How To Fix Pixelated Photos & Pictures
Have you ever taken an image or a photo and tried to resize it larger so that you could print it out, only to find that suddenly your image looks like you imported it from a 1980s video game? It’s all blocky and squared-up, as though you zoomed in too close. The phenomenon is called “pixelation” and it is an artifact of the fact that an image file only has so much resolution. That is, an image might be stored at 300 dots per inch (DPI), and the original image might be three inches on a side. This square image thus contains 900 * 900 = 180,000 individual pixels. If you print it out to be three inches on a side, you’ll get a sharp representation of the original picture (depending on your printer, of course). However, if you print it out to be nine inches on a side, suddenly you’re asking your eyes to interpret 180,000 pixels worth of information over 2700 * 2700 = 7,290,000 pixels worth of space – naturally things are going to look kind of chunky. Here’s an example of how this works:
This lowercase letter A is presented at a size of 256×256. Notice how crisp the lines are – your eye doesn’t see any pixels, just curves and straight lines.
Now here’s the same image file, resized to be 1024×1024.
Notice how on every curve you can see rectangular blockiness? That’s pixelation. Too much display area, not enough data to create smooth curves.
Pixelation usually occurs when you try to resize a low quality image or when viewing a very low quality image. When you upsize an image too much, the eye becomes able to perceive the blocky, stairstep nature of each curve, which destroys the overall effect of the image you are viewing. Short of creating a new image of the same object in a higher resolution, there is no way to increase the resolution of an image. However, it is possible to use software tools to improve the image quality so that the pixelated image doesn’t look so bad.
There are a couple of different ways to accomplish this task. You can use an online service to process the image, or you can use Photoshop, Paint.net or other graphics program to do the same job manually. In this article, I’ll present a short tutorial on how to improve the appearance of a pixelated image regardless of what tools you have available.
Before we get started, an important note: whenever you edit an image, make sure to make a backup copy of the file and work only on the copy. Leave the original image file intact, so that if things go terribly wrong (remember that things often go terribly wrong), you still have the original image as a fallback.
Fix pixelated pictures with an online tool
Online tools have the advantage of allowing you to do significant work without having to download any software to your computer. This is great if you are on a work or school machine where you may not be allowed to install new programs, or you may be working on a phone or tablet. There are many online tools that can do image editing and manipulation. I know of two good ones for fixing pixelated pictures, and will describe them here, Pixenate and Fotor. Both sites offer a range of free tools that you can use to manipulate images without having to download a specific program. They are ideal for occasional image editing, especially if you need to do it on a mobile device, and both do a pretty good job of fixing pixelated pictures. Both apps work in much the same way.
For example, in Fotor:
- Upload your image to the site.
- Select Effect from the left menu and scroll to Pixellate.
- Use the scroll bar to scroll left to minimize pixellation.
That should smooth out pixelation nicely. Fotor also offers a Smoothing tool which can do more, but this is a premium tool. You will either end up with a watermarked image or have to pay. If you want to try out the tool, select Beauty from the left menu and Smoothing then use the sliders to minimize the pixels.
- Upload your image to the site.
- Select the Smooth Photo icon from the left menu.
The impact this has on the image depends on the initial image quality but should improve it somewhat.
Fix pixelated pictures with Photoshop
If you have a little more time and a lot more money, you can do quite a bit to fix a pixelated image in Photoshop. Photoshop is the undisputed king of image editing programs but it is an expensive program to buy. If you have a copy, you can do a lot with it. Despite a fairly steep learning curve with many Photoshop functions, it only takes a second to fix pixelated pictures.
- Open your image in Photoshop.
- Select Filter and Blur.
- Select Gaussian Blue and use the slider to find an acceptable level. Select OK.
- Select Filter and Sharpen.
- Select Unsharp Mask and use the slider to find an acceptable level. Select OK once done.
- Save the image.
Another approach is to add a layer with soft light to minimize the appearance of the pixels.
- Right click the image and select Layer and Create New Layer.
- Select Blending Options in the top menu and select Soft Light.
- Select Filters and Noise.
- Select Despeckle and find a level you’re happy with.
- Select Image, Adjustments and Brightness/Contrast.
- Adjust both to find an acceptable level.
The first process will do a bit to minimize pixelation and that may be enough. If it isn’t, try the second process as this can help a bit too.
Fix pixelated pictures with Paint.NET
If you don’t have Photoshop and can’t justify the expense, Paint.NET or GIMP are viable alternatives. I tend to use Paint.NET as I have used it for years. It isn’t anywhere near as powerful as Photoshop but is free, regularly updated and can perform many basic image editing tasks. Teaching you how to use GIMP is beyond the scope of this article, but Paint.NET is pretty straightforward.
- Open your image in Paint.NET.
- Select Effects, Blur and Gaussian Blur.
- Use the slider to reduce the pixel effect.
- Select Effects, Photo and Sharpen.
- Use the slider to find an acceptable level.
- Save the image.
There is no substitute for taking high quality pictures but if you don’t have that luxury, there are a few ways to reduce pixels in images. The exact levels to which you make adjustments depends on the image itself. Where you see ‘find a level’ just use the sliders to find a position where pixelation is minimal but the overall impression of the image is maintained.
Do you know of any other Photoshop or Paint.net techniques to fix pixelated pictures? Know of any online tools that reduces pixelation without watermarking or having to pay? Tell us about it below if you do!