How To Unblur a Photo or Image
No matter how on point your photography skills may be, you’ve taken some blurry pictures in your time. Everybody does it – we take a great shot of our kid doing something exciting or the perfect product picture for our Ebay listing, and then later when we go to look at it, it’s all blurry! If we notice at the time, it’s no big deal – just take another picture. But what if it’s hours or days later, or even longer, and there’s no way to retake the shot?
Blurred photos can be caused by a number of things. Camera shake, vibration, or insufficient focus can all create a blurry image that either detracts from or outright ruins the image. But is a blurry image game over? What if you caught something that will never happen again? Can you unblur a picture? The answer is: sometimes.
Digital image manipulation software will always let you sharpen an image, although that sharpening process can cause the addition of “noise” (random-looking pixels) to the image. Sometimes, a moderately-blurred image can be considerably improved in terms of overall quality. There are a number of software tools available that will let you sharpen images. You can do it with Photoshop or other desktop software, a mobile app, or an online tool. The results largely depend on the tool you use and the level of blur in the image.
With images rapidly taking over social media and the internet at large, the quality of your pictures counts for a lot. We will often have the luxury of time to frame, focus, and take a shot carefully, but that isn’t always the case. In this article, I’ll introduce you to the basic tools that you can use to try to unblur a photo or image. But first, I’ll give you some tips on how not to get blurred photos in the first place.
As noted above, there are several different causes for blur. The good news is, there’s usually something that can be done to prevent each one.
Camera shake is a significant cause of blurring. Sometimes this kind of blur occurs because you are holding the camera and your hands shake. This used to be a huge problem with digital cameras, because digital cameras take a little bit longer to take an image than the old analog film cameras did, and during that longer interval, if the person holding the camera didn’t have very steady hands, a blurred shot was often the result. However, most digital cameras and smartphone cameras today have anti-shake software features that completely compensate for this kind of minor movement, and handheld shots are usually rock-steady.
The most common culprit for camera shake these days, ironically, is the use of tripods. Tripods for stabilizing and holding a camera date back to the 1820s, and the old technology is still very useful to photographers today, even those using an iPhone instead of an Ikon. (It’s an old kind of camera. Ask your father. This joke was hilarious.) With the use of an adapter, you can use a smartphone and a tripod together to take great pictures. The big problem that arises is that the control button for the smartphone is usually a software button on the glass – and when you tap it, it can cause the camera to shake in the mount and you end up with a blurry photograph. Sure, you can just take another one, but it’s a pain and the next one might be jumpy too. Fortunately, there is a quick and cheap fix – a Bluetooth shutter button that will let you trigger the camera on your phone without touching it.
Another major cause for blurry pictures is camera focus. This is another problem that they had in the old days, but it was also one that was easily fixed by the photographer on the scene, because when he or she was looking through the viewfinder, the photographer was seeing the same image as the camera was seeing and the out of focus problem was usually obvious. Back then, a photographer would manually adjust the focus. Today, most digital and smartphone cameras use AutoFocus, which is great, except for when it chooses the wrong things in the frame to base the focus on. This is the cause of pictures you’ll sometimes see where a tree in the background is in perfect focus, while the pretty girl in a swimsuit who was the actual subject of the photo is a blurry blob.
Fixing an out of focus error is fairly easy with a digital SLR camera. Just point the camera directly at the subject and half-press the shutter button. This tells the camera to lock its focus on whatever is in the center of the frame – the subject of your photo. Then move the camera back out to frame the subject as you want the picture to be taken, and press the button all the way down. The camera will take a sharp, in-focus picture of the subject.
On a smartphone it’s a little trickier because there usually isn’t a lock focus function. Depending on your camera software, you may be able to manually override AutoFocus. For those cameras without that kind of feature, you basically have to zoom in and out on the picture with your digital zoom and move the camera around until the software figures out what the actual subject is and refocuses itself.
Motion blur is a big problem for action shots, and of course, action shots are also shots that there’s just no way to get a reshoot on. (“Could the teams go back out on the ice and get where they were before that amazing game-winning shot? No? OK then.”) This problem is highlighted when the action is taking place indoors, as the lighting is often not good enough to allow a high enough shutter speed to capture all the action.
On a smartphone, you don’t have a lot of options other than to set your camera software to “sports mode” or something similar, and to try to get the scene as well-lit as possible, possibly by turning on the flash. Get permission to do so first, however, as some events and venues prohibit flash photography because it can distract the players. On a digital SLR, you have more choices. You should start by increasing your ISO. This is a trade-off, as higher ISOs will cause more graininess in the final image. You’ll have to find the right balance for the conditions you’re shooting in. The second tool you have is to increase the size of your aperture and get closer to the subject of your shot. The downside of this approach is that you may lose depth of field and the figures in the fore- or background may be out of focus.
Fix it in post!
No matter what tool you use, the first thing to do is to make a backup copy of the image file you are going to work with! That way if a tool doesn’t work for you, or makes the situation worse than it was, you at least have a clean copy of the original photograph! I usually make a copy of the backup for each tool I’m going to try, i.e., “imagename_photoshop_working.png,” “imagename_gimp_working.png” and so on.
Unblur a picture using Photoshop
Photoshop has several tools you can use to unblur images. I know of three different ways to achieve a much sharper image from an initially blurry image. Each does things slightly differently and works better or worse in different situations. You just need a little trial and error to figure out which is which.
- Open your image in Photoshop Elements.
- Select the Filters menu and then Enhance.
- Select Unsharp Mask.
- Adjust both the Radius and Amount until your image is sharp.
This takes a little adjusting to get right, but it works very well at unblurring a picture.
Using just Photoshop:
- Open your image in Photoshop.
- Duplicate the background layer and select it.
- Select Filter, Other and High Pass and set it to 10%.
- Select the blend mode of the layer to hard light and set the opacity until the image is clear.
If you use a newer version of Photoshop, you can also use camera shake reduction to reduce blur in images.
- Open your image in Photoshop.
- Select Filter, Sharpen, and Shake Reduction.
- Allow Photoshop to work its magic and preview the differences.
This final option has Photoshop do all the work. No user input as to settings and levels is required. As long as you have preview enabled, you should see the before and after image side by side.
Unblur a picture using GIMP
If you don’t have Photoshop, you could use the free image editor GIMP. It is an excellent program that can do a lot. Considering it is free, it is a very feature-rich application that I often recommend. It isn’t quite as powerful as Photoshop, but it is free and does everything most of us need it to do, including unblurring an image.
- Open the image in GIMP.
- Select Blur/Sharpen from the Toolbox.
- Select Sharpen and drag your mouse over the image to sharpen it all or select a portion to sharpen just part of it.
As you select parts of the image to sharpen, GIMP automatically does its work. You should see the image dynamically sharpen as you move your mouse. It is quite effective at unblurring images and works well.
Unblur a picture using Paint.net
Paint.net is another free image editing tool that can achieve a lot at no cost. Sharpening is not one of its strong suits but it does a credible job of reducing blur in images.
- Open the image in Paint.net.
- Select Effects, Picture, and Sharpen.
- Move the slider in the Sharpen popup to a level you are happy with.
- Select OK and save.
The Sharpen tool can then introduce noise to the image. You may be able to reduce that by using Effects and Noise Reduction. Again, adjust until you are happy.
Unblur a picture using Snapseed
Snapseed is an app from Google that works on both Android and iPhones. It is a full image editor that works on most newer devices and has a very full feature set. One thing it does well is sharpen images. You can also selectively blur images, too, if you want to go the other way.
- Open your image in Snapseed.
- Select the Details menu option.
- Select Sharpen or Structure, then either unblur or show more detail.
Both Sharpen and Structure combine to make a lot of difference to a once blurry image. I tend to use Sharpen first to remove as much blur as possible and then use Structure to bring back the detail. This will take a little trial and error until you get the levels just to your liking, but once you do your image should be crystal clear and ready to go.
Unblur a picture using online tools
Fotor is a great photo editing suite that offers a range of free photo editing tools from within the website. There are Pro tools as well for a cost, but for most of us the free ones do enough. The tool itself is labeled as adding artistic blur to an image but by using it and then scaling blur down you can use it as a sharpener.
Use the Basic tools in the left menu, then Basic in the second left menu. There is a Sharpen slider there to unblur your picture.
Photo Sharpen is much lower tech and does the work for you. It uses an algorithm to sharpen images. You upload your image and select the Sharpen button. The website does the rest. It will then show you a sharper image as a result. You cannot tune the results but the site does a pretty good job of reducing blur.
Those are the ways I know of to unblur a picture. I’m sure there are dozens of other ways to do it. Know of any? Tell us about them below if you do!
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