Powerful Mobile Photo Sharpening Secrets Using Snapseed Powerful Mobile Photo Sharpening Secrets Using Snapseed

Sharpening and adding detail to your photos can 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 make it pop and jump off the screen. Photos captured on a high-end dedicated camera also need sharpening. It is not just the phones that need extra sharpening.

Most smartphones actually add a little blur/smoothing to the photo. More expensive phones apply noise reduction to the photo while preserving and enhancing textures and lines.

Global and local sharpening tools

What may not be obvious using Snapseed is that you have more options than just the Details tool that applies to the whole of photo (global) sharpening. You have tools that you can target specific tone in a photo and much more specific areas in your photo. In most photos, bumping up the sharpness in the mid-tones can add more depth to a photo. Adding sharpness to a specific area in the photo can also help to grab and direct the attention of the viewer of your photo.

I am going to share the common and hidden powerful tools available and my techniques to squeeze as much detail out of your photos. I am going to explore each in the order that I use these tools to keep that natural look:
1. Tonal Contrast
2. Details
3. Selective
4. Stacks and masking

Snapseed settings

Before I go any further, let's set up your app. When you download Snapseed on whether Google Play or Apple App Store, the app has a default setting that you need to change. Tap on the three dots in the top right corner to access Settings. Go to Format and Quality and change from the Jpeg 95% to Jpeg 100%. You can also change your file output to the larger and uncompressed PNG format.

1. Tonal Contrast

Firstly, what is contrast? It is the difference between two things. If you increase contrast, you are increasing that difference. When you have a line in your photo, either side of the edge of that line is brightened and darkened to increase the perception of sharpness.

Too much contrast can also have a negative effect. Your photo can become grungy, skin tones can look unnatural and existing artefacts in your photo more evident. Paying attention to the adjustment results will help to determine which tool to use and how much you can apply.

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. 

A couple of quick navigation tips: 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 tonal ranges of the image that you can increase the contrast (bright, dark and areas in between). Editing the mid and low tones are where you will notice the strongest effect.

2. Details tool

This tool sharpens the whole photo. You have two different tools within that sharpen differently. This is a great tool for applying what is referred to as output sharpening to prepare for printing. During the process of printing our photos often become soft and lose their details. The sharpening tool mentioned below is my preference to improve my prints.

To access the Details 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.

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.

3. Selective Tool

This is my favourite tool to apply strong sharpening in very specific parts of the photo. After opening your photo, go to the Pencil edit icon > Details.

Tap on the + symbol and tap on the photo. The pin will be highlighted in blue, indicating it is active. Place your finger on the pin and drag it to exactly where you want it. Note that a magnification loupe appears. The surrounding colour of the loupe indicates the colour of the exact pixel you placed the pin. Pinch and zoom to increase/decrease the selection of surrounding pixels (tiny dots on the photo). Swipe up and down to access the following options: Brightness, Contrast, Saturation and the one we want Structure.

This Structure tool is exactly the same as the Details tool that applies it to the whole photo. A great feature of Structure is the ability to swipe left and go into the negative to create a blur and make your details areas stand out even further.

4. Stacks (layers) and Masking

One of the hidden and most powerful features in Snapseed is Stacks, also known as Layers in most other editing software. It enables you to re-adjust and selectively apply any Tool to exactly where you want in the photo.

To access the Layers, tap on the icon on the top right side that resembles an undo arrow atop two stacked tiles. Next, tap View edits to reveal a 'Stack' of each adjustment made. Tap on a previous adjustment to reveal a fly-out menu of a bin icon to delete and adjust icons to refine the edit. Once you have finished tap on the tick checkmark then tap on the most recent adjustment in the stack then the return icon in the top left corner.

What is masking? When you make an adjustment, the new version of the image is stacked on top of the previous version, hiding the previous layer. Masking is the process of selectively revealing and/or hiding parts or all of the previous layer. The benefit of masking is we can specifically apply varying strength of ANY editing tool to exactly where you want.


When sharpening my photos, my typical workflow involves Tonal Contrast to add some depth to the mid-tones. Next, I will use Details to add sharpness to the whole photo. I will use this tool again in the future if I want to print my photo. Next, I will use the Selective tool to add heavy sharpening to very specific areas of the photo. Lastly, in some instances, I will use the powerful Stacks and Masking option to apply more controlled sharpening over specific areas of the photo.


This video lesson is extracted from the Blurry to Tack-Sharp Photos: 4-Step System. The outcome of the course is you becoming more confident and consistent if photo preparation, capture techniques and editing various tools to produce the sharpest photos you did not believe possible on your existing smartphone.

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