Using Unsharp Mask in Photoshop to Sharpen an Image

Sharpening in Photoshop Part Three

Unsharp mask is another favorite type of sharpening technique used in Photoshop to help reduce camera shake or refine an image for improved clarity.  What unsharp mask does is increase contrast along edges of an image such as a building, cliff line or a portrait by locating pixels differing to its surrounding pixels & increasing contrast.  As a result, lighter pixels in your image get lighter while darker pixels will get darker.  As with using any other sharpening method in Photoshop, care should be taken not to over sharpen otherwise the image will look unnatural with halo effects around edges.

The image below will be used as an example of using unsharp mask to help refine sharpness.  It looks good already, but I want to get it sharpened up a little more if I was to get it printed.

unsharp mask,photoshop
The image I will be using to sharpen with unsharp mask.

Create Layer

As mentioned in previous parts, create a duplicate layer then convert it to a smart object.

  • Hold Down Ctrl + J or right-click the image to create a duplicate layer.
  • Right-click the image and select convert to smart object.

This will give you a separate layer to work on using unsharp mask.

Opening Unsharp Mask in Photoshop

Make sure you have your duplicated layer selected then go to Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask.

Selecting unsharp mask in Photoshop.

This will open up a pop-up box for us to edit the image.

Unsharp mask when opened up.

Understanding Sliders

To understand how to use unsharp mask, I will explain what each feature can do to improve your image.

  • Preview – Previews changes made to an image.  I usually switch this on, then switch it off when I have made changes to compare how my picture looks to the original.
  • Amount – This increases the contrast of pixels in an image.  Depending on quality & resolution of your image you can go as far 200% with no problems.
  • Radius – This slider will affect the pixels around edge pixels.  Careful not to slide too far otherwise you will end up with halo effects.  A range of 1-2% is enough.
  • Threshold – This affects tonal values of an image.  A setting of between 2-20 is enough.  A higher level will increase noise & posterization.

Sharpening Image Using Unsharp Mask

With everything explained, it is now time to sharpen our image.

I selected an amount of 200% to start as I have a high-resolution image adjust accordingly to suit your image. Changes can be made to this when using other sliders.
I now selected radius to 2. As noise was beginning to appear, I reduced the amount to 150%.
To help reduce noise levels, I set the threshold to 7% to minimize this.

When happy with your settings using unsharp mask, deselect preview then select again to compare changes made to your image.  Once satisfied, click ok.  This will add what we have changed to our duplicated smart object.  To flatten this, select Layer > Flatten Image.


To see results of the changes that were made see the image below.

The top image is original, and the bottom picture is the final result. You can see edges around the car including signs on the car is more refined with clarity.

An unsharp mask is a handy tool for making refinements to an image.  This can also be used other sharpening methods to bring even more detail in an image.


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