How to Consistently Get the Sharpest Photos Possible Using In Camera Techniques and Photoshop

How to Consistently Get the Sharpest Photos Possible Using In Camera Techniques and Photoshop

Do you feel like you need to sharpen your post-production skills? Then this article is for you. In this quick, easy to follow Photoshop tutorial, learn how in just a few steps, you can make your photos pop off the screen with this simple sharpening process. 

What would you consider to be a sharp photograph? How do you achieve a sharp quality to your images? To answer this series of questions, it is in fact, all of the above factors. In this article, take a deep-dive into my production and post-production workflow, and see the way I ensure that I have the maximum sharpness in all of my images.

The Effect All Starts in Camera 

Whenever I think about the post production process and utilizing the various tools like Photoshop, Capture 1, or Lightroom to enhance my images, the first thing that always comes to mind is when I am on set. Whenever I am shooting, I am always thinking about how I will be editing the picture later: I shoot to edit. 

The Lens Choice 

For my workflow, the lens I put on my camera holds the precedence. The lens is what gives the image character. The reason lens choice is so important is because you want to be sure to pay attention to your depth of field and falloff. To be more specific, a depth of field that is deep enough to maintain sharp focus across the entirety of the subject's face, but be able to produce a quick and beautiful falloff towards the edges of the frame.

The lens I found that effortlessly checks all of these boxes is the Rokinon 135mm T2.2 Cine DS Lens. When you're looking for lenses to use for your closeup portraits, I would recommend going with anything 100mm or above, and getting a lens with a fast aperture. The great thing about a fast aperture lens like this, is that you are able to crank your aperture up to f/5.6 and above and it's going to produce its sharpest results. 

The Camera Settings

One of the first things I do, is lock my camera settings into the scene. While these settings might fluctuate sometimes, below are my go-to camera settings I use, when I'm shooting a portrait in my studio. 

ISO

When you turn on your camera and you think about the shots you want to take, if your lighting is decent, by default, your brain tells you to go with ISO 100 for the cleanest image possible. While this may be ideal in a select set of situations, in most cases, my ISO never drops below ISO 400 and peaks just shy of ISO 1000. The reason for the higher ISO is because it's what gives the shot character and a little texture to begin with in camera, so that later in post, I'm not manufacturing all of it digitally. We're simply enhancing the texture that was already there.  

Aperture

The other setting that you want to consider when setting up your shot, is what aperture you will be using. You want to aim to have the surface of the subjects face to be perfectly in focus, and then slowly fall off to a shallower focus. The most effective way to achieve this, is by taking your f/2 lens and lifting it to a f/5.6 or above. 

Shutter Speed

It might be obvious, but in order to render the sharpest image straight out of your camera, there can't be any camera shake. When setting your shutter speed, even with the use of a tripod or support, I never let it drop below 1/200th of a second. Especially when using a longer lens like a 100mm or 135mm. If I ever find myself needing to adjust my ambient exposure, which I prefer to still have a hint of details in the shadows, I have no problem boosting my ISO even further. 

The Post Production in Photoshop

Now that the camera is put away, it is time to dive into the magical world of Photoshop. We will be utilizing a technique I like to call "Sharpening the Noise"

Step 1: Duplicate the Background Layer 

In the case of most Photoshop edits, one of the first things you're going to want to do is duplicate your background layer. Once you have opened your image, head down to your layers tab and click on the locked layer that says background. In order to duplicate the background layer, press Command+J. On this first layer, this is where your digital noise filter will be added too. Call this layer "Noise". 

Step 2: Add the Digital Noise In

Next, apply the grain filter first and the sharpening filter second. The sharpening layer will be used to sharpen the added grain. 

To add the digital grain, head over to Filter > Noise > Add Noise. Once you have arrived at the noise panel, dial in the amount to five percent. Once you have your settings locked in, check the option on the bottom of the screen to Uniform. By selecting the uniform option, this will give you an evenly dispersed amount of grain throughout the entire image. Next, check the box that says "Monochromatic."

When the monochromatic option is added, it blends the grain into the scene and helps match the original colors. Once the effect is added, head over to the opacity slider in your layers panel and knock the effect down to sixty percent or whatever you feel works best for the story you're trying to tell. 

Step 3: Sharpen The Noise  

In order to enhance the grain we just added, go ahead and apply a high pass sharpening filter. By adding a High Pass filter on top of the grain layer, it will serve as a way of sharpening the grain, and not the actual image. This gives you complete control over the intensity of the effect. 

Before you can apply the sharpening mask to the noise layer, make a stamp visible layer to merge together all of the underlying layers. Make sure your layers panel is selected and press Shift+Option+Command+E. Photoshop will then make a single layer of all the work below it. This is where you want to apply the High Pass effect.

To start dialing in your settings for the sharpening mask, Head over to Filter > Other > High Pass. Once the sharpening panel is pulled up, put your radius anywhere from 5-6 percent. It should be a higher percentage then your noise layer. Then, press ok.

Once you press ok, your entire image will look like a drawing. To get rid of the drawing effect, in your layers panel, change the blending mode of the sharpening layer to soft light. 

The last step to compete this effect, is by holding down shift+G, and highlighting the Noise and Sharpening layers and making a group. Once the group has been created,  go over to your opacity slider and adjust the opacity of the entire effect to 60-70%. 

The Results

Over to You

In the line of work that I produce, I am always aiming to produce strikingly sharp and powerful images. By implementing these simple techniques into my workflow for the last few years, it has transformed the experience of taking and editing my portraits.

What techniques do you do to sharpen your photos? Let me know in the comments below!

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10 Comments

Andrew Eaton's picture

I'm not sure why you would use such a high ISO in the studio, this is likely to bring colour cast from modeling lights or require lower brightness modeling lights. I find using high shutter speed 1/1600 or 1/1250 sec depending on the leaf lens max speed to remove handshake effecting sharpness and cutting down on modeling light cast. Using a long lens is a great idea, I love my 150mm F2.8 Schneider Kreuznach on my MF, stunningly sharp :-)

Greg Silver's picture

Can't really see the difference. Must be my eyes.

Heiko Kanzler's picture

it's a subtle effect, you can see it around the eyes / eye lushes

Catherine Bowlene's picture

I'll second those saying there is no big difference whatsoever. Thanks for the article anyway, some tips may be quite useful. Still, I'd stick to my good old Photoworks and their sharpening tools. https://photo-works.net/how-to-sharpen-blurry-photo.php - this is a good one, to be honest.

Dave F's picture

I’ve seen a lot of different ways to sharpen images but this one is just plain asinine. There’s really no nicer way to say it. This is the definition of doing something different for no other reason than to write about how you’re doing something different, because the results surely don’t justify the process. Adding noise just to sharpen? There’s NO reason to do this, not only because there’s no reason this image needs noise, but also because there are TONS of better ways to sharpen than this. The “result” is a SLIGHTLY sharper version of a photo that looks like it missed capture sharpening in the first place, with VISIBLE NOISE on the background that wasn’t there before and doesn’t need to be there. I can’t even begin to comprehend the logic here. Adding noise does NOT add character to a studio image shot on a plain gray backdrop.

I know there’s a lot of criticism out there that many will dismiss as trolling, but this isn’t it one of those cases. Between this and the B&W article, you really need to stop writing about Photoshop until you develop some better workflows. There’s absolutely no reason people should follow your advice. It’s bad. Just because something is possible to do in Photoshop doesn’t automatically make it a good idea.

I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but it’s true.

Thomas C's picture

Totally agree on sharpening. While there are many ways to sharpen, adding noise or grain and then sharpening, flies in the face of almost all good sharpening techniques. It's also more convoluted and time consuming than standard techniques like USM that work perfectly fine.

Photography is art, so to each their own, but I'd never consider sharpening images in this fashion.

Bjarne Solvik's picture

I use iso 100 and a good lens, like the GM 24-70 from Sony. I think images are so sharp I am questioning should I get a kit lens. Nobody ever complain my images are not sharp. I hate sharpening in Photoshop. In days of old we was fighting grain, now it’s artistic.

I think, shoot analog b/w on tri-x pushed a stop developed with D-76 using something like a RB67 and make gallery prints in the dark room. That’s a good canvas to paint on. Screw noice:)

Adrian Don's picture

For rapid and effective sharpening in PS, change an image mode to LAB colour, then unsharp mask sharpen only the lightness channel, then convert back.

Bjarne Solvik's picture

Thanks for the tip. But I think my images are plenty sharp - should I sharpen? Maybe if I want to print on paper, but for screen? I think not needed?

Edo Photo's picture

Last year I did a deep dive into the LR noise panel so I could understand every single function. Now I have a much better method of sharpening my various image types. Especially judging the effects of the masking slider, which if not used properly can create some really weird noise patches at your edges. It's a dance ;)

In PS, I don't bother with high pass anything, I simply use smart sharpen (lens blur) on images that are already done. The baseline sharpness is in the raw final, that way I can always edit that, run the same filter on the exported jpeg, and done. I edit a large number of images and the multitude of steps needed for high pass isn't worth it for me personally.

It's been working for me for a very long time. I believe the original tip for this came from Scott Kelby, aka the photography straight talk express, hehe.