HDR Cookbook – Sharpening

Ancient Torture (HDR)Sharpening is a vital step in post-processing. Especially the HDR process tends to soften images. Most people use the Unsharp Mask filter to sharpen their images. While this usually works acceptably well, it has an important drawback: it is destructive. That is, is changes the actual pixels of the image layer it is applied to. Thus, you cannot easily undo it or change its intensity after you applied it. More importantly however, it cannot be easily applied to images that consist of blended layers (where different parts of the image are on different layers which are blended together using layer masks. In this case, you would have to apply the unsharp mask to each layer separately.

There is a quick an easy way around this using the High-Pass filer in Photoshop.

Requirements and Assumptions

  1. I assume that you have one layer that represents your image. You will need to copy this layer and apply the high-pass filter to it. If your image data is dispersed over multiple layers (e.g. two layers blended into each other using layer masks, then you will have to reduce these to a single layer which you can use for the sharpening. Select the layers in the Layers palette, right-click on one of them and select “Merge layers” from the popup menu.
  2. Any kind of retouching has to be completed before you do the sharpening! If you do the sharpening before the retouch (e.g. removing unwanted objects of artifacts) that shadows of these objects will remain in the sharpening layer and you have to redo the sharpening.


The whole process is rather simple:

  1. We make a copy of the image layer and set the layer mode to Overlay
  2. We apply the High-pass filter to this layer

Remarks before we start

Setting the zoom: Before you start applying any sharpening (no matter which method you use) set the zoom level to 100%, 50% or 25%. Any zoom level in between these will cause interpolation artifacts on the screen that will make it hard to judge the result.

Sharpening for print or screen (Internet): It is well-known that you need to sharpen more aggressively when you want to print the resulting image as opposed to when you want to have it displayed on-screen. Keep that in mind while you sharpen the image. How much more aggressively you have to apply the sharpening depends on the print size and other factors. A bit of experimenting is necessary here. As a rule of thumb: If it looks good on the screen, you may need to ramp it up a notch for printing to a point where you would say it is a bit too much.

Detailed Process

  1. Create a copy of the image layer. We will call this layer the “sharpening layer”. If you apply noise reduction, you should sharpen after the noise reduction step, and you should use the layer on which you reduced the noise. This ensures that your sharpening will not amplify any noise artifacts but only the edges in the image.
  2. Set the new copy’s layer mode (drop-down menu at the top of the Layers palette) to “Overlay”. You image will suddenly have an unnaturally high contrast. Don’t worry this will disappear.
  3. Position the sharpening layer before all other layers in the layer stack that carry relevant information.Only those pixels below the sharpening layer will be sharpened.
  4. Select the new layer copy and choose “High-Pass…” filter from the “Other” section of the “Filters” menu.
  5. In the dialog that appears set the slider to a value between 2 and 4, depending on the image content, the image size and your preferences. If you check the preview box in the dialog, you can see the effect directly in the image.
  6. Click Ok when you’re done.
  7. You can adjust the intensity of the sharpening at any time by setting the opacity of the new sharpening layer.

Selective Sharpening

Some images require selective sharpening where some parts of the image (e.g. the bricks in a wall) are sharpened while others (e.g. the sky) remain untouched. This can be easily achieved with the high-pass filter method as follows:

  1. Create a layer mask on the sharpening layer.
  2. When you only want to sharpen small regions, Invert the mask by selecting it and pressing Ctrl-I. The mask is now completely black.
  3. Use the white brush to reveal any part of it to sharpen the image in those areas.

A variant of this selective sharpening is the following:

  1. Select those parts of the image that you want to sharpen using any of the selection tools available to you.
  2. Select the sharpening layer and create a layer mask from the selection.
  3. You may want to apply a slight blur to the layer mask (e.g. with a Gaussian Blur filter with a radius between 2 and 5) if the sharpening has unnaturally harsh edges.

    Two selective sharpening layers – one for the chains (with a group mask) and one for the arches (with a layer mask)

Selective sharpening can also be easily combined with a general sharpening by having one global sharpening layer as explained at the beginning of this section and one or more sharpening layers for specific areas of the image with respective layer masks. Fine-tine the overall result by changing the opacities of these layers.

10 HDR Top Tips for FREE!
Join our newsletter to get this eBook and step up your HDR skills today!
You will receive: The free eBook + our regular email newsletter with tips, tutorials, news and product information… all for free!
100% Spam-Free - Easy Unsubscribe
21 replies
    • farbspiel
      farbspiel says:

      Hi Terrence,

      “flatten image” simply merges all layers. “merge layers” allows you to merge two or more specific layers. There is no difference in terms of image quality.


  1. Gary guest
    Gary guest says:

    Thanks for the information. I never do a lot of ajustment in my HDR photos, however after reading this artical and applying the adjustments I found a big difference in the out come of my shot. I have not posted any photos yet but I have played with it a bit more I will. Thanks a lot farbspiel.
    Will you ever print a book on this subject?

  2. Mark Brown
    Mark Brown says:


    I’d be willing to pay about 29.99 or so in US Dollars. I love books on photography and prefer turning pages to clicking on links and after all the masking you’ll have me doing, I think I’ll be clicking enough. Either way, thanks so much for all the tips, tricks and techniques!

    • farbspiel
      farbspiel says:

      Hi Mark!

      Wow! $29.99!!! Accepted! Let me just quickly swipe your credit card through here. 😉

      No, seriously! It’s good to hear how much the information would actually be worth for you. You got me thinking as to whether I shall publish this information in a more couch-friendly format.


  3. Granbunny
    Granbunny says:

    I was just referred to this site and am looking forward to trying your various techniques and magical hints.

    As to publishing: I’ve bought several of Jim Zuckerman’s books, his DVD’s, and two of his ebooks. I love his DVD’s when I’m having trouble with concepts, because it is though he is sitting right next to me explaining how something is done and I can put it on pause or play something over and over again without driving him crazy.

    I find the ebooks take less space than regular books and don’t require page flipping while sitting at the computer. I just copied them to my hard drive and they are easily accessible whenever I need them. They can also be copied to an Ipad or Kindle device (although I don’t have those).

    I’d be willing to pay the same price for your many tips in US dollars that you have online in the form of an ebook.

  4. eha1990
    eha1990 says:

    I would definitely like to see your website turned into a book or ebook, I’d pay whatever price you’d charge for the book. You have an excellent wealth of information here that other photographers charge for.

  5. nico
    nico says:


    Very good work and thank you for sharing knowledge
    I ask myself a question:
    In early development files in lightroom, CameraRAW … do you pre-sharp your images, or do you leave the sliders to 0 and make sharpening process in photoshop at the end of wokflow?
    Thank you in advance

  6. Roman Shymko
    Roman Shymko says:

    Hi Klaus,
    Thanks for another great article.Nice trick with High-Pass! I was using something like that but selecting the edges and then applying some sharpening to that selection. Your way is much easier to use.
    Now I’m using Sharpener Pro ©Nik Software. This tool give you nice features but I’ve tested the results and High-Pass method makes less noise in result image (when applying without masking to whole image).
    And I’m agree that sharpening has to be done in the end.
    Thanks again, Klaus! Nice article.

    • farbspiel
      farbspiel says:

      Thanks for sharing your process, Roman!

      There are many tools out there for sharpening. The High-Pass method is simple and yet effective, and it does not require any additional expenses.

      For more sophisticated sharpening, I can recommend Topaz InFocus, and Nik’s tool should also do a great job.


  7. David B
    David B says:

    Have you looked into the new features of Lightroom 4 and how they might work with your workflow?

    I’m greatly impressed with the LR4 features listed below:

    1. general image adjustment, highlights, shadows, clarity. these now work on 32bit tiffs and so can be used for final adjustments on the HDR file after alignment and merging.

    2. CA and fringing correction. These work VERY well. I am very impressed. It’s like buying a new set of high(er) end lenses.

    3. Noise reduction and sharpening with detail and masking controls. I understand these are improved features, though I haven’t tried older LR versions. I would like to hear if someone tests them compared to the dedicated applications you use.

    I don’t have Photoshop, other than old CS2, so I’m still looking for the best HDR app to use in conjunction with Lightroom4. I’m probably not going to shell out the bucks for a new Photoshop anytime soon. I do have PSE11, but the 8bit processing becomes a limitation quite often, even on non-HDR images.

    • farbspiel
      farbspiel says:

      Hi David,

      I don’t use LR. So, I cannot really comment on the features. What I do know however, is that the Raw engie is the same as in Adobe Camera Raw, which is excellent. Overall, LR is certainly well capable. It’s the weapon of choice for many professional photographers.

      The best HDR app? That’s tough. It depends on your taste. Try out a few and compare the results.


  8. Daniel
    Daniel says:

    Hi Klaus,

    thank you for another great article. Do you think that Topaz InFocus is creating better sharpening results than high-pass-filter? What is your experience and do you have some recommendations for the slider values in Topaz InFocus?

    I would love to hear your comment.

    great work! (also the ebook)


  9. Jan
    Jan says:

    Hi Klaus,

    your work and this site is just incredible. I am writing it as a beginner photographer but also as a person who is engaged with information marketing himself. Only I do not know, what are you going to sell finally. Maybe nothing, you may do it really from your heart, which is simply great. Just small tip, you can affiliate some products, for example I am going to buy topaz on your recommendation and you will get nothing out of that.
    This trick is gorgeous. I am getting much better result from it than from topaz – but I havent learned it well enough yet.



Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *