High Pass Filter Sharpening + Free Action!

Hello, everyone! I’m back with an article on how to do high pass sharpening in Adobe Photoshop and Elements. Keep reading for the tutorial and the link to the free action I created using the high pass filter. The freebie will be available at my Pixels & Co. store starting this Friday, 5/17/13.

The High Pass Filter makes me think of an awesomely gorgeous mountain pass high in the Andes. But in reality, it can be used to provide sharpening to your photos.

water droplet sharp for high pass

Keep in mind that there are many ways to sharpen your photos. There is the Unsharp Mask method, the Smart Sharpen method, the LAB lightness channel method, and combinations of all of those.  Add in High Pass Filter, and it starts to get difficult to decide what to use when!

I find that for most everyday uses, it doesn’t actually matter that much which method you use. If you’re emailing the picture to friends and family for fun, posting it on Facebook, or printing a 4×6″ copy, you probably won’t be able to tell much difference between the various sharpening  techniques. It becomes more critical when you’re working on a very special picture, printing something at large sizes, if you’re entering a photo contest, or if you’re displaying your work for clients.  In those cases, it’s a good idea to test out several different sharpening methods on your photo to see which works best.

If you want to give High Pass Filter a try, you can do it in either Photoshop or Elements. The High Pass filter works by finding lines in the photo and increasing the contrast around them.  You get to select how strong the effect will be by pulling a slider bar back and forward.  Here’s a sample workflow.

This following procedure works the EXACT same way in both Photoshop and Elements 11, although my screenshots are from Photoshop.

Start with a picture and make a duplicate copy of it. Then select Filter — Other — High Pass.The duplicate layer will suddenly look gray with grayish outlines, and you will get a dialog box with a slider bar that you get to adjust. I usually start with about 5, but try pulling the bar back and forward to see how the picture changes. The more dramatic the outlines in that box, the more sharpening you will get. Sometimes less is more, though — too much sharpening, as with any method, can look fake with obvious halo outlines around edges in the photo.

Once you like the look of the lines, hit OK.  Now change the layer style on the duplicate layer  from Normal to Overlay. Adjust the opacity until it looks “right” to you, somewhere between 20-80%.

Here are some screen shots to help you better  understand the technique.

high pass document page 1 web

Once you have duplicated your background layer, you can run the High Pass Filter on it.

high pass document page 7 web

high pass document page 2 webYou can pull the slider bar back and forth to change the radius. As you do that, you will see the line edges in the gray picture get more or less contrasty. The more contrast you see – the higher the radius – the more sharpening you will get.

high pass document page 6 web

Once you have selected the radius, hit OK.  Now, click once on the High Pass layer in your layer palette to select it. Change the layer mode from Normal to Overlay. You will see the picture change from gray back to color, although it will look a lot contrastier.

high pass document page 3 web

Now change the opacity of the layer from 100% down to around 40% to see how you like it. If it looks good, stop there! If it’s too sharp and contrasty, reduce further. If you liked it higher, change it back. This part, like adjusting the radius on the high pass, is up to your eye to determine what works for the photograph. As you become familiar with the High Pass filter, you can try using Hard Light, Vivid Light, or another setting instead of Overlay. This will change the look of the sharpening in your photo, and some people prefer these setting to Overlay.

high pass document page 4 web

You can do this in Photoshop Elements, too.  In Elements, open the picture you want to sharpen.  Then in the menu, you go to Filter — Other — High Pass, just as in Photoshop. You do the exact same steps as above. This is one of the few techniques that works exactly the same way in both programs!

I hope this gave you the confidence and knowledge to try out the high pass filter.  I use it for sharpening photos myself, in addition to the LAB method and the Smart Sharpen method — and I hope it works well for you, too!

I have a free action for you that uses the high pass filter. It will be available starting this Friday, 5/17/13, so please check back on Friday to get the download link!  I’m excited to share it with you all. Here’s the sneak preview of the kit cover:

high pass preview template

If you have questions,  thoughts or comments about sharpening, please share! And thanks for reading.



Sharpening Your Photos – Methods & Techniques

pink flower sharpened web

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been confused about when to use Sharpen, Unsharp, High Pass Filter, or Lab Sharpening. Raise two hands if you’ve never even heard of some of these.

I do a LOT of sharpening on my photographs, and I will tell you which techniques work best for me in various situations, and why I use them.  I also have a free Sharpening Action Set called Sharpen Up! Available at Pixels & Co. so you can try out a few of the techniques.  (You do have to register as a site member to download it, but the site won’t spam you, I promise!)

sharpening preview Valencia

Why do people even need to sharpen pictures? The main reason is to make details look sharper and crisper, especially if the picture is “soft” to start.  Crisp details are very appealing to the human eye, and we tend to prefer pictures with good focus and crisp details.  Sharpening can’t bring back detail in a picture that is badly focused or has a lot of motion blur, but it CAN take a good photo and help it look outstanding.  And if you apply selective sharpening to specific areas of the photograph, you can help draw the eye quickly to the main subject.

Sharpening  works  by finding the boundaries between color changes in pixels, and making those boundaries more obvious — in a way it darkens darks and lightens lights where they meet up.  A little of this can make a photograph “pop” but too much can add a fake looking “halo” around certain objects in the photo. This distracts from the overall image and makes it obvious that the picture was over-sharpened.


sharpening example page 2 web

Click on the graphic below to make it larger. You can easily see the differences between the original, the sharpened version, and the over-sharpened version when you look at the petal edge and the green background.

sharpening example page 3 webHere’s another close-up where you can see the oversharpened “halo” around edges of parts of the inside of the flower.

sharpening example page 5 web

There are many discussions about what sharpening technique is best and why.  Several common Photoshop techniques are:

  • Smart Sharpen
  • Unsharp Mask
  • LAB Sharpening
  • High Pass Filter Sharpening
  • Combination:  Smart Sharpen — Unsharp Mask — Fade Luminosity

Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask is still one of the most popular ways to sharpen a picture. It does make the picture sharper overall, even though the word “unsharp” in included. (This term is a carry-over work from an old film photography technique.)  Also very popular is the Smart Sharpen feature, which has more control than the Unsharp Mask.  Many photographers prefer to use Smart Sharpen — which is newer — than Unsharp mask, claiming that they have greater control over the sharpening, and that there is less halo creation when Smart Sharpen is used.  If you don’t get carried away and over-sharpen, Smart Sharpen can be a very good technique. Sometimes, though, it can make parts of the picture look too sharp when others still don’t look sharp enough.  In this case you can use a layer mask to erase the additional sharpening where it is not needed, and add sharpening where it is.

LAB sharpening is a technique in which the photo is converted from the original RGB color to the L A B color space, sharpening is applied to just the luminosity channel (the black and white data), and then the picture is converted back into RGB color.  Many people feel that this method gives a good overall sharpening without obvious halo artifacts.

LAB color space consists of a Lightness Channel, an a channel (for green and magenta) and a b channel (for yellow and blue.)  If you convert a picture to LAB, it will then have those three channels. You can select the Lightness channel and apply sharpening to it using Unsharp Mask or Smart Sharpen before converting the image back to RGB.

I like the way LAB sharpening works and use it often on portraits and general pictures.  I  always do the sharpening on a copy of my original, and mask out areas where sharpening should not appear (skin, etc.)

water droplet not sharpened web

Photograph Harold Davis has a great tutorial at Photo.net about using the LAB method for sharpening photos.  He comments that LAB is useful because you can sharpen just the black and white areas, which are usually the lines between objects or the separation areas that NEED sharpening:  “Many shapes are outlined in black, so black is what you want to sharpen,” and that you can avoid the unattractive look that color pixels get when they are sharpened by using the LAB technique. He also explains why he may apply sharpening in multiple passes to the same photograph in order to provide the optimal amount of sharpening to different areas of the picture. (Harold Davis, article available here.)

Even if you don’t really “get” what LAB is,  (most people don’t really get it, even if they sharpen using LAB) — try using the LAB sharpening method anyway. You may end up really liking the results!  One of my sharpening actions in the freebie uses the LAB method, so if you have Photoshop CS2+ you can try it out and see how you like it!

I’m certainly not against researching and understanding the technical aspects of how sharpening works. I’m an engineer, so I actually enjoy reading the technical details! But I believe it’s crucial to do the hands-on work of actually trying multiple techniques on the same photo to see how the techniques work, and when they are best for YOU.

The High Pass Filter method for sharpening also involves finding and sharpening edges preferentially. To use this method, you start by duplicating your background layer. Then you apply the High Pass Filter to the top layer, change the layer from normal to Overlay, and adjust the opacity.  Choosing the right values for the High Pass Filter and the opacity of the layer are where the art comes in — each photograph may require a different value.  However, many photographers like this method because it’s easy and effective.

So how do you choose which to use and when?  Through trial and error, here’s what I like to do.

Portraits:  LAB sharpening. Why? It gives a nice crisp overall sharpness without making the skin too pixelated and without adding halos.  Even so, I still often use a mask to erase sharpening where it is definitely NOT wanted, such as skin.

General Photos – flowers, landscapes, etc:  Combination of Smart Sharpen, Unsharp, and then immediately Fade Luminosity at 100%. This gives the effect (supposedly) of sharpening just the lightness channel, as in the LAB method.  I like using this method on pictures that have lots of fine details, like flowers or tree branches. I just have to be sure that I don’t make it look too “crispy” and fake.

Sharpening Low-Res Pictures (800dpi) scrapbook layouts for web: Unsharp Mask with settings of amount = 150%, radius = 0.3, threshold = 0.  When I use “save for web” afterwards, these settings seem to get the 700 or 800dpi photos a good crisp look that works well in the scrapbook site galleries.

 Here’s a sample work-flow using a sharpening technique.

  1. Start with the photo to be sharpened.
  2. Duplicate the background layer.
  3. On the duplicate layer, select Filter — Sharpen — Smart Sharpen.
  4. Use settings Amount = 75%, radius = 0.6, angle = 0, Remove: Lens Blur.
  5. Then select Filter — Sharpen — Unsharp Mask.
  6. Use Settings Amount = 55%, radius = 0.7, threshold = 4.
  7. Then go into Edit — Fade Unsharp Mask.
  8. Use Settings 100% and under the drop down arrow for Mode, select Luminosity. Then OK.
  9. Now you have a sharpened layer on top of your unsharpened b/g layer. Add a layer mask and brush in the areas where you do NOT want sharpening.

I mentioned that I like this method for general sharpening of landscapes & random pictures of things. For people, though, I sometimes prefer the LAB method, and then I mask it out in areas of the face where it’s too strong or where it created a halo.  Here’s an example of how the Smart Sharpen/Unsharp/Fade Luminosity compares to the LAB method.

sharpening example page 6 webIn the close up, you can see that there is not really too much difference between the methods for this particular pictures of a tree at sunset.

sharpening example page 7 web

But in this example of a portrait, you can see the difference more clearly between the techniques. The LAB does a better job sharpening edges and not making the colored areas pixel-y.  It does oversharpen the facial edges by nostrils and chin, and those will need to be masked out.

sharpening example page 8 web

sharpening example page 9 web

In a future post, I’ll show more about how to use the high pass filter for sharpening. But I hope that this tutorial gave you a new insight into using the LAB method to sharpen in Photoshop. Give it a try if you have never used it. See what you think! It might end up being your secret final step to a perfect photo.

Thanks for reading!

Skin Softening Made Easy!

Hello, everyone! Today I want to teach you how to soften skin on a Photoshop portrait.  You may have noticed that the extremely high resolution of today’s digital cameras mean that every pore, wrinkle and blemish is quite faithfully reproduced and possibly even made more prominent, depending on the lighting. I often rely on Photoshop techniques to soften the skin to a more gentle look for professional portraits.

I do sell an action to soften skin at Pixels & Co.,  and of course I’m going to market that here (ha!), but I’m also going to give you a tutorial on how to do it yourself, too.

Skin Softening Valencia  preview

There are several common techniques that I’ve found from researching the web and books on Photoshop editing: Surface Blur, Gaussian Blur, and the green channel technique.  It’s ALWAYS important to do the softening on a separate layer and mask it in. That means to apply it just where you want it, like on forehead, cheeks, neck — NOT on the eyes and mouth, where you want sharp details & shine.

First step: open a portrait that might benefit from some skin softening. Here’s a picture of me. As you can see, I have the dewy skin of a 19-year-old model (<—SARCASM ALERT!), but just for the heck of it, let’s apply some softening anyway.  I start by duplicating my background layer and renaming it as Softening Layer.


Next, I’m going to use the Surface Blur technique on the Skin Softening Layer.  To do this, select FILTER from the top menu bar on your Photoshop screen.  You’ll select FILTER, BLUR, and SURFACE BLUR. A dialog box will pop up. Enter Radius = 14 and Threshold = 6.

blog-example-2Now you’ll see that the entire picture looks softer and a bit blurrier.  In fact, it will probably be  TOO blurry.  Here’s now to fix it. We’re going to change the opacity of the layer to where it looks just right (this will vary with each photograph you adjust, but start at 50% and see if you like it.)  We will also add a mask to the softening layer. Then we will brush away the areas that should NOT be soft — places like eyes, skin, eyebrows, hair.

blog-example-4This is a quick and easy technique to gently soften skin on photos with harsh, direct light that make pores and wrinkles look too apparent.  Just be careful not to over soften the skin. Using the softening at 100% can look plastic and fake. Adjust opacity of the softening layer until it looks right to you.  I always want people to look at the picture and say, “Wow, I look good!” instead of, “Yikes, what did she do to my skin?” Click on the picture below to enlarge it so you can see the differences between them.


There are more elaborate techniques to soften skin, too. One that I love involves splitting the picture up into its component channels (red / blue / green), and using the green channel as a mask to apply softening.  I find that this gives a very natural-looking softening in just the right areas of skin.  You can also add a texture layer to add some texture back IN after you’ve softened the skin. This might seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes it looks good to remove the “real” texture and add “fake” texture in for a very smooth, even skin appearance. In addition, I usually add a brightness/contrast layer once I’ve softened the skin, too. This is because adding the softening can also take away some of the natural shine of the skin, and by adding the brightness layer, I can get that back in.

Obviously this is not something you would do on each and every portrait — advanced techniques are usually done on those very special portraits on which you’re willing to spend a lot of time and energy.  Usually, to be honest, I love people just the way they are, wrinkles and all.  For my everyday pictures of myself, my family and my friends, I don’t soften skin. But clients don’t necessarily love to see their wrinkles highlighted by bright lighting, so softening can come in VERY handy!  And sometimes, like when my 19-year-old skin is just pretending to be 41-year-skin, I might pop out the action and run it on my own photo.

I wrote an action using this sophisticated green channel technique that is available for CS2+ Photoshop users at Pixels & Co.Unfortunately, I cannot make that technique available for Elements, because the Elements program does not allow channel splitting on RGB files.  However, you can still use the Gaussian Blur and Surface Blur techniques in Elements for skin softening!  In fact, the action that runs in Elements uses the Surface Blur technique.

If you do want to buy my action at Pixels & Co, I promise that I will be available to help you use it if you’re stuck, confused, or just a first-time action user. You can IM me through Pixels & Co or send me an email through this site, and I will get back to you ASAP with advice. I really love using actions, and I hope it can make your workload easier, too!

Thanks for reading along, and have a great day hanging out and/or softening skin.  :)



Pixels & Co iNSD Blog Hop!

Hello, everyone, it’s Jennifer Valencia here, and  I’m excited to be part of the Pixels & Co.  iNSD DESIGNER blog hop!

How this works:  Visit each of the 19 Pixels & Co. designer blogs in order, and collect the special letter or number from each blog.  Once you have all the pieces, return to the main Pixels & Co. site and use the letters/numbers in the order they were collected as a coupon code to download the blog hop kit for FREE.  Keep reading to find my letter at the end of this blog post, and a link to your next site. Here’s a preview of the kit!

*Pixels & Co. is zooming with traffic and customers. The owner is aware of the site slowdown and the team is working hard to increase server response. Please try back if you can’t get on right away. It’s a great kit, and we definitely want you to have it!  *


A bit about me: I write actions and photography eBooks for Pixels & Co.   I love using actions because they make my work quicker and easier.  Some of my favorite actions are the High Key Black and White  and the Black and White Beautiful because my clients love the clean timeless look of black and white, and I love b/w too (especially when I want to use a specific kit that I LOVE but my photos clash!)


In this post I want to cover two topics. First is how to use my part of the free kit. And second, I want to talk a bit about aperture — it’s one of the most common questions I get about photography.

How To Use The Action Set: Retro Postcards

My part of the free kit is an  action set for you called Retro Postcards, which runs in Adobe CS4+ and Elements 11.  These actions give a vintage, retro feel to a photo.

Retro Action Valencia Template

I love this orange chair at my parents’ home in Chicago – and I adore how the kids are  nestled together. I wanted to try a retro/vintage look  for fun, and then I wanted to erase the “retro-ness” on their faces –  b/c kids’ faces are just not meant to be retro, am I right? Here’s how I did it.


First I started with a photograph in CS4.  I made sure that my photograph file consisted of just one layer called Background. (That’s what your layer is always called, unless you change it deliberately.)  My actions are designed to run with Background as the starting layer.

I ran the Basic Retro action and ended up with these layers on top of my background. Note: I usually write my actions to be non-destructive (the background layer is still there), and I make the color layers editable. Although it may look daunting to see a big stack of layers there, I do this because it gives you more options to tailor and tweak the action. I just hate it when I run an action that merges all the layers down so I can’t tweak them — if I don’t like the results, I have no options! I spend a lot of time writing the actions, and I want you to be able to use them as effectively as I do on my own photos.


As you can see, there is a stack of layers, some visible and some invisible. Again, I do this to give you OPTIONS and hopefully make it very easy for you to use the action. Here’s an example of what to do with all of these layers!

retro-sample-5For these pictures, I merged all of the adjustment layers into one, and added a layer mask. Then I painted over their faces to let the background show from below. Voila! Vintage postcard with natural skin – just what I wanted.


You can change the look of the photo by adjusting opacity of the layers, or editing them directly. Here’s an example using the Retro Bold Action on a skyline in Vancouver:

retro-bold-sample-1Here’s the way to tweak the Retro Bold Action results.  (If you’re wondering: The reason I didn’t officially “group” the results is because I wrote the action to run in either Photoshop OR Elements, and the groupings are hard to ungroup in Elements.  Sometimes I write separate actions for Photoshop & Elements, but in this case, it’s just the same action that works in both programs.)


Some information about aperture.

I wrote a post about depth of field at the Pixels & Co. blog, which I hope you get a chance to read.  I’ve also put some excerpts from my eBook Captivating Candids here to help explain the basics of aperture. Please feel free to stop by the Pixels & Co. forums to ask any questions you have about photography or scrapping!



candids-section-10-apertureI hope that brief overview of aperture helped explain the concepts. And I hope that you try out my action that comes with the free kit!


 And now for the blog hop specific information:

My letter  is:  G

The next site you need to visit is Tiffany’s, at her site Simply Tiffany Studios.


Here is the entire list of blogs in order. Have fun!

Start Here
Jennifer Valencia Photography  <—  This is ME!  My letter is G.
Simply Tiffany Studios
The Queen of Quirk
Mye De Leon
Dawn by Design
The Ardent Sparrow
Robyn Meierotto
Karen Funk
Crystal Livesay
Scotty Girl Design
Karla Dudley
Wild Blueberry Ink
Deena Rutter
Celeste Knight
Jeryn Carlisi
Gennifer Bursett

Rule Of Thirds

Whether you’re a photography novice or an expert, it’s always fun and useful to review basic concepts. I’ve been shooting for years, and I love reading good articles about photographic composition — even if I “know” the rules, seeing fresh new examples helps spark new, creative ideas for me.


Rule Of Thirds

Composition “rules” were developed as people studied why certain photographs (and other works of art) were striking and eye-catching; by using some of these rules you can often improve your photography.


Basic: Off-center subject = photo that is pleasing and dynamic to the human eye. Don’t put your subject smack dab in the center of the frame!

Details: Imagine that your picture is divided into thirds with lines, both horizontally and vertically. Place your main subject along one of the lines or intersection points for an interesting photo. You can also just shift your view so the main subject is slightly off-center.

Horizons: Don’t automatically put your horizon right in the middle of the picture. Photos can look more dynamic if you locate the horizon line at the upper 1/3 or lower 1/3 of the photo. Before you snap, test it out and decide where it looks best.

Rule of Thirds for Portraits: Try to fill the frame with a person’s head, shoulders, torso; locate the face and eyes at the 1/3 point. I automatically do this for snapshots unless I’m going for a full-body shot, head-shot, or something else. But my basic “go to” shot for quick grabs always uses the rule of thirds to locate the face and eyes.

Landscape and large scenes: Try to locate a main point of interest or a broad horizontal line in the portrait at a 1/3 point. You can also use leading lines to help guide a viewer’s eye through the photograph. (Leading lines are strong horizontal, vertical, diagonal or wavy lines that grab attention and pull the eye through a photo.)

Rule of Thirds for Close-ups: Sometimes an object looks better centered. But often it will look better off-center. Remember to test it out both ways before deciding!

Exceptions: If it looks better in the center, then leave it right there! Sometimes a centered image IS exactly what you need. You be the judge – test it both ways before deciding. Keep in mind that all rules are made to be broken, and that these are just starting points. You are always going to be the final judge on what makes a photograph meaningful and beautiful to YOU.


More Background: Where did the Rule of Thirds come from? It’s derived from The Golden Mean / Golden Rectangle. As far back as the ancient Greeks, artists and architects have used the Golden Mean in their work when designing. A golden rectangle is one whose length and height are related by phi, 1.618. Because this number occurs frequently in nature, it’s believed that people emulated it in art in order to represent the beauty and perfection that can arise in nature, or that people naturally LIKE things that have the golden ratio because subconsciously they appreciate this ratio which can often indicate the best possible natural scenario. Many scholars believe that the Parthenon in Greece was designed using 1.618 — the length and height are related in equation with 1.618. Leonardo da Vinci used the Golden Ratio extensively in his art, as did many other artists.