PSA: Say Farewell to Unsharp Mask When Sharpening Your Photos


Unsharp Mask: the sharpening filter of choice for photographers everywhere. It’s a fantastic tool that can really take an image to the next level when used correctly and I’m here to tell you that you should never use it again. That’s right, bid it a fond adieu and stop using Unsharp Mask. Forever.

“But Sam,” you say. “How do you expect me to sharpen my images? And more importantly, why the hell should I listen to you?” Excellent question, you perspicacious photographer, you. And my answer is that you shouldn’t listen to me, you have no reason to trust my judgment. However, you have every reason to listen to a man named Bryan O’Neil Hughes.

Sound familiar? Maybe not, but as the Senior Product Manager and primary worldwide spokesperson for Photoshop, he might know a thing or two about the ins and outs of sharpening.

Hughes recently gave a workshop where he highlighted his Lightroom/Photoshop workflow and he mentioned Adobe’s opt-in program called “Headlights” that tracks and compiles information about user habits. One of the problems plaguing the Photoshop team, he explained, was getting people to use tools with “smart” or “quick” in the names. Apparently if you name prefix a tool with smart (Smart Sharpen) or quick (Quick Select) people tend to think they’re smarter and quicker.

He went on to explain that in Creative Suite 6, when set to “Remove: Guassian Blur,” Smart Sharpen performs the exact same function that Unsharp Mask does, which was designed for scanned images and not digital photographs.

Smart Sharpen Guassian Blur copy

When sharpening your pictures, you’re better suited setting Smart Sharpen to “Remove: Lens Blur,” which was designed for digital photographs.

Smart Sharpen Lens Blur copy

Additionally, if you change the radio button from “Basic” to “Advanced,” you are given the option to fine-tune the shadows and highlights, which allows much more control than the single “Threshold” slider on Unsharp Mask.

Smart Sharpen Shadow copy

Smart Sharpen Highlight copy

Finally, you always want to make sure you change the blend mode of your sharpening layer to “Luminosity” to remove any possible color fringing in your final output. Or, if you’re using Smart Objects (always a good idea), you can double-click the icon to the right of the Smart Sharpen filter to change the blend mode independently of any other filters you may have on that layer.

Luminosity Layer copy

Luminosity Smart Filter copy

Smart Objects and Smart Filters are enormously powerful tools and you should be using them at all times. But that is a topic for another article.

About the author: When Sam Seitz isn’t annoying his roommates with long-winded talks of the miniscule minutiae of photography, he’s a student at the University of Kansas who enjoys the color green and the seductive scent of petrichor. You can find his photos on Flickr.

  • Tony Carretti

    Thanks! Good tip, and one that will take some getting used to…

  • Mike

    Well, I still scan a lot of film. So Unsharp mask still gets used.

  • Alessio Michelini

    What about the High-Pass filter in overlay mode? It’s way better than unsharp mask IMHO

  • Everson Bernardes

    You can use Smart Sharpen: Gaussian Blur. It’s the same engine the Unsharp Mask uses, but with the added capability of tweaking Shadows and Highlights.

  • Jake

    What if I only use Lightroom 4’s sharpening? Is there a significant difference that would make it worth taking the extra time to open PS?

  • Dan

    PSA? I thought this had something to do with the prostate.

  • Roman

    Interesting… I was ok with Unsharp Mask. Now I will have to experiment with a new toy ;)

  • Zos Xavius

    Its a double edged sword. It brings out noise too. It sharpens the edges more than anything IMO. Smart sharpen works really well. I do use high pass for extreme enlargements to give crisper lines.

  • Zos Xavius

    Sharpen in lr just sharpens. Smart sharpen in PS is superior. You should sharpen your raws a bit in lr though. It helps. Just don’t go overboard.

  • piergi


  • Caitlyn Chapman

    Yeah Alessio I’m with you. I love High-Pass, just have to try not to overdo it.

  • ulfdson

    so it´s 2013 and now the author gets it…..
    well ist nothing new…

  • 1on1

    or you just use nik software sharpener.

  • 1on1

    well every sharpen tool brings out noise too.

    high pass is great because it ignores everything but the edges if done right.
    and often you just want to sharpen edges and not textures.

  • boooooring

    scott kelby teaches this for 4 years or since there is smart sharpen in PS… yawn.

  • David Liang

    How about if it ain’t broke don’t fix it? I mean this is actually useful stuff no doubt, but if no ones complaining about unsharp mask why change the workflow?

  • Mike

    I haven’t used USM or Smart Sharpen for a few years. I have been very happy using the High-Pass filter. Yes, it can bring out noise, but the majority of the noise is in areas that don’t need to be sharpened too much. Since the sharpening is done on it’s own layer, I simply add a layer mask and paint out the areas where the sharpening is doing more harm than good.

  • Alessio Michelini

    if you use it well it doesn’t bring any noise at all ;-)

  • Jason Philbrook

    There’s not really anything in this photo to sharpen? It’s a smooth photo of apparent liquid. It’s like using John Candy to illustrate supermodel photography.

  • lidocaineus

    The sentence “Apparently if you name prefix a tool with smart (Smart Sharpen) or quick (Quick Select) people tend to think they’re smarter and quicker,” is a little awkward because what are people smarter and quicker than? The tool? They think that using the tool makes them smarter and quicker? Those are relative terms but the sentence isn’t making comparisons.

  • joannesmacky54ff

    Its a double edged sword. It brings out noise too. It sharpens the edges
    more than anything IMO. Smart sharpen works really well. I do use high
    pass for extreme enlargements to give crisper lines.

  • babola

    Exactly, and he covers all 4 sharpening techniques available in PS, with Smart Sharpen with removing the Lens Blur being his personal favourite for digital photos.

  • Zivko Radic

    The differences between the two sharpening methods are actually smaller than some would lead you to believe, most of the times and on most digi photos non-discernible. Don’t fret, you did nothing wrong by using Unsharp mask method in the past.

  • mooboy

    So you’re still shooting with a first generation digital camera?

  • evo

    please leave, moron

  • Enriqueta Brasini

    just before I looked at the paycheck four $7588, I be certain that…my… neighbour was like actualey bringing home money parttime at there labtop.. there aunts neighbour haz done this 4 only about 20 months and just now cleard the loans on their condo and bourt a great Audi Quattro. read more at,……… BIT40.ℂom

  • Ian Smith

    Has anyone else tried Luko’s sharpening technique? It has been around for some time, and utilises USM with fade that improves fine contrast in a way and makes the High Pass filter look ridiculous. I first encountered it on Manny Librodo’s work, and if you adjust it correctly it can work wonders.

  • Slvrscoobie

    This isnt in ACR and is outside my workflow, so I dont think ill be going back and opening every file in PS and working on it individually. A good ‘extra’ step process when Im touching up sure, but, this isnt a workflow option.

  • Dennis Dunbar

    While Brian’s tips on this filter are interesting I’m concerned about the lack of Threshold control in this filter. Without the ability to control the Threshold how can I make sure unwanted Noise does not get sharpened too?

  • S

    Sharpening in LAB with the black channel only is my way. This method is quick and dose a very good job with very low noise!

  • JoanieGranola

    You’re misunderstanding the pronoun “they’re”. The word isn’t referring to the people thinking they’re smarter and quicker; it’s the people thinking the tool is smarter and quicker. Since the tool is inanimate, the writer should’ve said “Apparently if you name a prefix tool with a smart (Smart Sharpen) or quick (Quick Select), people tend to think it’s smarter and quicker”.

  • JoanieGranola

    By using a mask on a smart object — I believe he alludes to that at the end of the article.

  • lidocaineus

    You can still refer to the objects as “they’re”. The problem is the writer used comparisons (smarter/quicker) without saying what they were smarter and quicker than (probably other tools not prefix-named smart or quick). Using it’s would remove some ambiguity, but proper grammar for comparisons expects actual… comparisons :)

  • Deanism

    This article is high school and not industry trained nor thought out with any credibility. Sam learn about sharpening. Use unsharp mask with alpha channels. Better than lab method, or the ‘smart’ shite.