Lightroom Sharpening Layer Mask: The Hidden Secret

The more you edit in Lightroom, the more time you save.  This sharpening tip will give you one more way to maximize your editing time.

When sharpening a photo in Photoshop, using a layer mask will usually give you the best result.  Some areas we want to be sharp, like eyes and jewelry.  Other areas can stay nicely soft such as fine lines and wrinkles.

In Lightroom, it’s best to sharpen using the Detail Panel – it gives us the most control over amount and radius.  The adjustment brush is good for spot sharpening, but we can’t change its radius, and it’s hard to constrain the adjustment brush to very small areas.

Unfortunately, Sharpening with the Detail panel is global.  That is, it applies the sharpening amount to your entire image.  In the comparison below, you can see that the middle image has areas that are oversharpened.  The white of the eye is getting that dry crispy look, the fine lines on her skin are more visible and, if you have a sharp eye, you can see sharpening artifacts in her eyebrows and between the lashes.


Lightroom gave us the masking slider to help with this.  When it’s set to 0, sharpening is applied to the entire photo evenly – as in the middle image above.  When you slide it to 100, sharpening is restricted to areas near the strongest edges.  This is a good start, except that it’s hard for us to know where to place that slider between 0 and 100.

That’s where this handy trick comes in.  Hold down your alt or option key as you adjust the masking slider.  Your image will turn into a good old-fashioned layer mask.  Remember that black conceals and white reveals?

So, in the screen shot above, I moved the slider to 79, which was where the mask captured only the areas I wanted to sharpen.  You can see that the edit is being applied just to eyelashes, the hair in the eyebrow, the iris and the catchlights.  Say goodbye to crispy eyes, artifacts in the eyebrows, and sharpened pores and lines.

The Detail Panel below the masking applied to the image as a whole.  It’s perfect – only parts of the hair, eyes and dress are sharp.

*** When using MCP Quick Clicks sharpening presets, make sure to fine tune your image using this same masking slide for the best results!

I couldn’t have created such a perfect mask in Photoshop.  Could you?

Erin Peloquin

Erin Peloquin is Lightroom & Photoshop Elements instructor. She also works for Jodi here at MCP to create great editing tools for Lightroom & Elements. Her portfolio is at Time in a Camera.

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  1. 1

    Thanks Scott

    This is a great Tip – Nikon Capture NX2 has something quite similar, but now I love LR

    regards, Erik

  2. 2

    Do you add any additional sharpening in Photoshop before printing? Thanks

  3. 3
    S says:

    Couldn’t you do the same thing with a high pass layer set to overlay in PS? I mean, that’s neat, but if I’m already in PS doing things, I might as well do the finishing sharpen in there too.

  4. 4

    This is a great tip! I don’t use Lightroom though. :-/ Do you know, is there a way to do something similar in CS5?

  5. 5

    This is fantastic! I use Lightroom 4 exclusively and this will make my workflow so much quicker! Thank you.

  6. 6
    Deanna says:

    Thank you!! I really needed this reminder. I learned it once and promptly forgot it. Lightbulb!

  7. 7

    I have used this LR tool for a while know..learned it from Matt K. via his LR tips and tricks blog. It’s so fast & easy. If your a LR user you will love it.

  8. 8
    Alisha says:

    Just when I thought I knew so much about Lightroom, you come along and teach me something new and awesome. Thank you! This is extremely helpful :)

  9. 9

    What a great tool. Thank you for sharing!!

  10. 10
    dayna more says:

    Thanks for this tip; I need a hundred more like it. I’m trying to rely more on Lightroom and less on Photoshop to speed up my workflow, but its so hard to struggle in lightroom when I’m confident in photoshop. I end up doubling my work by editing the images in both.

  11. 11

    Might be easier and faster to just mask the eye (or where you want the adjustments to be made)and use the adjustment brushes. You can go into the brushes, hit O to see where the mask is being applied, adjust brush size and mask the only areas you want to adjust, hit the O again, and use the sliders to make adjustments. That way it only adjusts exactly where you made the mask. Then you don’t have to rely on general masking results and levels. Just a thought!

  12. 12
    Michelle says:

    Once again, Erin has made my life easy! Thank you for this tip!

  13. 13
    amber baird says:

    I tried this on my LR 4 and the alt key locked up my masking and wouldn’t let me move it and didn’t change the picture at all. am I doing this wrong????

  14. 14
    Jan H. says:

    I’m just wondering…sometimes the sharpening mask looks really cool. Is there any way to keep that effect or recreate it? (I’m talking about when you hold alt/option and slide mask)

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