Classic Course: Unsharp Mask

This long-favored sharpening tool is based on a darkroom technique that layers negatives

We assume only the true geeks (like us) are watching video training over the holidays, so here’s a particularly geeky subject for our Classic Course series: Unsharp Mask. This is one of the most popular tools in Photoshop to sharpen images, and some used it in After Effects as well despite its slow render speeds. However, its parameters and underlying process are a mystery to many.

Back in 2009, we decided to tackle explaining how it works. We also compared it to the faster, easier, less-sophisticated Sharpen effect in AE, and also shared some power tips on using it. In case you ever wondered how Unsharp Mask really worked, here you go:

The Theory:

Unsharp Mask versus Sharpen in After Effects:

Unsharp Mask Power Tips:


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Chris & Trish Meyer founded Crish Design (formerly known as CyberMotion) in the very earliest days of the desktop motion graphics industry. Their design and animation work has appeared on shows and promos for CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, HBO, PBS, and TLC; in opening titles for several movies including Cold Mountain and The Talented Mr. Ripley; at trade shows and press events for corporate clients ranging from Apple to Xerox; and in special venues encompassing IMAX, CircleVision, the NBC AstroVision sign in Times Square, and the four-block-long Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas. They were among the original users of CoSA (now Adobe) After Effects, and have written the numerous books including “Creating Motion Graphics with After Effects” and “After Effects Apprentice” both published by Focal Press. Both Chris and Trish have backgrounds as musicians, and are currently fascinated with exploring fine art and mixed media in addition to their normal commercial design work. They have recently relocated from Los Angeles to the mountains near Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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