Sharpening with the High Pass Filter

March 20, 2018

Over the past weeks, we’ve been looking at the proper sequence to photo editing:

  1. Crop, straighten and resize.
  2. Correct any lighting issues (shadows, highlights, midtones).
  3. Eliminate any possible color casts.
  4. Adjust saturation if necessary.
  5. Apply any special effects (if desired)
  6. Apply sharpening, if needed

Previous tutorials:

Cropping Images: The Basics

Straightening Images: The Basics

Resizing Images: The Basics

Correcting Shadows and Highlights: The Basics

Photo Editing using Levels: the Basics

Removing Color Cast in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements

Hue Saturation Adjustment Layer: The Basics

Following the recommended photo editing sequence, today we would look at Step #5, applying special effects. Since there are so many types of special effects and because they are all personal preference, I’m going to skip that and move on to Sharpening.

There are multiple ways to sharpen images, but I’m going to show you one of my favorite ways today, that is by using the High Pass Filter. This technique works the same in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements. Today my screenshots will be from Photoshop CC 2018.

This is a photo of my grandson, Owen, being silly:




The High Pass Filter is not really a “sharpening tool,” but is a tool that finds the edges in photos. Increasing the contrast between edges gives the illusion that the image is sharper, and this is our goal.


  1. Duplicate your image (Control + J). Now you have 2 of the same image in your Layers Panel, one image on the layer above the other image.
  2. Click on the duplicate image layer to make it the active layer.
  3. Go to the top menu bar: Filter > Other > High Pass.
  4. A High Pass Filter window will open, and the duplicate image in your Layers Panel will turn gray.
  5. Move the slider in the options window all the way down to zero. Your image will be completely gray. Then start moving the slider to the right. When you see the edges of your image begin to appear, stop. Click OK.


6. Change the Blend Mode of the High-Pass Layer (which is your duplicate photo layer) to Overlay or Soft Light. (Soft light usually works best).
7. If the effect is too strong, reducing the opacity of the High Pass Layer can help. If it’s not strong enough, you can try the Hard Light Blend Mode.

In the full version of Photoshop,  if your image is a Smart Object, the High Pass Filter will be applied as a Smart Filter, allowing you to adjust the Radius further if you like. Click on the “High Pass” text under the Smart Filter icon to reopen the High Pass window.


Here are the Before and After images. 


 High Pass Sharpening is a quick fix for an image that needs a boost!

If you would like to download the PDF of this tutorial, you may do so here:  Sharpening with the High Pass Filter


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  1. Dona

    This is a great method of “sharpening” and often looks better than the dedicated sharpening tools. And if you use the smart object suggestion, you can use the layer mask to eliminate the sharpening in the background if you want to.

  2. Diane Hartmire

    I can’t tell a difference between the two honestly. Maybe it’s from lingering anesthesia from two surgeries in the same week.
    And I’m definitely not trying to be rude, please forgive if it came out like it. I’d like to learn how to use the High Pass Filter, but I have to see a difference I guess so I know what if I’m doing it right.
    Any suggestions would be great Karen.

    • Karen

      It’s a very subtle difference, Diane. Compare the sharpness of the glasses, especially. You’re not being rude at all. If you follow the tutorial on a photo that might be a little more “soft” than my original one, I’m sure you’ll see the difference. I hope that helps! (Hope you recover from your surgery soon!)

  3. Pssequimages

    OH MY—High pass is the ONLY WAY TO FLY! Control is so perfect. It’s the “giveaway” between professional and non-professional post-processing, I think!
    THANKS for the great look at the High Pass Filter, Karen

    • Karen

      Yes! It is a fabulous, easy way to sharpen those edges! Thanks for your feedback, Pssequimages!

  4. Lou Ann McKinney

    Thank you so much. I was taught to use the overlay instead of soft light. Your way is great. Oh and I didn’t know to set the slider to nothing and slowly go upward until I saw the lines. I was going up more than necessary and wondered why they often looked like posters or something instead of a photo.

    • Karen

      Overlay will give you more of a contrast, which you might sometimes want. Soft Light will give you a softer effect. But then sometimes it works best to use Overlay and just reduce the opacity – which gives you somewhere between Overlay and Soft Light. It’s just experimentation for each photo, which is part of the fun of it all, I thnk. Thanks for sharing your experience, Lou Ann.

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