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While we tend to focus on sharpness in our images, sometimes sharpness is best avoided, or at least better focused on specific areas of an image. In this lesson, we'll explore the concept of applying targeted sharpening and blurring in order to optimize an image. Here, we're going to use a portrait for this example, but of course, the same concept could apply to a variety of different subjects. The idea is that I might want to blur certain portions of the image, and I might want to sharped specific areas or perhaps some areas more than others. Let's start off with the blur.
In the case of a portrait, we might want to use a blur, for example, to smooth out skin textures. I'll go ahead and zoom in on a portion of the face here, and we can see we have some relatively rough texture within the skin. I'll make a copy of my Background Image layer by dragging the thumbnail for that background image to the create New Layer button, the blank sheet of paper icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. I can then apply a blur to this image there. I'll go ahead and choose Filter > Blur, and then Gaussian Blur from the menu, and I just need a very small degree here of blur here.
I'm just looking to smooth out skin textures just a little bit. Now, the final blur can be a little stronger than I'd like because I am going to focus this blur in particular areas of the image, and I'll also reduce the opacity of this blur layer to help tone it down a little bit further. So, in this case, a radius of 1 pixel will work out just fine I think, so I'll go ahead and click OK. I can now add a Layer Mask so that I can paint this blur effect into the specific areas of the image where I actually want it.
At the moment, I'm blurring the entire image, so I'm going to hold the Alt or Option key. Alt key on Windows and Option key on Macintosh, while clicking on the Add Layer Mask button, the circle inside a Square icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. Because I'm holding the Alt or Option key when I click that button, the Layer Mask that is added will be inverted. In other words, it's filled with black instead of white, and therefore, this layer is completely blocked, it's not visible at all within the image. I'm going to go ahead a rename this layer.
I'll double-click the title for the layer and I'll just call it Blur. That seems a simple enough name for the effect I'm applying here. And now I'm ready to paint this blur effect into specific areas of the image. I'll zoom out a little bit here, and I'll grab my Brush tool from the toolbox. I'll press the letter D to set the default colors of black and white. I also want to make sure that I'm working on my Layer Mask, so it's a good idea to click on the Layer Mask itself to make sure that it is active. I can then press X as needed to switch my foreground and background colors.
In this case, I want to paint the effect into the image, so I'm going to paint with white. I'll reduce the size of my brush using the Left or Right Square Bracket keys. Left Square Bracket to reduce the size of the brush, Right Square Bracket to increase the size of the brush, and then I can paint the effect. I'm using a Soft-edge brush, and I can paint that softening effect into the image. I'll go ahead and zoom in a little bit more closely here so that you can see the effect, and there we see that skin texture being toned down considerably.
Now, I also want to reduce the opacity of my Blur layer so that the effect is not too strong. So, at the top of the Layers panel, I'll go ahead and adjust the Opacity setting, and somewhere right around there seems to be pretty good. We'll toggle the visibility of this layer on and off, and that looks to be a good effect. I'm just applying a little bit of a softening effect to those skin textures, and so I can use that to smooth out the skin very nicely, painting throughout the image as needed to smooth out that skin texture wherever I'd like.
In this case, I'm not going to take the time to paint the effect everywhere throughout the image. You get the idea, though. We can apply a blur and then adjust it so that it's only visible in specific areas and in a very subtle way. I then might also want to apply some targeted sharpening to the image. And this would be something more of an enhancement or creative effect in the image, not my final output sharpening which would, generally speaking, applied tot the whole image. Now, we're going to go ahead and convert my Background Image layer so that I can add a Smart filter, so I make it a Smart object by choosing Filter > Convert for Smart Filters from the menu. I'll click OK, and you can see my Background Image layer is now a Smart object so that when I go to the Filter menu and choose Sharpen followed by Smart Sharpen that Smart Sharpen filter will be added as a Smart filter. That allows me to go back and make changes to my Sharpening settings at any time.
I'm going to go ahead and apply a relatively strong degree of sharpening, because I'm going to paint this into specific areas of the image I'd like to enhance. I'm thinking in particular, maybe enhancing to goatee here just a little bit, maybe enhancing the eyes just a little bit. I'll go ahead and click OK. You can see that the Smart filter has a Layer Mask associated with it, and it's filled with white. At the moment, this filter is affecting the entire image. But I can change that by choosing Edit > Fill from the menu, and I will set my Use Popup to black, and with a normal blend mode and a 100% opacity, I'll click OK.
And now, my Layer Mask is filled with black so that sharpening effect is not visible anywhere. Well, I can now perform the same basic task we saw a moment ago, painting the effect into the image. I'll zoom in on the goatee in this case, so that we can get a better sense of the effect. And then with my Brush tool once again, using a Soft-edged brush and painting with white onto this Layer Mask, I can paint that Sharpening effect, that detail enhancement, into specific areas of the image.
So, once again, I am able to exercise tremendous control, in this case, over the sharpening effect. So, by working with multiple layers using a duplicate of my Background Image layer in this particular case, so that I can apply the blur separate from the actual image. And then, using a Smart filter to apply my sharpening effects so that I can also use a Layer Mask there, I'm able to paint the effect into multiple areas of the image as desired. Because we're so focused as photographers on achieving perfect sharpness in our images, we often seem to forget that the opposite of sharpness can be a very good thing.
Just as we sometimes choose to create an image with a narrow depth of field, where only a small portion of the scene is in focus, we might actually apply some degree of blur within the image to tone down details we don't want to emphasize. As such, sometimes sharpening and blurring go hand in hand, especially when the effects of each are targeted to specific areas of the image.
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