Working with digital photos can be pretty frustrating, especially when you need a larger version of what you have. Maybe you’ve tried to resize an image to make it larger, only to find that your new image looks like a screenshot of Super Mario Bros. for the NES.
This is called “pixelation,” a phenomenon caused by displaying bitmap graphics at a larger resolution than supported, thus causing individual pixels of an image to be visible. At lower resolutions, this might cause some blurring effects, but if you try to blow a small-enough photo up to a larger size, you’re going to end up with a digitized photo.
In this article, we’ll take a look at how you can fix pixelated photos so that you don’t end up with a distorted or otherwise low-quality picture.
Why Do My Pictures Look Pixelated?
Before we move onto our guide, let’s take a look at an example to get a better idea of what we’re going to be dealing with.
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. It doesn’t appear to be blurry or jagged in any way.
Now here’s the same image file, resized to be 1024×1024. Take a look at the difference.
Notice how on every curve you can see rectangular blockiness? That’s pixelation. Too much display area, not enough data to create smooth curves. When this happens, images become blurry, distorted, and just overall worse in quality.
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, stair-like 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 another 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 pixelation.
That should smooth out pixelation nicely. Fotor also offers a Smoothing tool that 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 Blur’ 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.
Pixelation can be very annoying to deal with. It doesn’t take much for a great picture to be ruined by poor quality.
Fortunately, while there’s no substitute for an unaltered high-quality image, there are tools and techniques you can use to improve the quality of a pixelated photo.
Do you know of any other Photoshop or Paint.net techniques to fix pixelated pictures? Know of any online tools that reduce pixelation without watermarking or having to pay? Tell us about it below if you do!