Add Some Edge Definition And Structure by Sean Bagshaw

March 6th, 2012 by Sean Bagshaw

Maintaining or introducing edge definition and general structure in an image is something that I often find myself challenged with. Sometimes I need to overcome flat light, back lighting or simply the lack of definition inherent in many raw images. Other times it is to reintroduce definition that was lost from the effects of another developing technique. Often it is to help showcase a feature, create a sense of dimension or create more crisp visual clarity in part of an image. There are many adjustments that can be used to these ends, both in Lightroom and in Photoshop. Clarity in Lightroom is a good starting point and the Clarity slider has been improved in the newly released Lightroom 4. Levels, Curves, Contrast and Shadow/Highlight adjustments as well as the Unsharp Mask filter in Photoshop all offer different approaches and looks. I often employ several of these methods in any given image. However, for the best combination of targeting midtone edge definition while maintaining a non-destructive workflow I find that a High Pass filter method is often my favorite.

The High Pass filter method of adding structure and definition that I like to use goes a little something like this:

  1. With the top layer in your layer stack selected click ctrl+alt+shift+e (cmd+opt+shift+e on a Mac). This will stamp the current state of your image to a new layer at the top of your stack called Layer.
  2. Rename this layer High Pass Contrast, or something like that.

    Ctrl+alt+shift+e (cmd+opt+shift+e on a Mac) will stamp a copy of your image to a new layer at the top of your stack. Rename this layer High Pass Contrast.

  3. With the High Pass Contrast layer selected go to Layer>Smart Objects>Convert To Smart Object. This will allow filters you apply to this layer to be Smart Filters which can be further adjusted in the future.

    Convert the High Pass Contrast layer to a Smart Object.

  4. Now go to Filter>Other>High Pass. Set the radius to the number of pixels you desire. A smaller radius will increase definition along fine edges. A larger radius will create contour in large areas around edges. Since this will be a smart filter on a smart object getting the radius perfect isn’t critical. You can come back and fine tune it later. Click OK.
  5. The High Pass Contrast layer should now appear gray with light/dark halos around the edges in the image.

    Apply the High Pass Filter.

  6. Set the blending mode of the High Pass Contrast layer to Soft Light. This will blend the High Pass Contrast layer with the layers below, increasing edge contrast and definition at the pixel radius you set. For even more contrast you can set the blending mode to Overlay.

    Set the blending mode of the High Pass Contrast layer to Soft Light. Double click on High Pass to reopen the filter and fine tune your adjustment if needed.

  7. You can now click on High Pass on the High Pass Contrast layer to reopen the High Pass Filter dialogue and further fine tune the radius for the look you want.

If you don’t want the High Pass contour effect to be applied to the entire image you can add a mask to the High Pass Contrast layer, fill the mask with black and then paint the effect in just where you want it with a white brush. Instead of painting on your mask you can also make a specific selection from which to create your mask for the High Pass Contrast layer.

Before High Pass Contrast

Final Image

Sometimes I will use two or more High Pass Contrast layers set to different radii so that I can paint in different degrees of definition to different areas of the image. I can also adjust the amount of the High Pass effect by changing the opacity of the High Pass Contrast layer.

This method gives a very similar affect as using the Unsharp Mask (USM) filter set to a large radius to create contrast and definition. However, a USM filter must be applied to an opaque copy layer of the image which means that any adjustment layers below the USM layer will now be rendered useless for future adjustments. Because the High Pass Contrast layer uses the soft light blending mode it is no longer an opaque layer so new adjustments made to layers below will still have affect. This makes it a more flexible and non-destructive technique.

Feel free to leave a comment or question or share your favorite non-destructive techniques for adding definition and structure to an image. If you are interested in learning more of my digital image developing workflow and techniques check out my series of video tutorials.



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  • This is great – thanks. I’m eager to test this approach. Any thoughts on how this impacts the final sharpening (for output) process?

    • Sean Bagshaw

      Wesley – Doing this kind of structure enhancement during the developing process can be thought of as separate from your final output sharpening, so it shouldn’t change your workflow in that respect. I use this technique to introduce structure and definition. While that also tends to give the image a sharper appearance you would still apply output sharpening based on size and print media to ensure the best print sharpness.

  • This is a great tip Sean – thanks for sharing!

    • Sean Bagshaw

      You bet Russ!

  • Thank for the excellent instruction on how to do this technique Sean! I really love the outcome of your image.

    • Sean Bagshaw

      You are welcome Patricia. This technique is also in the updated version of my Workflow videos that you have. This is a great way to bring out cloud definition in skies, as well. I often use a combination of this technique and the Shadow/Highlight technique I show in the videos for clouds…just thinking it might be of use for your excellent and recently remastered bridge image.

  • This is a fantastic technique. I always had some misgivings about using the unsharp mask, in that it seemed to generate strange halos around high-contrast fine details. This does not seem to have that effect.

    By the way, if like me you have a version of Photoshop that doesn’t have Smart Objects, you can still use this technique. What I did was make the high-pass layer and then make two copies of it. I generated the High Pass filter for each of them with different settings, and then it’s just a simple matter of hiding the layers to decide which one you like best.

    Thanks for the great advice, as always!

    • Sean Bagshaw

      Cool Justin. You still have to be careful with halos with this technique in some situations. However, by adding a mask you can paint it out locally if it becomes a problem . I like your smart object work around 🙂

  • This is an excellent technique, Sean. I just tried it on a couple of images taken in soft light and saw a marked improvement in detail. Thanks for posting it!

  • This is a great technique and I read this just as I was processing a few images it was perfect for. Thank you for sharing this!

  • Thanks for another excellent tutorial. This is a new technique for me and I’m excited to explore it in depth!

  • Alex

    Doin it you will have a white edge around dark areas. IPlease check a link (I dont want to translate – but you will see a very important addition to this high pass technology –

  • Brian

    Thank you for providing your excellent tutorials and tips. I have a question – at what point do you incorporate this into your workflow? I would assume that this would be one of the last steps in your workflow since you essentially freeze the underlying adjustment layers when you stamp the most current version of the image in the initial step of applying this technique (ctrl + alt + shift +e). I assume that you cover this in your video tutorials but I purchased them before this was added and was wondering if you would mind sharing.

    • Sean Bagshaw

      Hi Brian – Glad you are enjoying the content on the Photo Cascadia blog. You are correct that this generally is one of the latter steps in my workflow because I take care of general contrast, color balance and other adjustments first and then use this technique to add additional structure if needed. I often apply the affect locally to increase the prominence of visual weight of a portion of the image. However, it does NOT block the ability to make further adjustments to the layers below this layer. Because it uses the soft light, hard light or overlay blending mode the layer is blended with the layers below it and it is no longer an opaque pixel layer. This is the main reason I use this technique instead of using an Unsharp Mask filter to get a similar affect with an opaque pixel layer. If you have previously purchased my Workflow video tutorials you are eligible to get the updated version for free. Just send me an email at [email protected] and I’ll send you a download link.

  • despina

    dear Sean,

    great technique and fantastic results in your image!
    i would like to ask you about contrast,
    with high pass technique do you use any further work with contrast? like a layer with s curve for example. in which step in our workflow use this technique?

    • Sean Bagshaw

      Hi Despina,

      You can certainly use this technique in combination with a curves adjustment for contrast, or other contrast type adjustments as well. Whatever gets your image where you want it. Where you make the adjustment layer in your workflow is up to you. I add these adjustments as I feel the image needs them.