Creative Sharpening

In the previous post in the sharpening series, I focused on the need to apply capture sharpening. For a lot of images this is will be the end of the sharpening process until they are ready to be printed. For some images though an extra bit of sharpening is needed to pop and bring the focus to specific elements in a picture. This is where creative sharpening can step in.

With Photoshop creative sharpening opens a world of layers, masks, brushes and filters. If you are new to Photoshop this can become daunting. For those who are more experienced it becomes second nature.

In Lightroom creative sharpening takes place with the adjustment brush, where you can paint the effect onto the image.

Unfortunately, you are unable to creatively sharpen in Picasa.

With both Photoshop and Lightroom I apply creative sharpening after reducing image noise and the main toning of the image, this is also the time I make local tonal adjustments as well.

Where should I apply creative sharpening?

Creative sharpening needs to be applied to areas that are already sharp that you want to draw more attention to. The amount of sharpening is up to you and your image. There is nothing wrong with sharpening, just over sharpening which will create artefacts that distract from the image.

With portraits I would selectively sharpen eyes, eye lashes, mouth and maybe hair. This would be done with three separate sharpening adjustments all selectively painted in, as each area will need a different amount of work. This is where Lightroom can trump Photoshop, as creating multiple layers will mean bigger file sizes and a more powerful computer, yet Photoshop has more versatility in the way you can sharpen.


With Lightroom I open the local adjustment panel. Within the panel there are similar settings to that of the general editing panels. The two sliders that I use for creative sharpening are, clarity and sharpness. Although clarity is not a sharpening tool (clarity adjusts the midtone contrast) it does help with the appearance of being and image being sharp.

With the image I have (of a snake opening his mouth with remains of a fish being swallowed) the eye needs a bit of extra sharpening as well as the mouth. The way I sharpen with the adjustment brush is with the sharpness and clarity sliders together.


On the right had side of Lightroom the last icon to the right is the selection brush. Click on the icon and the panel will open up.

First I selected a high sharpness setting and using the brush I painted the adjustment onto the eye. With the brush I use a small size with a large feather (The feather setting allows you to set how hard the edge of the brush is. With a large feather you have a softer brush and a small feather a harder brush.). I set flow at a medium high setting as I want the adjustment to be applied but not equally, which will help with blending. I also set density at 100% (density sets the transparency of the brush).

The eye is actually slightly out of focus which is something we can’t fix but we can make it seem that it is sharper than it really is. I set the sharpness setting quite high as well as raising the clarity to create more contrast to simulate sharper look. Due to my adjustments I also need to raise the noise setting as my adjustment has created some noise.


With the adjustment brush you can create multiple adjustments that appear as pins to locate where the adjustment has been made.
By clicking NEW you can start to create a new adjustment. My creative sharpening adjustment is on the lower jaw and the saliva in the snake’s mouth. This is already sharp but I really want it to stand out. Once again I used clarity and sharpness together as well as reducing any noise, caused by the adjustment, at the same time.


To see where you have made the selection roll your cursor over the pin and the area will be highlighted up. in the image above you can see where I have selectively sharpened in the snakes mouth.

With all the other adjustments added to the image, the face and mouth of the snake is what draws the viewer’s attention, creative sharpening being just part of that.

fish eating snake

Final image, with some slight split toning, burning on the right and left side of the image as well as brightening of the snake’s mouth.


Photoshop allows you to be much more creative in sharpening an image than lightroom due to the many differing sharpening methods available.

When I applied capture sharpening I did this the Unsharp mask filter, as this is the easiest method. However there are other methods that can be applied which would be more precise, I will cover these in an advanced sharpening post.

For selective sharpening I use the Smart Sharpen Filter. Smart Sharpen is more delicate than other sharpening filters as it runs much slower and is great for creative sharpening.

With this image (a white tulip framed against a dark green background), I want the stamen to be sharper and really pull the viewer in. First I need to duplicate the background layer to apply the filter to.


Tulip after main toning and capture sharpening.

Smart Sharpen has two sliders; amount and radius. Amount being the strength of the adjustment and radius how far from the edge the filter is applied. There are also three blur removal options; Gaussian – the same removal that takes place when apply an Unsharp Mask, Lens Blur – to counteract lens blurring and Motion – reducing motion blur from moving objects.

As with capture sharpening, I set the settings as high as possible and then pull them back. With smart sharpen the amount is first set at 500% while keeping the radius set at one. I slowly reduce the strength until the image is sharp and the amounts of artefacts as well as halos are reduced. I then play with the radius just slowly raising it.


Screen shot of the Smart sharpen dialogue box.

In the image above you can see that this has brought a lot of detail out in the stamen and nicely sharpened flecks of dark pollen.

In the advanced mode you have two further options called shadow and highlight. This allows you to reduce the effect in the shadow and highlight areas of the image. In these adjustments they have three sliders; fade amount, tonal width and radius.

Fade – allows you to selectively fade the sharpening effect in that tonal area.

Tonal width – controls the tonal range that fade is adjusted to.

Radius – controls the radius of the fade.

Since I am sharpening in the highlight area I will just fade the shadow tones.

Now I have sharpened I need to now need to select the area where I want it to be applied. First you need to add a layer mask. You do this my by either going, Layer – Layer mask and choosing between hide all or reveal all or you can click on the rectangle with a circle inside at the bottom of the layer panel. If you went the menu option you need to choose, hide all. Whereas if you added the mask via the icon you need to invert the mask and turn it black, Ctrl + I. This has made the sharpening disappear, but I will paint it back in in a minute.

Select the white as your colour and then the brush tool, B.

I work with a soft round brush with an opacity of about 20 and slowly paint on the layer mask to reveal the effect. When I paint I zoom into 100% and occasionally zoom out to look at the effect. If the effect isn’t noticeable I will turn on and off the layer, using the eye, to see a before and after.

If I make a mistake I switch the colour as black and erase the mistake. I only want to paint the Stamen. Once the stamen was painted in I used a larger brush on a lower opacity of about 5 to just sharpen the petals a bit more.


The top half of the image is unsharpened while the bottom half is. as you can see that only the Stamen is sharp while the rest of the image has the same sharpness.

This technique can be used with any sharpening method that you prefer to use and you don’t just need to use a brush on the mask, you could use gradients as well to fade in/out an area of sharpening.

open tulip

Final Image with the creative sharpening applied.

On the next post I will detail some other sharpening workflows for Photoshop.

I hope these posts are useful and if there is a program you use that I haven’t covered yet me know, also feel free to ask any questions or just say hi in the comments section as well if you like.

If you enjoyed the post please remember to like and share.

If you wish to get notifications when I post on my blog, you can follow me on Twitter@apertureF64, on or alternatively be emailed by subscribing below.
All images are the Copyright of Benjamin Rowe , ALL RIGHTS Reserved unless credited to another photographer.
For more information please read my Copyright Statement

One thought on “Creative Sharpening

  1. Hey Ben…your site looks great!!! As you know I don’t have Photoshop or Lighthouse, but it is interesting to see what can be done…the photo of the snake is awesome…

Let Me Know Your Thoughts, I Know You Have Some

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s