High Pass Sharpening in Photoshop

In Lightroom, sharpening is a rather simple endeavor. While Lightroom’s built-in sharpening tool is excellent, it is a bit lacking when it comes to fine control of sharpening. Photoshop is a much better tool for doing fine sharpening, as it offers a myriad of sharpening options and the ability to use layers and masks to sharpen parts of your image selectively.

Many of the sharpening tools in Photoshop are simple affairs. The regular Sharpen filter is essentially a one-click ordeal that quickly applies a sharpening to your photo. Not much control there. Unsharp Mask proves a much finer level of control, with three options you can set to customize your sharpening even more.

However, Unsharp Mask can be finicky to use, especially if you are unaccustomed to its use, and unless you apply sharpening to a new layer, it applies the effect to the entire image.

Another option that is common to most Photoshop pros, but may be new to many photographers who developed their skills in Lightroom is High Pass Sharpening. Unlike the other sharpening methods in Photoshop, it is a multi-step process.

In fact there is no High Pass Sharpening filter in Photoshop at all, you are applying the High Pass filter from the Other sub-menu in the Filter menu. While High Pass sharpening is a multi-step process, it is simple and gives you an amazing level of control over an image’s sharpness.

Start by duplicating your image into a new layer by highlighting the current layer and hitting Ctrl/Cmd + J. This duplicate layer will eventually become your sharpening layer.


duplicate layer option photoshop

The next step is to change the new layer’s Blending Mode. For now we want to change it to Overlay.

select overlay in photoshop

Now, the actually sharpening begins. We need to apply the High Pass filter to the new overlay layer. Apply the filter by selecting it from the Filter menu, Filter >> Other >> High Pass.

select other, high pass option from filter menu in photoshop

In the High Pass dialog you will find a single slider and your preview window. The slider is labeled Radius, and refers the the maximum allowable pixel range to apply the filter to. The filter essentially brings out any edges that fall within the radius threshold, while ignoring the edges that are wider than the radius threshold.

select pixel radius in high pass window in photoshop

The effect will only be applied to “hard” edges, leaving the rest of the image alone.

Now, we want to increase the Radius level until the preview seems just a bit too sharp. Don’t go for perfect sharpening at this point, make sure you over sharpen a bit. Usually you will find you need a Radius between 0.5 and 10, depending on the resolution of your image. The bigger your image, the higher Radius you will need for effective sharpening.

oversharpening in high pass filter in photoshop

Once you’ve got the High Pass filter adjusted to your need (remember to over-sharpen), go ahead and apply the filter to the layer.

Once the filter is done, your image should now appear overly sharp. We want this. We are going to fine tune the sharpening from here. To lower the amount of sharpening applied, simply start to lower the layer’s Opacity level.

adjusting opacity of sharpening layer in photoshop

Normally a value between 40% and 70% is what you will find you need, but it can be changed to any level you desire.

But wait! There’s more!

To further fine tune your sharpening effect, you can change the Blending Mode from Overlay to Hard Light or Soft Light. Changing the mode will alter the level of effect. Overlay is a nice, middle-of-the-road default to use for High Pass Sharpening.

playing with blending mode for sharpening in photoshop

Hard Light makes for harder, sharper edges. Soft Light, on the other hand, softens the edges while retaining the sharpening effect. Other blend modes can also create pleasing effects, but Overlay, Soft Light, and Hard Light are the best options for most sharpening applications.

comparison of sharpening effects in photoshop

The changes are subtle and hard to convey in a resized image, but be sure to try them all when applying sharpening until you know what you are looking for.

As a bonus, High Pass sharpening can also be modified to apply softening to an image. All you have to do is carry out the procedure as normal, but in the end, simply Invert (Ctrl/Cmd + I) the high pass layer. Doing this softens detail in your image just as the process normally sharpens detail.

Finally, since all sharpening is done on a semi-transparent layer over the original, untouched image, you can selectively apply sharpening. Apply a Layer Mask to your image and mask out the areas you do not want to be sharpened. High Pass sharpening makes it easy to do selective sharpening in Photoshop with just two layers.

If you’ve never ventured into the waters of High Pass sharpening in Photoshop, you now have yet another powerful tool at you disposal!

Brandon Oelling

Hi there! I'm Brandon Oelling, the founder of XEQUALS. My team and I believe deep in our hearts that inside every one of us is an amazing photographer.

  1. @giles: I use a batch operation in photoshop, assigned to a shortcut key, that leaves me with 3 adjustment layers:
    0) background
    1) Orton effect (gaussian blur, overlay, transparency=20%)
    2) high-pass with a radius=20px (good for object outlines at my normal image-sizes and compositions), soft light, transparency=20%
    3) high-pass with radius=1px (micro-sharpening), hard light, transparency=35%

    From there I can simply slide them back and forth to taste. The first two layers play-off against each other to give me the contrast/saturation boost from orton plus the shadow outline sharpening from high-pass.

    As for workflow, I use Adobe Bridge but the principle’s probably the same: designate some files for direct to jpeg, some for later photoshop – maybe move the latter into a subdirectory for-post-processing/ or something, save some PSDs and then bulk-convert those.

  2. Hi

    I use this a lot and find it really useful – however I struggle to fit it in to my LR workflow. Any ideas as i never get good results with LR sharpening in comparison?

  3. great article!

    don’t forget that you can also get some great effects from slightly (and I stress slightly) overcooking the high-pass

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