Photoshop Tools: Smart Sharpen vs Unsharp Mask

Do you use Unsharp Mask? If so you might find it interesting that, according to Bryan O’Neil Hughes (Senior Product Manager Adobe Photoshop), it was designed for scanned images and not sharpening photographs. The actual tool of choice for sharpening pictures in CS6 is Smart Sharpen. (Adobe has been studying users habits and have noted that there is a resistance to using any tool labeled “Smart”).

In Smart Sharpen you have three modes of operation. When this filter is set to ‘Remove: Gaussian Blur’ it performs the exact same function that Unsharp Mask does. However, there is another mode ‘Remove: Lens Blur’ that was specifically designed for sharpening photos (The third option is ‘Remove: Motion Blur’.)

Additionally, unlike Unsharp Mask, you can save your favorite settings as presets. There is also an Advanced mode where you have additional options to control the effect in shadows and highlights (Unsharp Mask has only a universal Threshold slider).

Both of these filters are best used when you copy the layer you want to sharpen. After sharpen the image as desired you then set the Layer Blend mode to Luminosity (thereby avoiding any color fringing). If you are using the tools on a Smart Object/Layer, you can set just the filter to Luminosity (real power now as the layer itself could be a different blend mode).

Here is a comparison of results. They are overly strong to make it easier to see the difference.

Original Image:

In this first image, Unsharp Mask was used with Amount: 200, Radius: 5.0, Threshold: 25:
While the colors are more contrasty, the borders still look smudgy and overall the image is garish.

In this second rendition, Smart Sharpen (Remove: Lens Blur) is set to Amount: 200, Radius: 5.0, Shadow = Fade Amount: 50% Tonal Width: 50% Radius: 1px, Highlight = Fade Amount: 25% Tonal Width: 75% Radius: 5px:
Notice how much clearer the weave of her hat is. Also the color in her legs has been preserved and there is better transition between light and dark elements. The overall image looks ‘more real’ and there is even some sharpening of the background bushes (if you wanted to preserve the bokeh of the background you could apply a layer mask and paint out those areas).

Have a great weekend!



One Response to “Photoshop Tools: Smart Sharpen vs Unsharp Mask”

  1. Great tutorial Dana. I learned something new. Enjoy your weekend.

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