To” Guide

Sharpness is a bourgeois concept” – Henri Cartier Bresson

This issue of sharpness in photography has been around for a very long time.  And there is certainly a time to entertain a discussion about the technical merits of a photograph in contrast to the emotional and aesthetic qualities of an artwork.  But, friends, today is not that day.

Until now, I have avoided doing any technical “How To” guides, mostly because I don’t really know anything and I’m making it all up as I go.  But in addition, I am also afraid that if I did write one, it would be massively wrong somehow and, this being the internet, I would get laughed at, ridiculed, and harassed for leading many a naive photographer down an erroneous path to disaster.

Yes, I have issues.

However, recently people have commented on the sharpness of my photos, and I took that as a sign that I might be on the right path.  Either that, or they just didn’t have any other nice thing to say about my work.  Which is possible.  Issues, remember?


I want to start off my saying that I attribute the majority of the sharpness of my photographs to my lenses.  I have said before, I am a prime lens evangelist, and one of the qualities of prime lenses I champion is how sharp they normally are.  Notice I threw in a qualifier there in case anyone wants to bring up how great their $2,000 “L” glass zoom is verses a $115 “nifty fifty” prime.  But, for the most part, prime lenses rule.

My current set up consists of 3 primes, a Nikkor 35mm f/2D, 85mm f/1.8G and my favorite, a 50mm 1.4G, which has been my go-to lens ever since I got my Nikon D610 last year.

Seriously, if you are unhappy with how soft your photographs are, and you aren’t using a prime lens, stop reading now, go get yourself one, and I promise it will rock your world.

But if you are normally happy with how your photographs are, and just want to kick it up a notch, then I’m going to show you what I do in terms of sharpening my photographs.

Two quick disclaimers: First, if you have been around Generator Photography for any length of time at all, you know that I’m a car guy.  I mostly shoot cars.  This technique is something that I’ve honed over years of automobile photography.  Please keep that in mind, that what I do for me, might not work for what you shoot.  That said, I’m pretty sure I’ll be explaining certain tips and tricks that you can use regardless of your subject matter.

Second, I am going to assume that, if you are reading this, you already have some sort of rudimentary working knowledge of Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.  This is already going to be a long post, and if I stop to explain all the numbers and terms, I’ll be here for a week.  There are many great resources on the web to answer whatever questions you might have about any terminology I don’t explain.  Ready?  Let’s get to it.

The shot I’ve chosen to work with was taken recently at the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend.  Here it is straight out of the camera.

Sharp 01

Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G lens: ISO 100 – f/3.5 – 1/1250 sec

Yes, it’s a tad underexposed.  Sue me.

My normal workflow is to start in Adobe Lightroom first.  There, I do about 80% of the work.  I crop, straighten, adjust exposure, correct white balance and generally twiddle with the sliders until I get something I like.  Here is the same shot after my normal Lightroom adjustments.

Sharp 02a

Much better.  In fact, it is only because of some severe creative control issues that I don’t just say, “Good enough!” and simply upload that version to my website.

But, I do have those issues, so from here, I would export the file from Lightroom into Photoshop to work on the remaining 20%.  Now, because I’m on a budget, I’ve only ever had Photoshop Elements.  I’m currently on version 12, which absolutely handles all my needs.  For now.

Here is a 100% detail from that shot.

Sharp 02b

Again, that’s pretty great.  And, again, that’s mostly to do with my lens, very little from the post-processing.  I do adjust the sharpness sliders in Lightroom, but only about 40 for amount, 0.8 for radius and 30 for detail, never anything above those.

Normally, at this point, I would take care of anything I would want to “photoshop” out, like that big oil stain on the asphalt, using a clone stamp or healing brush, or some other technique.  But, for our purposes, I’m going to say it adds character and just leave it in.

My preferred method of sharpening is using something called a High Pass Filter.  I normally avoid any regular “Adjust Sharpness” sliders in Photoshop, I’ve already used those in Lightroom, and used them sparingly.

To apply a High Pass Filter, I would make a duplicate layer (Ctrl-J if you’re in Windows), and apply the High Pass Filter to that layer (in Elements, it’s Filter > Other > High Pass).  My radius is usually low, between 2 – 2.5.  I’ll never chose a higher radius than 3, ever.  Next, reduce the Saturation to zero.  The image now looks something like this.

Sharp 03a

Wow, that sucks.  Well, we’re not done yet, because now we will change the layer blend mode, and make everything cool again.  For the High Pass layer, I usually choose either the Overlay blend mode for normal sharpening, or the Hard Light blend mode for some added crunch.  I chose Hard Light on this one because I’m wanting those elements in the foreground to really stand out from that background.  Here it is with the High Pass layer in Hard Light mode

Sharp 04a

Hopefully you can see the difference, especially in that front rim, and the headlight.  But, wait, we’re still not done!  Why, because we don’t want to sharpen everything, do we?

No, of course not.  You never want to sharpen things like the sky, or elements of your photo that have nice color gradiations in them.  Same thing here, I only want to sharpen those parts that I really want to stand out.  Sharpening out of focus elements in the background serves no purpose.  So, for the High Pass Layer, I’m now going to add an Inverted Mask.

A normal mask would mean that you can use a paintbrush and hide elements on a layer without destroying anything.  And inverted mask hides everything, and with a paintbrush you bring out only the elements you want visible.  To create an inverted layer mask, just hold down the Alt key as you are clicking the layer mask icon.  Again, the interweb is your friend if none of that made any sense.

Sharp 05

Here’s what I’m talking about.  On the right, you can see Layer 1, which is my High Pass Filter layer.  You see the gray, like above, and the black next to it is the inverted layer mask, which would normally be all black.  All black means everything on that layer is hidden.  What I’ve then done is take a paint brush and revealed only the elements I want sharpened by the High Pass Filter.  Those are the white areas you now see on the mask.  Here’s a better representation of what I’ve done.

Sharp 05a

Basically, everything in yellow is now super sharp.  Which is what I want.  I don’t want that blue truck in the back to be sharpened, only the foreground elements.

But, wait, we’re still not done!  Why, because I think I’ve over sharpened it now.  Here’s what the sharpened areas look like at 100%

Sharp 04b

That looks dangerously close to being over sharpened.  Everything is now a bit too crunchy.  It’s an easy enough fix, however, I will just adjust the opacity of the layer down to about 60%.  Here’s what the final area looks like.

Sharp 06a

Is there a massive difference in that last step? No, not really.  But I notice it.

And I believe it’s a lot better than the original as it was exported from Lightroom.  Again, not a massive difference, but different enough.

And right there is my whole philosophy about post processing.  I don’t want to do 3 massive things to a photo to make it look better.  I would rather do three dozen little changes, all working in subtle harmony with no one effect really standing out, but all working to a cumulative effect.

Here’s the final product.  After the sharpening, I did a levels adjustment to make it pop a bit more, some dodging, burning, and some other tricks I might share later.

Sharp Final blog

And that’s it, that’s what I do to sharpen my images.

Any feedback would be greatly appreciated, many thanks for reading all the way to the end!


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