Improved sharpness without noise in Photoshop

Sharpness vs noise noise reduction: you do your best to optimize one, only to break the other. You can tweak until you find some mediocre comprise. Or you can use a few simple tricks to optimize both at the same time, which is what you’ll learn to do in this video.

The key to the process is to optimize both separately and then use a luminosity mask to selectively reveal them in areas where the image benefits.

A quick note on the luminosity mask I created in the video. You might be wondering why I didn’t just use “Select Sky” in PS. I did try that, and the result is that a lot of the buildings are partially included in the result because Select Sky has very soft edges. Using that a a mask would have resulted in a lot of loss in the building detail as the noise reduction would have been applied to much more than just the sky.


Noise Reduction:

Be sure to check out my previous video on how to optimize noise reduction in LR / ACR. You’ll need a way to apply a mask to the noise reduction. So if you’re using LR/ACR, you should either creating a duplicate of your layer or apply the noise reduction as a Camera RAW filter on your Smart Object so that you can use a filter mask. Keep in mind that any noise reduction or sharpening you do on the original RAW may affect the results of subsequent changes, so it’s best to keep the original RAW adjustments modest so that you can still apply either in an optimal way to it externally. For example, your noise reduction probably won’t work as well if you apply it after sharpening.

There are a variety of ways you can create the filter mask. Often the simplest is some combination of the quick select tool and luminosity selections to help paint in the target area with clean edges. In many cases (such as this image), you just need to mask the sky and can directly apply a luminosity mask in one step.



In the past, I used deconvolution sharpening as my primary capture sharpening. It’s still a great option, but I find myself using it more as a starting point these days. Try pulling the details slider left and increasing the amount to get more sharpening with less noise/artifacts (keep the radius very small). And there are numerous great ways to apply creative sharpening such as high pass, smart sharpen, unsharp, and a wide range of 3rd party tools.

Whichever sharpening methods you use, the key is to apply it selectively with a layer mask so that you only apply it where it is beneficial. If you’ve created a high quality mask for noise reduction, you can probably just use an inverted copy of that mask to get the job done. Lumenzia also offers tools to avoid sharpening halos by helping to automatically mask out edges when you sharpen.


Workflow to optimize both sharpness and noise reduction:

  1. Open your image as a RAW Smart Object in PS. Adjust everything as you like, but leave the sharpening and noise reduction off.
  2. Apply the Camera RAW filter (or your preferred de-noising filter) to it with optimal noise reduction. Then use a filter mask to restrict it to the areas that need it, such as clear skies, water, and smooth surfaces. (You could do this with a layer mask on a copy of the layer, but that creates an unnecessary layer and increases file size without any benefit).
  3. Create another regular (not independent) copy of the Smart Object and apply a Camera RAW filter (or your preferred sharpening filter) to it with optimal sharpening only. You may then safely add creative sharpening on top of the the capture sharpening. Then use a layer mask to restrict it to the areas that need it. You can probably just use an inverted copy of the filter mask, so <cmd/ctrl>-click the filter mask to make it a selection, select the sharpening layer, click the new layer mask icon to render the selection as a mask, and click <cmd/ctrl>-I to invert it.
  4. If you are blending exposures, you can put these layers into a group and put a luminosity mask on the group the same way you would have directly onto a single layer when blending it. You can copy all the masks and filters to save time (hold <alt/option> before clicking and dragging to duplicate rather than move a mask).
Greg Benz Photography