Day 2 - Increase Sharpness - using Details, Tonal Contrast

Sharpening and adding detail to your photos can really make it look like you have had a phone upgrade. At best, in the right shooting conditions, an extra sharpening can actually make it hard to distinguish between a phone and a big camera. Big claim, I know!

Adding sharpness to the image can really make it pop and jump off the screen. This step in editing is critical for printing as you lose sharpness in the print. This is also known as 'output sharpening.'

The photographic intention in some images, such as macro subjects could be all about the sharpness and details.

Most smartphones actually add a little blur/smoothing to the photo. This more often occurs in low light conditions, when the image starts to become grainy (noisy) and have speckled, blotchy artefacts. The more expensive phones have advanced processors (image signal processors) allowing them to apply noise reduction algorithms. It is exciting where technology is advancing. 

Images captured on a high-end dedicated camera also need sharpening. It is not just the phones that need extra sharpening. 

To access the Sharpening tool:

  • Tap on the Pencil edit icon > Details
  • Next, tap on Adjust to reveal two options: Structure and Sharpening.

Structure – applies the sharpening to the areas where there is evident contrast. It will make the darker side of a contrasting edge darker and the light section of an edge lighter. This happens at an extremely close pixel level. There is no right and wrong amount of Structure sharpening. Some images can start to deteriorate as soon as you swipe past the number 20 and start to look grungy. Images of leaves can tolerate a lot more sharpening than a portrait photo.

A great feature of Structure is the ability to swipe left and go into the negative. This produces a blur. At the moment, you are probably not seeing a great need for this. Tomorrow in Day 3, you will learn how you can apply any Snapseed adjustment to an exact, specific area of your image. You can then blur sections of the image to smooth water or create wispy clouds.

Sharpening – indiscriminately sharpens every single pixel (dot) in the image. This sharpens the whole image. When you are sharpening, it is a good idea to pinch and zoom in to get in close and see the amount that you are applying.

Quick tip – be sure to inspect the edges of items in the image for what is referred to as ghosting. Too much sharpening can start to introduce a bit of a halo effect, a brighter line around objects.


This tool is fantastic for adding sharpness to the whole image.

There are two alternative methods for adding sharpness to the image: Tonal Contrast tool and Structure as a sub-menu option within the Selective tool.

Bonus Article: Sharpen your images in Lightroom mobile app

Looking for a more advanced app and tools to achieve the most control and best image sharpening results?

In this article, I break down image sharpening into sections:

  • Achieve sharp focus at capture
  • Why do some images look sharper than others
  • Image sharpening issues
  • How does sharpening work
  • Benefits of using Adobe Lightroom app
  • Lightroom sharpening tool navigation
  • Number one hidden feature
  • Lightroom sharpening tools explained

Click/tap here to read the article.

Tonal Contrast tool

This is one of my favourite features of Snapseed. First of all, a recap of what contrast is. It is the difference between the two things. Increasing contrast increases the difference and vice versa. Imagine a black line drawn on a piece of white paper. Increasing the contrast will make the black even darker black and the white, a brighter white. The edge will become super sharp because any previous grey in the edge is replaced by black. When you reduce the contrast, the black is reduced to a grey and the white becomes darker and also turns into a grey. This reduces the differences producing similar tones and a flatter, ‘washed out’ look. 

Advantages of extra contrast

Increasing contrast provides a more vibrant, sharp image appearing to have more depth and shape. The results can be stunning as the image appears to jump off the screen. As you experiment more with these Snapseed tools, you will begin to identify images that will greatly benefit from using the Tonal Contrast tool over the Details (sharpening tool). These are typically images that have a lot of lines and textures.

Decreasing contrast can also be an advantage if you are trying to achieve a soft image. Many images on social media have a filter applied that reduces the contrast. Two reasons they do this is to hide some flaws in the image and create a consistent look amongst all their photos.

Negatives of extra contrast

As much as I advocate using the Tonal Contrast tool, too much can have some negative effects:

-      Can easily become grungy and unrealistic looking

-      Skin tones are affected by too much contrast

-      Low light image noise and compression artefacts become more noticeable

Avoiding issues

The biggest disadvantage is undesirable details that were hidden are revealed. This may produce blotchy looking skies, patches of shadows on walls, etc. Being mindful of the negative effects will help you to avoid adding too much contrast. The areas that are noticed the most are the bright areas and around edges of objects. As previously mentioned, my preference is to push the editing to where I think it looks nice and then reduce the adjustment to bring it back to a more natural enhancement.

How to use the Tonal Contrast tool

Tap on the Edit pencil icon, then Tonal Contrast.

When you open the Tonal Contrast, you will notice an instant improvement in your image. A default adjustment is applied immediately. You can adjust these to your personal preference and even reduce the values back to zero. The default settings cannot be changed.

Tap and hold the screen or the before and after icon to compare the edit.

Tap on Adjust to reveal the submenu or swipe up and down on the screen.

High, mid and low tones – are specific areas of the image that you can increase the contrast. Unlike the contrast tool within Tune Image, this tool allows you to apply contrast enhancement specifically to just the bright, dark and areas in between.

As you would expect, the high tones affect the brighter areas in the image, low tones, the shadows and mid tones are everything in-between, in the middle. Mid-tones are a little bit more difficult to understand than bright and dark areas. If you imagine an image that has dark and light areas within it. Next, average all that together to have an image of just one colour of one average level of brightness. That becomes the mid-tones. Editing the mid and low tones are where you will notice the strongest effect.

Remember, you have the option unlike most apps – to pinch and zoom to get in close and see more precisely to impact of your editing. I constantly switch between zooming in to identify when the editing has introduced some of the above negative effects and out again to the normal view. This helps to ensure that I have not overdone the editing.

Protect highlights and shadows – is an amazing tool that overlooked for so long, because I did not understand what it did. It is great to selectively increase the contrast in the low tones. However, these areas can become darker. That may not be the desired effect. Protecting the shadows will allow you to increase contrast (clarity, details, depth and vibrancy) and brighten those areas back, returning to the desired look. This does require some experimentation and a balance between high tones, protect highlights and low tone, protect shadows. Each image is different and can benefit from different settings.