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Photography

Can You Fix a Blurry Picture?

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Is there any way to fix a blurry picture? The short answer is not really, but we might be able to get pretty close in some cases.

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In this tutorial I'm going to take you through a series of techniques for fixing blurry images. But if you want to take a shortcut, you can use the Sharpen Master Photoshop action, which enables you to apply different sharpening algorithms with one click.

Sharpen Master Photoshop action

You can also try one of the premium photo editing services on Envato Studio, where one of the experts will retouch your images to a professional standard, including sharpening and much more.

Types of Blur

Let's start by examining four different kinds of "blurry":

Camera movement is seen when the camera moves while the picture is taken. Even if the camera movement is imperceptible to you, that doesn't mean it won't register in the camera. Not all camera movement is accidental or a mistake. Panning is a form of deliberate camera movement in which you follow a moving subject to keep it in the frame.

Panning

Panning is a form of deliberate blur through camera movement.

Subject movement is when static portions of the image, such as the background, come out sharp while moving portions are blurred. When it's done for artistic effect the results can actually be quite beautiful.

Subject Movement
Oriental dancers, deliberately blurred through slow shutter speed.

The best way to avoid unintended subject movement is to use a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the subject's motion. That isn't always the very fastest speed possible. For instance, 1/125th second may be good enough for a subject who is walking.

If your camera doesn't let you control your shutter speed directly, you may be able to trick it by shooting with a preset mode such as Sports, Action, Children or Pets. All of these favor faster shutter speeds.

Focus problems are another common cause for blur. A careful look at the photo below will reveal that the point of perfect focus is actually on the cat's back. This mean its eyes are technically out of focus.

Focus Problems
Housecat sitting on a fence

Diffraction comes in more than one form. First, with the aperture stopped down to an extreme degree (i.e. f22), the rays of light have to bend so far to get through the tiny opening that it degrades the overall sharpness of the photo.

Secondly, cheap lenses may cause diffraction through their poor quality. Holga cameras have developed a cult following for this very reason.

Lastly, fouling on the lens like dirt, oil, salt spray, fog, or condensation can soften your image, too.

Condensation causes diffraction
Butterfly captured through condensation built up on the front lens element

Now that we've covered that, let's actually try to fix some blurry photos!

Let's start with the simplest problems to fix. Focus problems and diffraction are similar in that they are not movement-based. The more difficult of these are ones where only a portion of the image is affected.

In this photo, the swimmer, who is obviously the focal point, is a bit soft. The greater the degree of the problem, the harder it's going to be to fix. This one should be relatively easy.

Out-of-Focus Swimmer
Lone swimmer

Fixing Non-Motion Based Blur

1. Open a Copy of Your Image

Start by opening a copy of the photo in Photoshop. Always work from a copy!

Open in Photoshop
The main CS3 window

2. Duplicate the Background Layer

Carrying the idea of working from a copy one step further, right-click (or Cmd-Click) the Background layer on the layers palette.

Select "Duplicate Layer" from the pop-up menu.

Duplicate the layer
Duplicate layer

3. Rename the Layer

By default, Photoshop will name this new layer "Background copy," but you have the option to rename it as anything. To keep things straight in this tutorial, I've renamed mine "Working Layer" since this is the layer we'll be working on.

Giving your layers meaningful names will be a lifesaver when you get into more complex edits where you may have many layers, each for a different type of edit or to edit a different portion of your photo. For instance, I might have named this layer "swimmer" if I were also going to have a layer where I edited the "water." Having them named makes it much easier to keep everything straight.

Click OK to create the layer.

Name the duplicate layer
Rename the layer

4. A Little About Layers

Now all the modifications we make will be on this working layer.

Think of layers like transparent sheets laid down over top of your photo. That's a slightly imperfect analogy, but it works for right now. So we just laid down a transparent sheet and we can scribble and write all over that sheet. When we look, we see what we've written, plus the original photo underneath. If we don't like what we've written, we can throw away the sheet and the original photo is unharmed.

The layer that is highlighted is the one where all our edits will be made so make sure the working layer is highlighted. In my system, the active layer is highlighted in blue.

Active layer
Active layer, highlighted in blue

In case you're wondering, the little eyeball next to each layer indicates whether or not that layer is visible on the screen. Click it and the eyeball goes away and that layer becomes invisible. You cannot make edits to invisible layers. Click it again and the eyeball returns.

5. Pick the Lasso Tool

Now let's use the lasso tool to trace the outline of the area you want to fix. If the area is sharply defined and has strong contrast from its surroundings, you can use the magnetic lasso instead. Use the polygonal lasso tool only if the area you want to select is made up entirely of straight lines such as a rectangle, triangle, etc.

To select any of the lasso tools, click and hold on whichever tool is currently showing in the lasso position. This will bring up a flyout toolbar where you can pick the type of lasso you want.

Toolbar Flyout

Choose a lasso tool

6. Select the Area to be Sharpened

With the lasso tool (or magnetic lasso tool) selected, trace around the area you want to fix. You do this by clicking and holding the mouse button while dragging your mouse cursor to draw an outline. Release the mouse button when you're back at the beginning.

Your selection should be close, as shown here, but don't get hung up on it being perfectly precise.

Lasso Tool

Draw a lasso around the portion you want to edit

7. Feather your Selection Area Borders

Click Select > Modify > Feather...

Feathering will make the outline around your selection area "fuzzy". It won't appear that way on screen but the effect can be seen once we start making modifications to the photo.

Feather

Feather your borders

8. Using Feathering

The benefit of feathering is that it softens the transition and makes your edits blend in.

The image below demonstrates how your edits might look if you didn't feather the selection area. This is just a single edit with no attempt to blend it.

Harsh transition

Harsh edits (without feathering the borders)

There are no hard-and-fast rules for how much to feather. The guideline is the more subtle your edits, the lower number of pixels you can use. Of course the more extreme your edits, the larger number of pixels you'll want for a transition area.

A good rule of thumb is 3-5 pixels. (The most I have ever used is 9 pixels and that is very extreme.) If you feather too much, you may actually introduce softness into a large area of your picture.

Predicting how extensive your edits will be is something that comes with experience. The good news is, you can experiment. After all, Photoshop comes with multiple levels of "Undo." You are working on a disposable layer and only from a copy of your original photo. So you can always go back if you try something and it doesn't work out.

Select transition area

Choose how many pixels to feather

9. Apply Smart Sharpen

The old saying, "there's more than one way to skin a cat" is especially true with Photoshop. There are multiple ways to do practically everything. Not all of them will yield identical results, but they will generally yield similar results.

With that in mind, I will show you just one way to sharpen up a blurry area that is soft because of focus or diffraction problems.

Click Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen.

It is a common misconception among Photoshop users that smart filters can only be used with smart objects or smart layers. This is not true and I happen to like how Smart Sharpen works.

Select smart sharpen

Just one of many ways to sharpen an image

10. Preview your Edits

When the dialog box comes up, make sure the "preview" checkbox is checked. This will let you see your changes as you make them. This is especially important because you will have to make your changes "by eye." That is, you adjust the sliders and watch to see how it looks in your picture.

Smart sharpen preview

Set preview so you can see your edits

11. Understanding Smart Sharpen's Options and Controls

I can only give guidelines for making the adjustments because every picture is different.

One useful technique when making adjustments by eye is to temporarily set the "Amount" slider up well above 150%. You want something way more extreme than you will actually use in your final edit.

Now when you adjust the "Radius" slider, you can more easily see the differences in the preview window. In general, I like to keep the pixel radius small. Rarely will you ever want to go above 2 pixels and most often it will be less than 1 pixel.

Here, I settled on 0.4 pixels. This decision was based on just looking at the preview.

One quick note about the "Remove" drop-down. It has only three options, each covering a different type of blur. Go ahead and try out each of the settings and look at the effect in the preview pane.

  • Gaussian blur generally refers to focus problems or an all-over fuzziness.
  • Lens blur is mainly for diffraction or softness caused by low quality lenses or filters.
  • Motion blur is for camera or subject movement and also activates the "Angle" control so you can tell Photoshop the direction of the blur.

Also note that the affect is applied only within the bounds of your selection area. That's the whole purpose of defining a selection area!

Adjusting the radius

A neat trick for previewing the radius setting

12. Finalize the Amount of Sharpening

Now with your radius selected, you can back off on the "Amount" slider until you get a more realistic effect.

It can be useful here to zoom in on your preview picture. Even if you can't see the entire selection area, you can "grab" the picture and move it around by clicking and dragging. Look at important details like eyes to get a very close up view of the effect of your edits.

You generally don't want to zoom in to more than 300%-400%. Even at this level, the image may show obvious pixelation.

Zooming in on the preview

Pixellation at extreme zoom

13. Double-Check the Result

As you back off the slider, you should see the results in the preview pane. You'll also be able to see the transition area where you feathered the selection.

If the transition does not look smooth enough, cancel the operation and go back to step 7.

If the pixelation is extreme in your preview, back off the zoom to get a better sense of the effect. When you're happy with it, click OK to apply your changes.

Now to compare the before and after!

By repeatedly clicking the eyeball icon next to your working layer, you can switch that layer off and on. This will let you see the results before and after your edits.

In this example, the swimmer was only slightly soft. More extreme examples or more extreme edits may yield more obvious results, but they will also be correspondingly hard to make appear natural.

Before and After

Compare the before and after

14. Flatten the Image

You can save your edited photo at any step along the way, but to actually use it for most purposes, you'll probably have to put it into a universal format. JPG and PNG are two very common universal formats. The thing with both of them is they do not support images with multiple layers.

So before you can save, you'll have to combine the layers into one. This is called "Flattening" the image.

To flatten your image, right-click (or Cmd-click) on one of the layers. Be warned that certain types of layers (there are many types of layers not covered in this tutorial) will not present you with a flatten option. Right-clicking on the Background layer is always a safe bet.

From the menu that pops up, select "Flatten Image". It's always the very last option.

Flatten Image

Flatten image

16. Save the Final File

You'll notice as soon as you flatten the image that all your layers instantly disappear, but all your edits are still intact. They are now part of the base image.

Now you can click File > Save (or File > Save As...) and then close your newly-sharpened image.


Fixing Motion-Based Blur

Motion-based blur is caused by either camera movement or subject movement. The same techniques are used to fix both. Fixing subject movement is done selectively, like we already did above, but let me show you a different way to do the same thing.

Start by opening a photo and creating a working layer, as described in Steps 1-4 above.

3. Using layer masks

Now we're going to add a layer mask. Remember in Step 4 when I said that it was an imperfect analogy to say layers were like transparency sheets? The layers we've been working with are actually more like copies of your original photo, except that parts of them can be made selectively transparent. That's what we're going to do now.

On the bottom of the Layers palette, click the icon that looks like a circle inside a square. This adds a layer mask to the active (highlighted) layer.

Layer Mask

Layer mask (note the double border)

4. Understanding how to manipulate layer masks

The layer is still a copy of your original photo, but the layer mask allows you to make parts of it transparent or opaque. When you paint the mask black, you make that portion transparent and the layer underneath becomes visible. When white (the default), the layer is opaque and covers that portion of the layer underneath.

To illustrate this, we're going to have to go through a few steps to understand how to paint on layers and masks.

Notice that the mask (the plain white rectangle on the Layers palette that the large arrow is pointing to) has a double line as its border. That means if you were to paint on the "image" you are actually painting on the mask.

All painting and edits in Photoshop are done on the big image that you see on your screen. It is only by checking the Layers palette that you know which layer or mask the paint is being applied to.

So notice in the picture in this step that the image layer itself has the double line border. That means that the bright yellow "X" I painted is on the layer copy of the image itself. You can see this in the image layer thumbnail.

Yellow X

Bright yellow "X" painted onto layer

5. Pick Your Tools

To select any image layer or image mask, simply click on it in the Layers palette. The entire layer you selected will be highlighted and the thumbnail you clicked will have a double lined border. That will tell you where your paint is being applied.

Photoshop remembers which colors and which tools you were using on every given part of an image so it's important to first pick what layer and/or layer mask you want to work with and then double check your tools and colors before you start working on it.

We are going to make part of the layer transparent, so I've selected the mask (I'll show you that in the next step) and now I want to make sure I'm using the paintbrush tool and will be painting in black.

Tool and Color Selection

Select your tools and colors only after you've picked the layer or mask you want to work with

6. Demonstrating Selective Layer Transparency

Now that we've double checked everything, I've painted black onto the layer mask of the Working Layer. You can see in the layer thumbnail that the entire yellow "X" is still in the picture. You can also see the black blob I painted onto the layer mask thumbnail.

In the main image, you can see that the effect is to "erase" part of the yellow X. In reality, all I did was make it transparent so that the underlying image shows through. Since the images are identical, it looks like I've erased it.

Mask Demo

Magically invisible

7. Getting Back on Track

Now that I've demonstrated how layer masking works, we're going to step back from that little detour and get on with trying to clean up the motion blur in this image.

Part of cleaning up entails deleting the working layer we've been using, since I was only using it to demonstrate how layers work. I have replaced it with a clean, new working layer.

Notice that both the foreground and background in my image is sharp, however the subject moved and is blurred.

Subject Blur

Fresh working layer

8. Fixing the motion blur

Instead of drawing a selection area, we're going to de-blur the entire layer and then mask off those parts which don't need it. Then I can apply a Smart Sharpen. The difference is that now I set it to fix motion blur and use the Angle control to tell Photoshop the direction of the motion.

Notice I'm using much higher settings here than in the previous example. That's because:

  1. The degree of blur is greater so I need stronger correction to fix it, and
  2. This is how the settings looked best to my eye, based on fine details like the mesh on her helmet and the wrinkles in her shirt.
Smart Sharpen

Smart sharpen settings

9. Masking off the Unblurred Parts from the Original

You may have noticed in the preview pane from the previous step that my edits made the unblurred parts, especially the background, look much worse. That's where layer masking comes in!

So I select the layer mask, and paint black over the parts I don't want the smart sharpen applied to.

With careful observation, you may note on the layer mask thumbnail that I painted black, white and grey. That's right, you can actually paint any color you want on the layer mask. I typically only use shades of grey. Colors painted onto a layer mask will NOT put color onto your image. Instead, Photoshop essentially converts the color to B&W then uses the tonality of that color as though it were a shade of grey.

Painting with grey will cause the painted area to become semi-transparent. So my use of 50% grey on the smoke can in the foreground means that about 1/2 of the sharpening effect was allowed to show through. This little trick gives you tremendous control over how your edits are applied to your images.

Edits Applied

Painting black, white and shades of grey on the layer mask for subtle gradation

10. The Final Effect

The final image still isn't perfect but it is much better.

Final Image Comparison
The final sharpened image - Before and After

Hopefully, this tutorial has given you some good insights into blur and how to hide it. We've also covered the use of layers and layer masks in order to give you greater control over your post-production.

If you have any questions or alternative methods of sharpening, post a comment below!

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