VIDEO: Advanced Sharpening and Noise Reduction in Photoshop

photoshop sharpening and noise reduction tutorial

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This VIDEO will show you how to get the most dynamic and sharpest images in your printed marketing material.

This is a two-step Photoshop sharpening technique that will show you how to create the sharpest images without creating noise in smooth midtone areas of your photographs. This is one of my favorite Photoshop sharpening tips in reproducing beautiful photography on press. All images are not as sharp as they can be when converted from raw files. These days there is a lot of post image processing that needs to be done with digital images. One of the key things that is overlooked is how sharp the image is. We now work with incredibly sharp LCD displays and images seem to jump off the screen. Unfortunately, when an image goes through the RIP (raster image processor) process in prepress, the image is naturally softened in the screening process.

Remember, your photography is only as good as the printer you choose!

Note: If you enjoyed this video, check out our FREE Photoshop Hi-Def Color Action Script and make your images jump off the screen, almost 3-D!

[learn_more caption=”Transcript of Video” state=”open”]
Today, we’re going to talk about one of the greatest Photoshop sharpening techniques to take your photographs from a good photograph to a great photograph.

[0:13] Notice the transition there. This will demonstrate how to take a great photo and make it into a true high definition color print when it’s printed on press.

[0:25] All right, let’s get started here.

[0:27] As you can see, I am working in the LAB color space right now. You can work in RGB and get the same results. I prefer using LAB. Just keep in mind you want to convert to CMYK at the very last moment so always work in RGB or LAB.

[0:43] First things started, we’re going to do a Select All and we’re going to copy and create a new Alpha channel here and paste our document or image into our new Alpha channel.

[1:03] We select that and we’re going to Filter, Stylize and click the Find Edges. Now what Find Edges will do is look at all the sharp contrasting points in the image and basically highlight those and create a line drawing for you.

[1:21] From here, we’re going to go on to our curves, which is our Command M and we’re going to alter this channel.

[1:30] First thing you want to do… In a nutshell, what’s happening here… We’re going to sharpen the darkened areas. The white areas will not be sharpened so we’re going to maintain our smooth, crystal clear, creamy midtones and not create any noise in there from excessive sharpening.

[1:49] First thing, you’d want to grab our shadow end of our curve and bring this over all the way up to 50%. At the same time, you’d want to take our highlight end of our curve and bring this up to about 20% or so.

[2:09] You can see right now we’ve created a much higher contrast now in this line drawing. And again just to make another adjustment here, we want to make our black areas a little wider as possible so we’re going to add some more density to that black and kick it up. You can see they’re almost intersecting each other.

[2:29] At this point, we’re going to click OK and we’re going to go into Filter and create a Gaussian Blur on this image. The blur will spread the black areas to create a subtle transition between these smooth areas and the sharpened areas.

[2:50] So, select Gaussian Blur and use anything… I prefer to use two and a half pixels. That seems to work fast for me. So, select 2.5 pixels and click OK.

[3:04] Now back to curves again. You could see we softened up the image.

[3:07] Now we go back to curves and harden up that edge a little more. So we’re going to bring our shadow end of our curve all the way up to 50% again. You could see how much darker we made that so we’ll get more sharpening in the areas. There is no information in our white areas here so those areas will not be affected by the Photoshop sharpening filter. Click OK.

[3:32] At this point, we’re going back to our full color image and go to Select and Load Selection. Notice we’re going to select our Alpha channel that we’ve created and click OK. Now that selection is brought to place. We’re simply going to hide the selection just to save on our eyeballs there.

[3:57] And now we’re going to do our sharpening. The selection is going to just isolate the areas that we want to sharpen. Go to Filter, Sharpen and I’m a huge fan of Unsharp Mask. It goes back to the old days of running the old color drum scanner. At this point, I’m going to play around with the amount.

[4:21] Now the amount is how much the adjoining pixels are affected. I like to go real high on this number, anywhere between 150 and 200. For this tutorial, I’m going to select 200 and it’s a high number but keep in mind we’re only affecting those images in the selection itself.

[4:41] You’d want to keep the radius anywhere between half a pixel to one to one and a half. If you go any thicker, you’ll create a severe halo effect around your images. If you’re looking for an artistic point of view, you may want to do that but I would not ever recommend doing that. So we’re going to stick to one pixel.

[5:06] Our threshold determines which pixels are sharpened and which are not. A higher threshold value means that there’s a huge contrast difference between pixels that are affected. Since we have our selection, it’s a moot point so it really doesn’t matter. So I’m going to stick with a threshold of zero.

[5:26] You can see as I move through the image and click on and off, you’ll notice that there is a great deal of sharpening happening in the contrasting areas but look at the midtone areas. They’re perfectly clean and not affected at all. Just an incredible cool little tool to utilize to create dynamic looking photographs. So click OK and we are done.

[5:53] At this point, we’ll go ahead and save our image and just to show you up close, we’ll zoom in here and you can see the difference between the two. Turn on… And turn it back off again… And turn it back on. Just an awesome looking sharpening job.

[6:15] OK, thanks for tuning in. Look back for more tutorials in the future. Take care. [/learn_more]

Let me know what you think. Please leave your comments below…

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (13 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
  1. You’re welcome!

    When I used to scan transparencies on a drum scanner, there was a setting called ‘edge enhancement’ that I always used and this was the best technique in Photoshop to sharpen edges. The old drum scanners sure were fun to play with and definitely separated the best printers from the chumps!

  2. Iain Hamilton-Cummings

    AWESOME!!! I have been looking for a technique that just concentrates on the edges! I normally use ‘sharpen edges’ and then a ‘high pass filter’ set to ‘soft light’ This works but I normally rub out the area I don’t want effecting. I am SO gonna give your technique a go! and I think it might become my normal practice 🙂 Many many thanks Rick 🙂

  3. thanks for the fast reply..i don’t know how the effect is called , so i can’t search for a tutorial…the only thing i know is that it has something to do with Sharpening and HDR.i sent you details in your web page.. 🙂

  4. what is the effect you’re looking for? you can send me message via my website in the About section under the video…

  5. Hi , great tutorial..i need some help..there’s an effect im trying to do , but with no success..this tutorial helped in a way but i’m not quite there yet and i can’t find a solution.can you please help me.? can i send you the the photo effect im trying to accomplish so you can suggest me anything.?

  6. Absolutely! Since we are changing the brightness of pixels, the effect works perfectly for color and black/white images. I chose this image from my friend Monte Nagler because of the incredible detail and my passion for great black/white photography.

    I hope you enjoyed the video!

  7. Colton Wesoloski

    Could you then load the selection again, but this time invert it, and use a reduce noise filter to reduce the noise of everything that wasn’t sharpened?

  8. Just what i was looking for!!! thanks man. By the way would it be possible to get an action like this made from you?

  9. Mohammad Al-Lawati

    743th like 😉
    How about making sun glare on photos like how sunlight goes in the shadows when shooting straight at the sun…

  10. I’m sorry Paulo, but I do not know enough about Lightroom sharpening to answer that. Everyone seems to like this process and it works very well…

  11. TheBetterGamer

    As a beginner (but very good) photoshop user, I would like to see a tutorial on details and how to fix/make them.
    You could use a photograph or start from scratch, doesn’t matter.
    I’m really finicky when it comes to details, so it’d help a bunch.
    (Fixing edges, corner, selection modifications, etc)

  12. You are correct. The reason is that your Alpha Channel Option is set to ‘masked areas’. You can avoid inverting the selection by changing your Alpha Channel Option to ‘selected areas’. View the video at 3:43 and click on the Video link that is provided in the annotation to show how to change this option. Let me know if you have any issues…I wish I could post the link here but YT does not allow me to embed links in comments…

  13. Hi, I followed your tutorial step by step but before using the unsharp mask I had to invert the selection, otherwise it did exactly the opposite of what I wanted to.

  14. It sounds like you have the new alpha channel visible. What I mean by this is to turn off the channel or simply throw-away the channel after you complete the sharpening. I can ‘t write a URL in this comment, however, follow the like in the post to my website and scroll down to the comments. There you will find a ‘screencast’ link that shows how to fix this…

    1. Hi Rik, I discarded the new Alpha channel but the image just reverts to it’s original state. My problem is that as soon as I select find edges, some sort of colourwash takes place, not the red outlines, I don’t have that problem. Can you think of a reason for this?
      Many thanks for your prompt reply, very good of you

      1. It’s a little difficult for me to diagnose what the problem is. Can you use a tool, like Jing, to record your sequence of events onscreen so I can see what could be going wrong? Here is a link to download Jing, it’s free…

        Sorry you’re having some trouble with this tutorial.

        1. Hi Rick, I’m amazed by your speedy replies, I’ve downloaded the software and will get the video to you soon, great little program thanks. I can’t wait to use your technique, definitely the very best I’ve come across, so I’m sure it will be worth the effort. Many thanks for your generous advice

        2. Hi Rick, really sorry for the delay. I had trouble recording via Jing. Sorted now though. Here is a link to the screencast:

          I didn’t go through the whole process as the problem is as I say happening when I select the find edges command. I’ve tried going through the whole process and then deleting the Alpha channel but the image just reverts with no sharpness applied. I reall appreciate your time and advice and hope all is well with you
          Many thanks

          1. Hi Darryn,

            Sorry for the delay, but got a little swamped there.

            I watched your video. Keep in mind that you are making a ‘selection’ with the Alpha Channel, so don’t turn on the composite RGB channels until your done making the mask. Once the mask is finished, then you will load that selection in with the composite RGB turned on to create the sharpening effect.

            I hope that makes sense, you’re almost there to Hi-Def pictures!

            Let me know how this turns out…


          2. Hi Rick really sorry, busy setting up an Exhibition. I’ve tried again with your comments in mind, but the same colour washing effect happens every time. I’ve done another short screencast if you wouldn’t mind taking a look. It only goes as far as the problem I’m having. This colour change is undoable from the outset. I’d love to get this working one day as I’m scared of ruining my photos using the unsharp mask directly. Many thanks and sorry again for the delay, hope you’re well.

  15. Hi, I’d really love to use this technique, but each time I try, I get masses of artefacts in the image, halos, huge colour differences. I’ve traced it all back to the second I select “stylize/find edges” that seems to be when it’s happening. I’m following the instructions to a t, please can you help. Love the tutorials, many thanks

  16. You’ve got a web exclusive on this sharpening technique, haven’t seen it anywhere else. But most people out there don’t know the difference between the Lab color space and the others. That may be an area you could professionally enlighten people about.

  17. Welcome back! Thanks for the nice note; I greatly appreciate your thoughts…what would you like to see next?

  18. Rick – Just watched this video again (twice) for a refresher. Yes, it does in fact take a photo from good to great. Thanks again for a fantastic technique.

  19. So I kinda need to see about turning work some of my work so I can continue. I LOVE photography and film (as stated I started young, fell in love with it and have put much time, effort and money into it simply for the love of it) and don’t ever want to quit but… it’s kinda getting to where I won’t be able to continue if I don’t do something to make it perpetuate itself. know what I mean?

  20. I’m COMPLETELY new to photoshop having just gotten it the other day because even though I’m only 24 I’ve speant 16 years learning and doing photography manually with a camera but even someone who knows the ins and outs needs some touch-up to actually be able to have a useful image in todays market and society (partially why I tend to abhor digital and photoshop). Any tips would be much appreciated. As so far to say I’ve spent a “small” fortune in photography would be an understatement…

  21. so I’ve gone over this several different times and followed all the steps including the color options but still get the red. does the initial scar of the image have to be RGB or can you just convert a grayscale to RGB and go from there? also I suspect part of my issue (esiacially how it’s not picking up much detail in my image(s) has to do with the grain and dust reduction I used in the scanner when I scanned. cont-

  22. Thanks for the nice comment; it’s appreciated. Please do share! Share it with anyone you want or Tweet, +1, etc.

  23. Thanks for the tutorial. this is by far the best sharpening technique I have used so far and it is making a real difference. Never take this video down lol. Do you mind if I share this with my class mates.

  24. Actually, I tried that and it works, but I was afraid that I was also turning off the sharpening. One further question: is there a way to load the Alpha Channel as a layer mask? I’d like to invert it and use it to reduce noise(while not blurring the edges) and my favorite noise reduction plugin won’t work on an Alpha Channel… My thanks for your time!

  25. Did you turn off the visibility of the Alpha Channel, i.e. turn off the ‘eye’? You can also just throw away the channel after use.

  26. An addition: I saw the video. It doesn’t seem to address the issue. I have my options set to selection and get a white background. Its just tinged with red when I view the image in rgb color

  27. Rick thanks for the quick reply I just re-did the tutorial carefully checking that my channel options were set to selection and still got the red edge. My color in the channel options box is set to red… could this be the problem?

  28. Did you see the video I posted Alpha Channel Background Color Options in Photoshop? You can view it by clicking my channel and playing it there. Or go to 3:47 mark of this video and click the link there. Your problem is from the channel options that you have for your Alpha Channels. This will correct your problem…

  29. Thanks for the tutorial, Rick. I’m having a problem though after I load the Alpha Channel, I get a red edge around all edges. This seems independent of the amount of sharpening I apply. I have the channel selections where you suggest… what am I doing wrong? Also is there any way to load the Alpha channel (which I think is basically a edge mask) as a layer mask? Thanks!

  30. Yes, this is a great new sharpening option to add to Smart Sharpen, Unsharp Mask and the Filter>other>highpass>overlay/soft light/hard light, etc. techniques. Great new arrow in the quiver.

  31. Thank you very much. I am glad you see the value in it. Please do me a favor and share it!

    Did you see the Hi-Def Action Script for Photoshop video? You’ll love that…

  32. Thats exactly what im gunna use this for, so curious to see what i can make out of it!
    And Rick…. veeery great tutorial so glad i found it!!! *bows* What a difference! 🙂

  33. Unfortunately, I have no experience with Photoshop Elements. Not sure if Elements uses similar filters, but it’s possible. The key filter is Find Edges. If that filter is visible, then you can ‘fake’ the curves by using levels.

    I hope this helps…

  34. This technique will work for all bitmap images, color and black & white in Photoshop. Would this make a good Action Script for download?

  35. I have a question far as using something like Avatars from secondlife….will this techinque work for any thing?or just black and white photos…

  36. That’s a good idea…I wish a sharpening script would go along with the image and then applied when image is placed and then exported when the PDF was made. Yeah, when you place an image inside InDesign at 15%, the sharpening effect is completely lost…

    Thanks SC

  37. At the bottom of the Curves window, toggle the Curves Display Options arrow and you will see Show Amount of:. I set mine to Pigment/Ink therefore the highlights are on the lower-left. Just my preference…

  38. If you still need ideas for more excellent tutorials, a good explanation of image re-size and canvas re-size, with a view to print preparation would be good. Also the affect re-sizing has on sharpness.
    Just an idea !

  39. I haven’t tried the Hi-Def script, but I will!
    Can I just ask, have you any idea why when I open my curves dialog, the blacks are on the bottom left unlike yours that are on the outside and top. My curves line still runs from bottom left to top right ???
    Most confusing !!!

  40. Thanks SC! I appreciate your comments. Great idea to make a script…Did you try the Hi-Def Color Action Script? Please +1 on the website; it would greatly help me!

  41. Rick, This IS the BEST sharpening technique Ive come across!
    Ive been using in for some months now. In fact I rarely use anything else. I have also created an action for it that I use on images where I cant be bothered to go through the whole process. It works really well and if the effect is too much, you can always back off the opacity.
    Thanks for the tutorial !

  42. Hey There. Depending on the image, there is only so much you can do to correct a photo. I suggest using this tutorial and experimenting with the ‘Radius’ setting at 4:04 of this video…

    Let me know how that works…

  43. Yes, my website is listed in the description. That would be the easiest, and least spammy way, to contact. The ‘Contact’ page is in the top nav bar…

  44. George Doumani

    thanks Rick

    do you have an email address? I’d like to throw you a more in depth query.

  45. Great question! It all depends on what you have set for your ‘Channel Options’ for the Alpha Channel. Yes, a mask would be black with white areas to expose through; this is one of the Channel Options. I use Selected Areas which does not require you to invert the selection. Look for link for VIDEO explaining this process inside Video Description below video above….

  46. George Doumani

    thanks for the great video but just a query.

    – a mask excludes black and includes whites yes? If you are wanting to sharpen the edges and not sharpen the noise in the smooth areas than surely you should invert the find-edges mask created from the alpha channel? Your mask as it stands will sharpen the smooth areas and exclude the edges?

  47. change your ‘channel options’ to ‘selected areas’ and this will fix your problem. visit my channel to view a VIDEO of this process and you will be all set…let me know if you have other questions

  48. i think if you filled a book with tutorials as good as this I would pay top dollar for it. can I download this video I am having trouble streaming it?

  49. bitcrushnpranksta

    I really want this to work but my alpha channel turns red and my edges are all red when I get to the sharpening step.

  50. I’m quite new at doing these things but I got the point. My only problem is that I have no idea of how to change RGB to LAB. I believe this is an old school thingy but yeah. Still succeeding in RGB 🙂 Thanks a lot!

  51. I understand; it’s not the end-all solution for every image. Did you play around with the Radius setting? Most drawbacks occur with too large of a radius causing ‘halo’ effect…

  52. Hey Rick, thanks for this great tutorial, unfortunately i cant use it for all my pictures. Using gaussian blur and levels is pretty good to make selections, but what sometimes happens to me is that hard edges(high contrast) become too thick, so there are halos after applying the unsharpen mask filter. Where as other detailed areas like rocks that aren’t that contrasty are just got the right amount of sharpenning. Is there a good and quick way to thin out edges with high contrast?

    best regards,

  53. Id love to see a video abnout how to seperate noise from details which are of similar size range ie the same level of detail. If you do this, as I often dont check youtube, please could I ask you if you could email me and tell me i would really be so happy to learn more possibilities about it if you know different ways. my email is [email protected]. bless your fine and illuminating work!

  54. at the end of all this my image is coming out with pink/reddish coloring in most of the photo. working on a color image. working in LAB color. following directions to a tee. after i select whole image and than paste into my alpha channel (which is in “selected areas” as specified, this is the point ive traced it back to in which the image takes on this color tone change and i was wondering if you would have any imput on this, which of course would be greatly appriciated.

  55. You need to make a copy of the ‘composite’ channel (RGB, LAB, CMYK) in the channels window. This will create a grayscale, 8-bit, version of your image and this is what you paste into the new alpha channel. This image will appear in black and white. Alpha channels only support 8-bit, grayscale, images and this is the channel you will manipulate to build your sharpening mask.
    Does this help you?

  56. Kristoffer Ivan Go

    OK in the video you copied all the channels right? so that you can paste it in the new ALpha channel 1. but the photoshop doesnt let me paste any on the alphachannel 1 so this might be due to my settings?

  57. re-watch the video and click on the red box at 3:43 for an explanation of your issue and how to fix the problem you are having….

    you need to adjust your ‘Alpha Channel Options’ in Photoshop

  58. I think I understand your question, but not sure completely. At 0:47 in the video, you are simply pasting a grayscale version of the image into the new alpha channel. This may be a bit deceiving being that my source image is in black and white to begin with. This will work with RGB images, however the new channel you create will be a grayscale of your original RGB image. Does this clarify your issue?

  59. Jerry Tremaine

    Excellent..Straight forward and to the point! Not a big user of Photoshop..I usually stick to lightroom..this was a great help..much better than using LR on its own.

  60. I love this tutorial you explained everything perfectly and its something I never really knew! Usually I do my sharpening in lightroom because of the detail and masking sliders but I’m definitely going to have to give this a shot! Thanks!

  61. you may have to ‘invert’ your selection based on your alpha channel settings. i have produced a separate video on how to do this, however I can not embed the link here. go to my channel and view ‘Alpha Channel Background Color Options … ‘ and this should help you out….

  62. Hello, I did the same, yet it is still sharpening the sky!
    I made the sky in the show edges effect completely white, but it is still sharpening it.
    what am I doing wrong?

  63. @Incognito6543 Using the Alpha channel to sharpen your picture works whether in colour or b&w. Method = Same. Tweaks = Different. Once you’ve done the Find Edges bit, adjust the curves so that the most contrasty parts of your picture (with people this is usually the eyes) are black. Then use Unsharp Mask.

  64. I was using this technique for a portrait and I had to adjust the curves treatment to what you showed, in order to reveal enough black edges around eyes. Modification.

  65. Hi! Why is it that a black background appears, instead of white as shown in your tutorial 00:53, every time I create new channel? I tried to invert this by command+i. Is this ok? Also, the contrast doesn’t increase when I bring the shadow end of the curve to 50%. Why is it so? Did I miss something? Thanks.

  66. You can’t bring into focus a photo that is out of focus. Sharpening only increases the ‘acutance’ of an image. (See Wikipedia)
    This technique will work on colour images. First convert to Lab (Image > Mode > Lab color), then look under your Channels palette for the Lightness. Now you have a grayscale layer to use as a mask (Find edges, etc.)
    Alternatively, just using RGB, copy your image to a new layer then desaturate it (Image > Adjustments > Desaturate) to begin creating your mask.

  67. Hi, thanks for the tut. It seems to work only for B&W pictures. Color phoptos require copying one individual channel only ~(either red or blue or green), not the whole RGB. Unless I’m missing something. Also, this doesn’t work for blurry photos. Only for those that are already sharp and require better sharpening for thew purpose of printing.

  68. Hey so I have tried this multiple times but I keep getting this red outline around my selections. I am also working in RGB so I’m not sure if that’s the problem.

  69. thanks for the nice comments! unfortunately, i do not have that software and use Photoshop exclusively. most image editing software uses a very similar interface and functions are very similar. keep researching and testing your software and maybe you will find a suitable work-around. thanks again

  70. I will love to see, of this version of noise reduction imaging to Pixelmator. I only use Pixelmator, cause I don’t have a good budget to buy Photoshop CS5, but anyway. I really like how useful this tutorial is, it’s very interesting and very effective than the simple use of noise reduction filter or tool.
    I like to see something like this done in Pixelmator, how you do it
    Really awesome video tutorial!

  71. i will post a video on how to do soft proofing in Photoshop. keep in mind that you will need the correct print profile for this to work effectively.
    ProPhoto RGB is an even bigger RGB color gamut than Adobe RGB. most monitors, let alone output devices, cannot render this gamut. many pros will archive images in ProPhoto RGB in hopes that advances in the future will permit the use of this color space.

  72. not necessarily. the only time i use sharpening on portraits is to enhance the eyes. this is achieved by increasing the ‘threshold’ setting and using a value above 10 pixels. this will sharpen pixels that differ by more than a brightness value of 10. this will ensure smooth areas, aka skin, will not be effected and remain smooth. however, using this technique in the video will mask the high contrast areas and leave skin unaffected.
    i hope this helps you…

  73. Oh my God! My teacher taught me this but It didnt click until now! I am so subscribing. Can you make a video about spot proofing and gamut warning and how to lower that. I’m just trying to perfect my printing.

  74. I just turned one of my shots into b/w. As I no longer have a darkroom, I’ll edit in Lightroom! 😀 (a little photo humor there)
    Amazing results. So glad to have found this.

  75. I just turned one of my shots into b/w. As I no longer have a darkroom, I’ll edit in Lightroom! 😀 (a little photo humor there)
    Amazing results. So glad to have found this.

  76. Jason Cakebread

    Hey Rick, Still playing with your tutorial. One question, When I load the alpha channel selection and go to sharpen do I need to inverse the selection? I don’t see that you have done that, but when I go to unsharp mask I end up sharpening everything but the edges and looks bad. Maybe I am missing something? Also any link for your PS Action?

    Love the tutorial and your presentation! Thank you!

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