Make your photos tack sharp! (sharpen + unsharp mask)


In this tutorial I thought it would be great to give you tips on how to make your images tack sharp — without looking tacky!  (Ha ha, couldn’t resist!)  Here’s a before and after:


Note that if your photo is too out-of-focus this tutorial won’t help you much — but!  — you will want to see next week’s tutorial on tips for focusing your camera.  This tutorial is mainly for when you want to resize your image for the web and have it still look good.  Here are the basic steps you’ll go through:

  1. Adjust the levels, crop, and make any other tweaks.
  2. Resize your image.  Note that you’ll want to figure out the size so that it looks nice on your blog or wherever you are posting — don’t let the blog software scale it for you. That just never looks good.  A size to start with is 350 pixels wide — this works on most blogs.
  3. Sharpen it using either the Sharpen or Unsharp Mask filter!

Note: if you’re going to add text or a watermark image to your image, do so after sharpening.

Here’s the image that we’ll be working with for the tutorial — a tack, ha ha!   I blurred it a little in CS3 so that you can really see the difference before and after the sharpening.  Right click on it, save it to your computer, then open it in your photo editing software to play along.  You can use Photoshop Elements, CS3, or GIMP for this, they all work pretty much the same way.   (See this post for more info about GIMP + a link to download it — it’s free!) I’ll be using CS3.


There are two ways that I mainly use to sharpen images: the Sharpen filter and the Unsharp Mask filter.  Let’s start off with the Sharpen filter since it’s super duper easy!

To apply the Sharpen filter,

  • In CS3 go to Filter -> Sharpen -> Sharpen
  • In Elements 4.0, go to Filter -> Sharpen -> Sharpen
  • In Elements 6.0, you can try Enhance -> Auto Shapen
  • In GIMP, it’s Filters -> Enhance -> Sharpen, then adjust the slider and click OK

You’ll get a sharpened image, like so:


Easy!  Most of the time, this is all I do and I’m done!

If you want finer control over the sharpening, you’ll want to reach for the Unsharp Mask.  Contrary to what the name says, this one sharpens your image too. It’s a little more complicated to use, tho.

First, undo the Sharpen Filter by doing Edit -> Undo Sharpen.  This way you’ll be back at the original blurry tack.

Next, bring up the Unsharp Mask dialog:

  • In CS3 go to Filter -> Sharpen -> Unsharp Mask…
  • In Elements 4.0, it’s also Filter -> Sharpen -> Unsharp Mask…
  • In Elements 6.0, it’s Enhance -> Unsharp Mask…
  • In GIMP, it’s Filters -> Enhance -> Unsharp Mask…

You’ll get a dialog that looks something like this:


There are three sliders that you can play with:

  • Amount – this controls how strong the effect will be.
  • Radius – this affects the distance between pixels where the sharpening will be applied — make it bigger for larger images (size wise) or smaller
  • Threshold – this controls the smoothness of the image.  If you have grainy areas, it means that the threshold is too low.

Where to start?  I’ve found several sites that recommend these settings for images that are going to be used on the web:

  • Amount – 400
  • Radius – .3
  • Threshold – 0

Then I usually slide the Threshold around like so:


I just play with the settings, tweaking them a little at a time.  Use the preview to get a visual on how it will look. After some practice you’ll get a feel for how they all work together. Also, try moving the sliders one at a time all the way to the left and to the right to see how it looks.  You can always slide it back!

I ended up stopping after sliding the Threshhold over to 79 and the Radius to .5:


Now for something really tacky — ha! — here’s what happens if you apply too much of the Unsharp Mask:


Yuck-o!  You know you’ve gone much far when the photo starts to look grainy and there are odd halos + colors around your image.  To fix it, just slide the Threshhold more to the right to smooth it out, then play with the Radius.

One last thing!  While you were in the Filters menu, you may have noticed some other sharpening options too — try playing around with them to see which you prefer.  Just because I don’t use them, doesn’t mean you won’t likey!

Oh and! The paper with the sweet vintage deer is from Sassafras Lass — I couldn’t resist it!  And, one more little tip — tacks are great for making holes in paper projects!

Have fun sharpening those images,

12 Replies to “Make your photos tack sharp! (sharpen + unsharp mask)”

  1. Woah!

    Forgive this but… You got MAD camera skills girl! Lol… :-)
    But seriously…. this is an awesome tip (and photo!). I’ve always done the “unsharp mask”… but the “sharpening’ part scares me b/c I’m afraid of doing too much of it. Do I just “eye it” or is there a rule of thumb for how much sharpening?

    Thanks Lisa! You’re making us all better! :-)

  2. […] read this tutorial that covers two ways to sharpen your […]

  3. Thank you for all those valuable tips! You’re fabulous!

  4. Oh, these tips come just in time for a blurry photo I was working on. Can’t wait to try it out! Thanks Lisa!! :)

  5. great tutorial! I’m hoping to play later today. You might help me learn PSE afterall!

  6. Thanks Lisa! That last part answered my question. Can’t wait to try this one out!

  7. What a great tutorial! I have been sharpening my images all along, but had never used the Unsharp Mask feature before- – brilliant!

    Thank you :)

  8. VERY cool to learn of the unsharpen mask. Never knew what that was for in GIMP. Great tutorial!

  9. […] I thought this would also be a great opportunity to join in on Lisa’s latest Scribble This! challenge. You can check out her tutorial on sharpening your images here. […]

  10. Hi Lisa,
    Wonderful tutorials and thanks so much for sharing.  A friend referred me to your blog when I asked her about improving the clarity of my photos for my blog.  My details just aren’t sharp.  I got my camera manual (Canon PowerShot SD500 Elph) out and learned how to set the white balance and that has helped some.  I would like to learn how to resize my images for posting on my blog.  I  want them to be large so my readers can see all the details.  I read your advice in the “sharpen” tutorial about resizing to 350 pixels, but I can’t seem to make that work.  I am using PSE7 and when I resize to 350 the photo is about the size of a spec of dust.  So I tried 3500 pixels but when the photo is posted to my blog, there is absolutely no difference in size than there was when I let Blogger size the photo.  What I have been doing to make the photos large is just dragging the corner of the photo outward  to enlarge it in the post window, but I am not satisfied.  The photos look grainy not sharp and clear as I want them to be.  Can you tell me  how to get clear, crisp and LARGE photos on my blog?
    Thanks so much,
    Linda Coughlin

  11. my goodness.  thank you for this — the very tutorial i’ve been looking for. :D

  12. THANKS so much for the tips – I had been automatically sharpening when I resized my picture but your tips make for a much sharper picture – Can’t wait to put them into practice!!

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