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“Fixing” Blurry

Do you have any photos, I know you do, that look like the person taking it was a bit on the shaky side (everything in the photo is a bit blurry)? Or maybe the subject of the photo moved, maybe the trees are perfectly sharp but a person is kind of out of focus?

If you have any kind of family photo collection at all, you more than likely have at least one of these little gems. The blur isn’t enough to render the photo un-viewable, you can still tell who or what they are, but things aren’t as crystal clear as they could be. I’m going to show you an easy way to make things a little clearer.

Don’t misunderstand; this technique will not make the photo crisp and clear like it was taken on a wickedly awesome tripod! If a photo is blurry, it’s blurry, literally, it is what it is, and no filter in the world will make that go away. What we can do is sharpen the details and make it seem like things are a little clearer – sort of mind over filter.

By way of example, I’ll use this photo in which a mother was rocking her young son on a Christmas morning sometime in the late 1940’s. I’m going to go over three ways that can be used to sharpen blurry areas.

By far the most common “fix” I’ve seen online is the Filter > Sharpen + Sharpen Again (CMD or Ctrl +F) method.

I’ll admit I don’t like or use this one. It introduces much too much pixilation into the photo for my personal tastes. Plus, it also doesn’t touch a really soft blurry area, in motion, such as the one we have here. It sharpens the non-blurry area rather nicely; the only effect on the blurry area is to make it a bit grainier. Take it another step (3 in all) and it just gets grainier. You can hit Ctrl or Cmd + F for the rest of your days and it won’t be clearer, just grainier. When using this method, remember to duplicate your original layer and do the sharpening on the duplicate; this is a destructive procedure*.

Left:before, center: 2 sharpen steps, right: 3 sharpen steps...

The next method is the good old dependable High Pass Filter.

Again, when using the High Pass Filter, duplicate your original. HPF is also destructive*.  With the duplicate layer selected, go to Filter > Other >High Pass. The blurry part of the photo (or the entire photo if it’s all blurry) will be “softer” than the rest.

You’ll need to adjust the pixel radius to sharpen the soft area; don’t even pay attention to the already sharp area. If you find that area to be over sharpened when you use a Layer Blend Mode on it, you can always mask it out later. Right now, the only concern is the blurry or “soft” area.

When you’ve found a satisfactory pixel radius, click ok. With the duplicate layer still selected,  go to your Layer Blend Modes. I usually end up using either Soft Light or Overlay, but I run through them all, anyway. You never know if another might work better with any given photo!

*Before using either of these filters, convert your duplicate layer into a Smart Object (right click on the thumbnail in the layer stack and select “Convert To Smart Object”) or go to Layer > Smart Objects > Convert To Smart Objects. This way you can go back and adjust your settings if you like, without starting all over again!

The last method I’ll go over today is exclusive to Photoshop CS5, HDR Toning.

Instead of duplicating the original layer on this one, you’ll need to duplicate the image itself (Image > Duplicate…). HDR Toning only works on a flat image and you’ll still need your original, so duplication it is!

Once the image is duplicated, go back to Image > Adjustments >HDR Toning. Run through the presets, or move the sliders, until you see a sufficient sharpening of the detail in the blurry area. Unfortunately, Smart Objects won’t work in this case, so if you’re not sure, or you want to try a few different settings, you’ll need to start over. When you find a look you like, take your Move Tool (the arrow at the top of your Tool Palette) and move the image into your original image. This will make the HDR Toning Image into a layer over the original image.

As with the High Pass Filter, use a Layer Blend Mode on the HDR Toning Layer. Again, I used Soft Light.

Next week, we’ll combine methods and add a few more steps to further improve a blurry image!

Author disclaimer: It’s human nature; everyone thinks their way is the best way. I believe, however, that no one technique is ever “the best” for every situation. Every photo is different and different methods should be explored to find which the best in that particular situation is. That being said, let it be known that I attempt to try and teach many different ways of doing things. If I employ one way and it seems to you, the reader, that another way may have worked as well or better, rest assured that the techniques being used are done so in the interest of creative exploration, not nescient omission. ~JS

About Janine Smith (114 Articles)
Janine Smith is the owner of Landailyn Research and Restoration, a Fort Worth, Texas based company whose services include family history research and photo restoration. Janine honed her skills in restoring badly damaged photos as a volunteer with Operation Photo Rescue, a non-profit organization whose mission is to repair photographs damaged by unforeseen circumstances such as house fires and natural disasters. <br> Janine’s work is well-known in the world of genealogical and historical societies, museums, libraries, university archives, and non-profit organizations; appearing on the board of directors for several organizations and institutions. She is a sought-after lecturer on photo restoration and preservation to libraries, genealogical and historical societies. <br> In addition to being a Lynda.com author, Janine is the author of many articles on research and restoration appearing in newspapers and magazines, both on and offline. Janine's history and photo restoration columns appear regularly on TipSquirrel.com and in the popular Shades Of The Departed Digital Magazine. <br> Janine is the winner of the 2010 “Photoshop User Award” in the photo-restoration category.

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