Sharpening Photographs

The Family Album

I am the keeper of the old family album and have scanned all the photos from as early as 1917 into my computer. However, some of the older pictures are really out of focus or the camera moved as the shot was taken. This is a typical example taken in 1919 of my aunty and her husband.

So how do we fix these photos?

Step 1

The first step is to use whatever automatic systems are built into your photo correction program. In Apple Photos that means selecting the adjustment button on the top right hand side and choosing “Enhance”. Adjustments will then be made to the contrast and brightness to make the picture look a little better. In Photoshop Express that means choosing Enhance, then Auto Smart Fix. In Luminar it means choosing the presets along the bottom of the screen until you find the one that makes the difference you like.

You should also fix the dirt spots and scratches using the retouch button in Apple Photos or the band aid button in Photoshop Express. In Luminar you need to select the Erase tool, then select all the spots you need to correct and Apply to see the results. Luminar seems to better recognise edges so it easier to correct a problem near the edge of say a shirt then using either of the other two programs.

The next step in Photoshop express is to choose the Enhance > Auto Shake Reduction and Enhance > Auto Sharpen. Sometimes they do what you want, but unfortunately these buttons achieve little with this photo, because it was scanned so the scanner dot size – not the photo dot size is now the main small detail and the computer mistakes the scanners dot size for the photo’s dot size. So the result is a more visible grain coming from the scanner and a worse looking picture. But there is another button Enhance > Unsharp Mask. This seems to be the same as Aperture correction in the TV world.  It does give three adjustment levers – Amount, Radius, Threshold. The amount is obvious, the radius should enable you to choose the size of the underlying defocus effect and the threshold can be set to ignore the smaller grain. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any adjustments that solved the problem, I certainly got rid of the smaller scanner grain with the threshold and radius sliders, and found at a radius of 8 pixels, the eyes became clearer.  However at those settings, there was a pattern introduced all over the photograph. 

Apple Photos has a Sharpening tool in the adjustments window. It has three sliders – Intensity, Edges, and Falloff. Once again they did wonders for the small pixels but simply made the picture look very grainy.

Luminar has sharpening presets and with each preset, you can adjust the amount of correction. In my case I chose the Detailed preset. By adjusting the amount to 75% and then setting the Clarity slider and Softness slider I was able to improve the photograph marginally.

I also have a program called “Tonality” which is specifically for black and white photographs but in this case, it was not able to improve this picture any more than its big brother Luminar.

Back in Focus

I also have two other sharpening programs I have collected over the years to “refocus” pictures like this. One is called “Back in Focus”. This one is supposed to correct, out of focus photographs, but doesn’t do much for motion blur. When you eventually make it to the adjustment mode  – by double clicking on the photo after you opened it – there are no directions and no menu item, this program has a slider on the right hand size called Radius. This seems to set the radius of the blur correction. So you can adjust for the original dot size and ignore the scanner induced dots because they are much smaller. Just above the radius slider it has a selector for a number of different algorithms for correcting the blur and you can choose which one to use. My maths is not good enough to figure out which one to use so I have to experiment. Unfortunately there also is no description of what the other sliders do, or the masking buttons of Type A, B and C. So you need a lot of time to experiment and see if you can work it out. After a couple of hours experimenting, I was unable to find any settings that helped me get the photograph very much better than the original. I found lots of settings that made things worse and if I squinted a lot they all looked better!


The other program I have is called “Blurity.” This program claims to be able to remove motion blur as well as focus issues. At least this one has a bit more information on how to use it. The first step after loading the photograph, is to select a portion of the picture where the focus issues exist. In my case – thats the whole photo but I selected a section with horizontal and vertical lines to give it some help in figuring out the blur parameters. By clicking on an area in the left hand window, a red box appears.  They say this is a vital part of the process because moving the red box a few pixels can make a huge difference in the results.  Next, using the Basic settings you need to “Process” the photo. It takes a while to process but eventually the processed picture appears in the right hand window. You also will have access to the “Blur Severity” slider so you need to experiment with that to see if you can improve the image correction by sliding it to the right then processing the picture again. You should set this slider to the amount just short of where double data begins to appear after processing. You also need a fair amount of patience because pushing the “Process” button after each adjustment takes a while depending on the resolution of the photo and the settings you choose.

After you have something set up in the Basic settings, you can choose the Advanced button – there you are presented with a host of controls to fiddle with.  I spent a few hours experimenting and the best I got was this picture.

It is better than the original – sort of. This picture does look a little sharper but it also has higher contrast. But it doesn’t improves them to the point I was hoping for. Is either of them worth $100.  I doubt it. They were better then the other programs at not making the scanner grain worse but the improvement in the focus was marginal.

Other Programs Tried

I also tried:-

1. Lightroom and found it had the most promise because it was adjustable for the amount of sharpening, the radius and the detail and has masking as well, so you can sharpen some bits and not others. But it has a maximum radius adjustment of 3 pixels. I need about 8 – judging by  the programs above. So I tried making the image smaller to double this effect but the was still insufficient adjustment and the image was getting rather small.

2.  Aurora HDR. But again it could not give me anything worthwhile other than increasing the scanner grain.

3. Aperture does have the advantage that you can brush in the corrections so instead of the grain increasing all over the photo, it only increases in the areas you brush over.  Again there are adjustments but none that allow me to set the correction radius size to the original photo grain size.  I really like Aperture and the way it works – especially the way you can adjust the brush size by using two fingers on the trackpad, but Apple lost interest in it so unless you have it already I doubt that you can buy it.

4. Online sharpening tools are available and I tried two of them.  Unfortunately neither was able to make the picture look better than the original.

So thats 8 different programs plus 2 online programs I’ve tried with little success. I’ll experiment some more and if I ever succeed, I’ll write another blog (or change this one) and tell you how I did it!  Then I’ll apply that knowledge to the 300 or so other family pictures I have. Of course if you have a program or some procedure that does better than these programs, please message me using the contact button or leave a comment.

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