After the Light: High-Pass Post Production

Let's get one thing straight first: I am no Photoshop wizard. I learned at the paper to use it sparingly, and my goal is always to do most of my work in-camera.

But a lot of people have asked about some of my post techniques, so I wanted to share one of my favorites. It's quick, easy and adds a cool, controllable look to your photos. And it mixes especially well with photos that have been lit.

People use high pass in a lot of different ways. And really, the high-pass filter itself is just a step in the process that ends with the combination of two layers. High-pass has a bad name because a lot of people go way over the top with it. But in moderation it adds a nice edge -- and it can be used to give a uniform look to a series of otherwise disparate photos.

Here is how I do it.

Here is a pretty straight (i.e., no high-pass) photo of baritone Steven Eddy, whom I photographed last year for the Howard County Arts Council.

One light source -- very straightforward stuff. It's lit with an White Lightning and an Octa soft box, against an out-of-focus sunset in a forest.

This is a "before" photo. And you'll notice the differences in the "after" photo (up top) are pretty subtle. More on that later. My goal is to add a little bit of a pop to this photo, with a little more control than if I just used curves.

First, I am going to create a duplicate layer of the photo in Photoshop. You can do this in the Layers menu, or (on a Mac) with CMD 'J'. You now have two identical photos, sitting on top of each other. Bear in mind that you can only see the top one right now.

Next, we desaturate the top layer. You can do it with your Hue and Saturation adjustment, or go to Image-> Adjustments -> Desaturate.

Now, you are looking at a B&W version of your photo -- which is sitting on top of an unseen color version.

Next step is to apply the high-pass filter. This is a slider, and there is some preference involved as the slider will have a lot of control over the final look.

I tend to hang out around 80 in the radius, and that number is a function of your file size. I shoot 12MP photos, which means ~4k dots on the long side. If you shoot larger or smaller files, adjust your radius proportionally. And again, this is an 'add salt to taste' thing.

Here is what your pic will look like now.

Remember, you are adding high pass to the top, B&W layer. But there is an unchanged color layer underneath that you cannot see right now.

Next, we are going to combine those layers in the layer palette.

By default, the opacity slider in your layers palette is probably set to 100%. That means you are viewing the top layer -- a B&W, hi-pass filtered layer -- with no transparency at all.

Let's combine the two layers. Under "layers" dropdown in your layers palette, combine them by choosing "hard light".

You'll get a photo that looks very Nike/Gatorade ad-looking, which is IMO way, way too much.

Take your opacity slider and bring it from 100% to 0%. You'll see your original photo appear again, as the top, combined/HP'd layer disappears.

Now, crank your opacity slider up until you get the look you want.

Here is the photo from the top of the post again, which is pretty subtle as I only took the opacity slider to 35%. (I tend to hang out in the 25% to 50% neighborhood, depending on the lighting style and subject matter.)

My preference is to use it at a level to where it is almost not there. I like to bring it down to zero, the slowly slide it up until the look starts to get just a little too strong. Then I back it off a bit.

Flatten your image to lock it in and you are done.

Some Considerations

Is this 'destructive,' as some Photoshop folks will surely complain? Yes, it is.

And I don't care. It is a quick technique, and I will have already saved a toned, dust-spotted version before I add high-pass.

Are there other ways to do it? Certainly, but this is mine.

You can find other techniques by Googling "high-pass filter" and photoshop. Go crazy.

Can you go to far with this? Oh, yeah.

And that's when photos all start to look the same. I like to crank it up until I can tell it is there, then back it off a tad.

If you a newspaper shooter, it occurred to me long after the fact that this might be a good technique to make your photos (especially sports pics) better survive the repro process.

The technique adds midrange contrast, tames highlights and shadows and loses a little saturation. And that's tailor-made for many crappy offset newspaper presses that print on Charmin.

If you want to know more -- including a version with more steps that gets you to a more specific look, I recommend checking out Dustin Snipes' excellent tutorial. He cranks it up a little (okay, a lot) more than I do, but he gets a cool look that works well in the context of his sports portraiture.


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Blogger Rick said...

Perfect - I love this kind of information. Thank you...

February 15, 2010 12:20 AM  
Blogger contact said...

Those shots by Dustin are some of my favorite photos ever.

February 15, 2010 12:51 AM  
Blogger xNBSx said...

Thanks for the tips!! Im always interested in what everyone does in their Post Processing as Im just learning that aspect of photography.

February 15, 2010 12:57 AM  
Blogger Photobby said...

Thanks DH. I have never been into "photochop" but have liked the subtle look you get. I know you tend to think "charmin" not "matte finish" when it comes to printing. I assume this prints well?

February 15, 2010 1:17 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

you can do it a bit less destructive. Simply use "convert for smart filter" (this is a translation from my german version - so I don't know if this is what it is called in an US version), it is in the filter menu somewhere on the top.
Then you get a smart object. Then you can apply your highpass. And if you look in your layers palette, you can see that there is a new "kind of layer" underneath your b/w layer. Doubleclick it, and you can re-adjust your highpas as often as you want without having to make a new layer.

greetings from Germany,

February 15, 2010 1:49 AM  
Blogger David said...

Yes, there are usually several ways to get to a given destination in PS.

February 15, 2010 2:11 AM  
Blogger Borta said...

doesnt this produces the exactly same result of a unsharp mask?

February 15, 2010 2:16 AM  
Blogger Spencer H said...

Hey David,

If you edit with multiple layers, and want to keep all that goin with your adjustment you laid out on top, you can make it work.

There is NO menu command for this (that I can find), but if you hit


you get the magical stamp visible layer. This is a copy of your whole image, all layers mashed into one layer, to which you can change the blending mode to and add all of your steps to.

So if you edit with lots of adjustment layers and such this can sit pretty on the tip top and affect the whole image.

February 15, 2010 2:50 AM  
Blogger cerement said...

The whole "category" is generally called Local Contrast Enhancement. And yes, there are many ways to achieve it: HiRaLoAm sharpening (Borta's reference) is more well known, but Low Pass sharpening has been around longer. I first came across it at Luminous Landscape. Cambridge in Colour provides more science behind the process. The main caveat is "Watch your haloes!" Subtlety is the key, if your model has raccoon eyes and sunburn like the second-to-last photo, they're not gonna be happy with you :)

February 15, 2010 3:14 AM  
Blogger Stefan said...

Hey David, this is a very normal technique. Try the highpass in overlaymode or hardlight and a pixelradius @1.5 to 2 (saturated) to bringout fine details like hair or a beard. An another highpass @ a radius 10-20 (desaturated)

Btw: Thx David for this great blog i totally enjoy reading, learn alot and it saves my mondays :D

cheerz Stefan

February 15, 2010 3:37 AM  
Blogger Florian said...

Hi David!

You mentioned you used this while your work as a newspapier photographer.
I can assure you, this is a quite common and often used way to sharpen images for print production.
I learned this as one of the possible ways during my apprenticeship and I know quite a lot people who use the high pass filter for sharpening images.
So, you´re perfectly right and do it "the professional way" when you do it this way... ;-D

Greetings from Germany,

February 15, 2010 4:17 AM  
Blogger t-jack said...

I use simmilar technique, just by using "high-passed" layer and mixing it wiht soft light, plus sometimes duplicating or triplicating the layer, which adds a bit "too much" contrast, but, well, I like it.

February 15, 2010 4:19 AM  
Blogger N. said...

Longtime follower. This was really helpful to me, thanks, and, more of the same please!

February 15, 2010 5:02 AM  
Blogger Yorkshire Strobist said...


Cool post, it does remind the eye a bit of the work of Dave Hill.

Hey wait, DH... David Hobby.... Dave Hill... Mmmmh! Is there a conspiracy afoot here? Lol.

Great blog! Keep it up!

February 15, 2010 5:06 AM  
Blogger Dayron said...

You can find a video tutorial of this technique here

I know the sound is bit low, but it was one of my very first tutorials.


Chris aka

February 15, 2010 5:09 AM  
Blogger MorneC said...

Simple, quick and effective.

Just what you need when deadlines are pressing and you have many photos to get through.

Great result, definitely adding it to my toolbox.


February 15, 2010 5:19 AM  
Blogger bertold said...


You're being awfully defensive
in this post and, especially, with
your last comment. There has been
no "pissing" yet in the comments,
only a very useful suggestion by
Chris on how to make the process
tweakable. Why do people get so
sensitive when it comes to Photoshop?

February 15, 2010 6:53 AM  
Blogger Pablo said...

Thanks David for sharing...

February 15, 2010 7:14 AM  
Blogger Joe Holmes said...

David -- you explain your photoshop technique better than 90% of the books and articles that attempt this. Thanks -- great work.

Christopher -- no need for a Smart Filter. Simply save the file without flattening and you can always go back and adjust the opacity.

February 15, 2010 7:28 AM  
Blogger Matt Kirwan said...


That's posh where I come from - your newspapers must be darn good!




February 15, 2010 8:05 AM  
Blogger Bob Walters said...

Most (perhaps all?) keyboard shortcuts on the Mac which use Cmd are the same on a PC using Ctrl.

You might want to try this technique using either Soft Light or Overlay blend mode for a slightly different effect than you get with than Hard Light.

February 15, 2010 9:14 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

This is a great technique, and I use it quite frequently. It's very easy to write an action to do it....couple o' clicks, adjust opacity - done!

February 15, 2010 9:56 AM  
Blogger pete g said...

or you can just use the handy "Clarity" slider in Lightroom, and make your adjustment in .3 seconds

February 15, 2010 10:30 AM  
Blogger Jomi Garrucho said...

THanks for sharing this David,i douse the Hi-Pass in a different way, just to sharpen it a tad (hi-pass overlay at around 2px). Your technique is a ne one that i'll be trying out, more tricks to my bag :)

February 15, 2010 10:34 AM  
Blogger David said...

@Bertold (and Chris) You're right. I'm sorry.

I was reacting mostly to a couple of very rude comments which came in almost immediately, which I chose not to moderate.

End of a long day, too, etc.

Photoshop is one of those things which brings out the Troll in some people, and I wasn't very well prepared to deal with it after a long day.

I'm gonna pull the comment. Thanks for saying something.


February 15, 2010 12:16 PM  
Blogger Rusho said...

The photo looks great. Thanks for the advice. It will help me a lot in the future.


February 15, 2010 12:33 PM  
Blogger brucelimnz said...

Do you sharpen the image after applying this effect?

February 15, 2010 3:09 PM  
Blogger Simon Weir said...

Thanks for that David - very neat.

Is this the same principle that Lightroom uses for its "Clarity" function? The effect is similar but doesn't seem quite the same on trying it out...


February 15, 2010 3:16 PM  
OpenID markbhenry said...

Thanks for all of your hard work. Your tutorials are great!

February 15, 2010 4:56 PM  
Blogger Alex said...


thank you for everything you put in on this site.
It helps again and again to reach the next level as a photog.
Stuff like this is very useful and in the way you explain it VERY useful indeed.
Keep the good work going!


February 15, 2010 5:28 PM  
Blogger John Lewis Photography said...

David, thanks, just tried this on a couple of images I was not entirely happy with and it did the trick. Love the side, its my daily read.

February 15, 2010 5:57 PM  
Blogger Horia said...

Excellent suggestion, many thanks! I particularly like how controllable this adjustment is. Taking advantage of the opportunity to merge the visible layers into a fresh layer, one can also experiment with multiple settings (vivid light, soft light, hard light, different level of opacity, etc.).

February 15, 2010 6:06 PM  
Blogger Samantha Nandez said...

I really like using high pass to help sharpen my images just a touch. Very useful tool

February 15, 2010 6:24 PM  
Blogger Melissa said...

thank you for your information. I love your blog.

February 15, 2010 9:26 PM  
Blogger Sean said...

Just as a note, the HP filter can be a bit... artifacting by default for some silly math reasons involving clipping of sharp transitions. Doing an Image->Adjustments->Brightness/Contrast (Legacy) Contrast -50 before running HP will give a more gradual tonal result than the default Adobe method.

February 16, 2010 5:04 AM  
Blogger Stu said...

Hi David,

I have 4 Video Tutorials that cover various ways of sharpening in Photoshop & Lightroom that I thought other Strobist readers would enjoy viewing. They cover High Pass, HiRaLoAm, RAW & Smart Sharpening.



February 16, 2010 5:35 AM  
Blogger Corinne Fudge said...

I'm sorry to read you've had problems with what we call over here 'smart asses' - they pop up poisonously in many walks of life...
For 99.9999% of us, you've improved our photography dramatically, for which we are eternally grateful...

February 16, 2010 5:36 AM  
OpenID andrewwdavies said...

This is really helpful. I have been using this technique for some time now but until now, I hadn't been desaturating the top layer. What benefits (if any) are there to desaturating the top layer?

February 16, 2010 11:08 AM  
Blogger Shawn Chamberlin said...

i use the HP filter quite often, but in various applications. rather than going for the "desaturation", i tend to go to "image/adjustments/black&white" for the reason that you have more control over the colors, so you can slide back and forth until you get the amount of contrast you want. this could also be done by using the contrast adjustment. like david, i tend to stay around the 80 range, unless i'm going for the "nike" look, as he mentioned. in which case, the lighting setup is important, first and foremost. but also, you need to do some heavy dodging and burning. a little desat on the red never hurt either. unlike david, i tend to use the "soft light" blending mode, only because i like the results more. this is all based on personal taste though. enjoy.

shawn chamberlin

February 16, 2010 1:42 PM  
Blogger Basswork said...


No need to desaturate your duplicate layer -- high pass automatically turns it gray scale.

A more refined method is to select the highlights in the image, copy that to a new layer (Ctrl-J Command-J on Mac), apply high pass and then switch blend mode to softlight, hardlight or overlay. This way you are not sharpening noise.

How to select highlights? In CS3 and before use Ctrl-Shift-Alt-~. (That's the tilde key)

In CS4,use Ctrl-Alt 2 (or 3 or 4 or 5 if you want a bigger selection.)

Wizwow turned me on to Tony Kuyper's Luminosity masks. He has tutorials and PS actions that automate the selection.

February 16, 2010 3:37 PM  
Blogger Sean said...

@Basswork - HP does not desaturate its result.

February 16, 2010 6:01 PM  
Blogger Ryan J. Lane Wedding Photography said...

Yeah, I never did understand why tutorials of this process included the desaturation step... For those who asked how it differs from unsharp mask, I can give a very "untechnical" description. Unsharp mask merely affects the sharpness whereas high pass filter actually provides a type of subtle contrasting along with sharpening. The filter gives the effect that you are tracing over all your edges to give them contrast (ONLY the edges; you're not losing all your shadows), and the higher the setting the "bigger" or "wider" your trace will be. I was an artist before a photographer, and it reminds me of drawing harder edges or outlines on pictures to give them a bit more pop.

February 16, 2010 7:00 PM  
Blogger Sean said...

@Ryan -

The HP filter and USM are generally identical - or at least are designed to be. At some radii and in certain situations the HP filter will exhibit some departure from an ideal solution (from the USM result, which is generally more accurate) due to coding issues within PS. Both work on exactly the same principle and both result in color shifts unless USM is Fade'd to Luminosity or HP is desaturated. That's why the good tutorials include the step - it is necessary.

February 17, 2010 5:22 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Ryan J. Lane Wedding Photography: There is no need to desaturate the image before or after highpass, as long as you use a low radius. If you use higher radiuses, the highpass will not desaturate the image. The colors are "bleeding" back in the highpass layer. And if you set this layer on hardlight (oder one of the other overlay blending modes), it will shift your colors.

February 17, 2010 9:03 AM  
Blogger Dimitris said...

Instead of desaturating, you can apply the high-pass to the luminocity channel.

Anyway, I m more of a fan of smart-sharpen which serves me well for most cases, since high-pass affects contrast a bit and I like to control it seperately.

Also remember that different textures require different settings, so don t be affraid to apply different settings to different layers and mask as required to apply it to wherever you want.

But this is just a personal thing... whatever works for you :)

Oh and always apply your final or "print" sharpen after your final resize, or your will most likely lose some crispness.

Finally, this does not have to be destructive as you say.
You can always save your manipulations and layers as psd and visit them or finetune them again if required, and flatten just to export into jpeg without saving the flattened file over the psd.

February 17, 2010 12:03 PM  
Blogger TC said...

Just managed to do something similar with The Gimp using this plugin.

I used the grayscale function and the results are not quite what DH gets, but close. Maybe playing with the values will get you there.

Bumping it up to 100% gave very clear local-contrast enhancements, so the results are close...

February 17, 2010 4:24 PM  
Blogger Ross Floyd said...

Sharpening techniques are one of the most important tools for any photographer that shoots in the RAW format. When processing JPEGs, the camera makes certain decisions for you, i.e. adjusting for brightness /contrast, sharpness straight of the bat, whereas in RAW it makes none of those assumptions for you and leaves the RAW data captured by the sensor untouched.


The qualities of the Unsharp mask and High Pass Filter are somewhat different.

USM has the tendency to create, or a least make apparent, noise. And will look a little different than HPF.

HPF is much more flexible and powerful for creative sharpening through choosing different blending modes for that layer.It also has the tendency to reveal less noise.

Although the principle to all sharpening algorithms is the same, they do be have differently. Most of them look for areas of contrast and "draw" small white lines to create the illusion of sharpness, and if it is done a small amount the image looks sharper. In excess, you get the halos and artifacts discussed ealier.

That and you look like a noob.

I used to work for a newspaper, but now primarily work in fine art photography and printing. Many artists will even have several different layers of sharpening masked off or used in conjunction with each other for different part so each image to create emphasis.

February 18, 2010 10:49 AM  
Blogger David said...

Another way to get this effect in camera, but only if you are using one of the new Olympus cameras with art filters, is to pick the light tone art filter. It can produce quite lovely effects with portraits. I'm constantly finding new ways to use these filters with my portraits with my E-30. And the wireless flash units ain't bad, either, although I wish they had the built in filters like the newer Nikon flash units.

February 19, 2010 8:12 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Thanks for the info. I wondered how that was done. I notice some flickr fans seem to overdo this though.

February 20, 2010 12:46 PM  
Blogger Jumpthesnark said...

Charmin? For newspapers these days, that's kind of high end (no pun inten.... okay, that was totally intended). I think most newspapers have gone with the kind of paper formerly reserved for Cold War-era Soviet bloc train station bathrooms.

Thanks for the Photoshop tips BTW. Also, some great ideas in the comments too.


February 20, 2010 2:23 PM  
Blogger Stephanie Mei-Ling said...

Thanks for this!

February 24, 2010 7:52 PM  
Blogger Mum-a-lot said...

Thanks for this! It was the first time I used layers in Photoshop (never had been able to understand the technique before). It worked like a charm!


February 25, 2010 3:03 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

David H. said:
"First, I am going to create a duplicate layer of the photo in Photoshop. You can do this in the Layers menu, or (on a Mac) with CMD 'J'."

On a PC, 'Ctrl+J' also creates a duplicate layer, bypassing the Layers menu.

Good post, too.

February 27, 2010 6:49 PM  
Blogger Armen said...

Is it a good idea to try this effect on women or children? I am thinking for fashion shoots this may look OK, but not portraits. Anyone?

February 28, 2010 11:43 AM  
Blogger daveruff said...

Thanks for this. I photographed an Architect last week for an Irish magazine. The weather here in West of Ireland is usually dull to duller this use of layers & filters helped me to get the best out of the shot. Many thanks again

Dave R

March 02, 2010 12:30 PM  
OpenID Tim said...

A variation on a theme: this works well with Orton processing. I now have an Action macro:
duplicate background layer
gaussian blur, r=30 (adjust to taste), soft light, 35%
duplicate background layer
highpass r=30, soft light, 30%
duplicate background layer
highpass r=1, hard light, 35%

Orton makes things glow and boosts contrast/saturation; highpass introduces contrast with objects of a given nominal scale in the scene, so doing it twice caters for both objects and pixel-sharpness, plus at the end of it I've got 3 layers with controllable sliders on them.

A lot of the time that's all I need do to improve an image.

March 07, 2010 2:48 PM  
Blogger Lionel said...

Hi David I posted a link to this here
This is awesome and had to share it.
Thanks for all the knowledge you share with us.

March 10, 2010 1:08 AM  
Blogger Reese said...

this page doesn't render right in Safari on a mac

March 16, 2010 6:26 PM  
OpenID kaeframes said...

I wouldnt try this at 8bit. If you are doing it at 16bit (raw converted to *tif or *psd),then its not very destructive or can handle it much better.

I would never edit in 8bit. You gonna loose to much information. And finaly the image looks bader as it actually was, in term of quality.

October 11, 2010 1:21 PM  
Blogger JG said...

Your tutorial is very educational and simple to follow. Thank you for sharing.

November 11, 2011 10:39 AM  
Blogger JG said...

A very-educational and well-constructed tutorial. Thank you, so much.

November 11, 2011 10:41 AM  

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