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Photoshop Tip – Enhance Grain with High Pass

Learning photography back in the dark ages of dark rooms and chemicals, I have a thing for black and white grain.  I used to love to push process Kodak Tri-X film because I really enjoyed the feeling of the grain on that film.  I was never satisfied with the grain or noise that I was able to get with digital cameras until recently.  I’ve mentioned before that I really like the feel that the Canon 5D Mark II gets with very high ISO speeds.  The noise or “grain” is very uniform, even, and just plain has a nice feel to it.

I had never done much sharpening with the “High Pass” filter, but I’ve read about it in a few places recently so I started to experiment.  I’ve seen many photographs by great photographers who have used this technique to sharpen edges, and get a very nice look.  After playing with it, what intrigued me the most was the way it enhanced the grainy look of the high speed black and white digital shots I was working with.

The shot below is a good example of the grain effect I’m talking about.   The picture has a nice grainy feel, it was shot at 1600 ISO in the Canon 5D mark II.  I like the nice even feel of the grain/noise, not distracting, just enough to feel a little bit like film.

(I know the thumb is a bit distracting.  It was cropped out of the final image, but I left as much background in this one as I could to show the grain effect.  For the final image see here)

Portrait at High ISO before High Pass Filter

In this next photo I have applied the “High Pass Filter” in photoshop.  Notice the enhanced feel of the grain.  The filter also adds quite a bit to the mid-range contrast of the photograph, but it is the grain that for me is what really stands out.  Subtle difference, but really the first time I felt just a little like I was back working with chemicals again.  For the record, I would much rather work on the computer then in the dark room.  I don’t want to sound over romantic about it.  I miss the smell, that is about it.  Sitting at my computer in a lit room is so much more enjoyable.


So, how did I do it?  Look below for a screen shot of photoshop with the high pass filter.  Basically you want a layer that will look something like this.

High Pass Filter applied - this is one layer in Photoshop

I used a radius of around 10, but you may need to play with that to find the sweet spot for any given picture.  You take this layer and use the overlay method (or soft light, which is a bit different, but it is a matter of taste).  The contrast will change, but so will the feel of the grain.

Photoshop Screen shot


  • Create a copy of the background layer to work on.
  • If you haven’t already, change that layer to black and white.  I use the channel mixer but there are other equally as good methods.
  • Apply the “high pass” filter to this layer.  Basically you want the major details gone, and just the edges showing. In the example the radius was around a 10 that I worked with.  This part is as much an art as a science. Play around and try a few things.
  • Make this layer an overlay or a soft light layer.
  • You can now change the opacity to your liking. On this example I stayed with 100%, but in most I’ve found dialing it back to someplace around an 80% works well.

Give it a try.  I’d love to hear how it works or if you have other ideas.  Photoshop for me is a tool that takes constant experimentation and learning.  I can’t read enough tutorials or institutional books.  There is so much power there that I don’t think everything has been tried.  Just play around.

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