My Fave Way To High Pass Sharpen in Photoshop

Sharpening your images in post has been discussed time and again in every manner of tutorial under the sun, and everyone has a preferred method that works for them. For me, I found I enjoy the look of a partial sharpen done with the classic high pass filter (and requisite blending mode) along with an appropriate luminosity mask to blend it where I want it. These days I've gone and made an Action for the process that seems to work for about 80% of my images. Let's review it.

First off, if you've never done the high pass filter sharpening technique, then you should probably pay close attention to the beginning of the video above, or simply try YouTube in general for such tutorials. It really is quite commonly used, though some photographers loathe the look and prefer other sharpening approaches; further testament to the differences between artists and their styles of image crafting.

The basics of High Pass sharpening are as follows:

  • Duplicate your main image (whether it's the background layer or a stamped copy later in your workflow)
  • On the duplicated layer, run the High Pass filter (Filters/Other/High Pass) with a pixel radius setting between about 2.5 and 5, depending on your image overall pixel dimensions. (experiment with what looks good for you; more is not necessarily better).
  • On the now High Pass filter-smothered layer, change the Blending Mode to Hard Light (a few other Blending Modes work too, but I find Hard Light to be the most consistent and predictable for the look I like).
  • Boom, instant mega sharpen.

That's all well and good.

The issue, however, with High Pass sharpening are the side effects. The two most cited complaints about this look are that the sharpening is too strong overall, even at lower pixel radius settings, and that the highlights get messed up with noise and unnecessarily enhanced micro contrast. (Somewhere in the Comments section below, someone geekier than myself can and likely will explain why this occurs, along with all the maths and details of how the High Pass filter and Blending Modes work. As such, I'll let you scroll down the Comments for that info.)

To solve the two common complaints, I usually put a luminosity mask on the sharpen layer that masks out the highlights and allows the sharpening effect to transition from full tilt in the shadows to faded away by the mid-highs. I've reviewed this before using Color Range, which works ok. However, I prefer a more consistent result, and therefore I created an Action to set up High Pass sharpening the way I like: masked

Check out the video tutorial above, and download my Smart Sharpen Action so you can test it out and let me know if it works for you.

Sample image seen in the tutorial, complete with High Pass (masked) sharpening, reduced to 960x640 px (bicubic sharper resampling).

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Roman Kazmierczak's picture

I know there is more than one way to skin a cat, but I don't understand why people are praising High Pass Filter for sharpening. Unsharp Mask does exactly what you do but in one simple tool with fine control. Smart Sharpen gives you even more control and choice of different algorithms. You can even choose different amount of sharpening for shadows, mids, and highlights.

michael buehrle's picture

there are 6 ways to skin a cat.

Florian Cortese's picture

Thank you so much Nino for the review and the action you provided

Christian Berens's picture

great little tip! All about the minor details and the simple actions!

Thanks Nino!

fred lefeuvre's picture

Good trick ! Thank you for sharing it

Daniel Lee's picture

Pretty interesting to read this. I usually tend to go: Duplicate Layer > CTR + SHIFT + U > then apply high pass filter > I usually use a radius under 1 > then I select either Hard Light or Overlay > Layer Mask and paint the areas I only want sharpened.

Taylor Franta's picture

Applying a strong noise reduction directly to the high pass layer is also very helpful. It completely removes any sharpening from any softer areas and smooths the edges a bit making the sharpening look more natural. Also I prefer vivid light mode. It seems to add a touch of contrast as well. Give it a try and let me know your thoughts.

Lynne Bardell's picture

Thank you Nino.

Oh yes..... When you presented this sharpening method at your workshop, I was blown away. This is now my preferred method of sharpening images, especially at printed sizes of 11x14 size or larger.....

great tip!

Lona Walburn's picture

I've heard of one other potential helpful tip to add to this procedure. Before applying the high pass filter, go under image > contrast > check the legacy box and set the contrast to -50. (Supposedly this will help with issues in the highlights). Then apply the high pass.

Aaron Bratkovics's picture

Alright! So I've been using this for about a month now and I actually really like it. Even if it's too strong I simply turn down the opacity to my liking and it turns out great. I compared this to Clay Cooks sharpening technique and I WANTTTT to say I like this technique a little better. Clays is pretty nice too though! If you haven't checked it out it'll probably be worth it =]]

Appreciate the share!

I have never used high pass sharpening and it is easier than the method I have been using,