How to Sharpen Your Photos: Beat the Blurry Blues

How to Sharpen Your Photos: Beat the Blurry Blues

The right amount of sharpness is crucial to all photography. Not every photo can be pin sharp, and sometimes it’s best to get rid of an outright blurry photo. Sharpness can be affected by factors such as lens parameters. As long as the image isn’t completely blurry, it can be sharpened with editing in post-production. This is a skill that will always be useful.

An image’s sharpness is determined by many factors. It can be lowered by the following:

  • Optical lens elements 
  • Condensation or impurities on the lens’ glass 
  • Motion blur
  • Incorrect focusing 

However, these are not the only causes of an unsharp photograph. 

If the photograph isn’t completely ruined due to blurriness and just needs some subtle sharpening to save it, it can be done in Zoner Photo Studio.

Make sure the photo is in focus while shooting

It’s important to mention that while sharpening the image using photo editing software works, it won’t save every unsharp photo. That’s why it’s primarily important to focus with the camera.

In a large majority of cameras, you can quickly check your image by pressing a single button to switch to a 1:1 view. It’s a quick and easy way to check if the focus is right while shooting. 

Sharpening photos with photo editing

Sharpening is a given when processing RAW images. Shooting in JPEG is a different case. JPEG images are sharpened automatically by the camera. 

To sharpen, open the photo in the Develop module of Zoner Photo Studio X. In the right panel, find the Sharpness menu. For RAW files, the default Sharpening strength is set to 130, and the Sharpening radius is set to 0.8. These values are roughly comparable to camera settings when shooting in JPEG. 

So, when someone tells you that their JPEG photos turn out sharper than RAW and that’s why they don’t like using RAW, remember it’s a common misconception. Processing the image in Zoner Photo Studio and exporting it to JPG will yield the same, if not better results.

How to Sharpen Out of Focus Photos
Original photo

When sharpening, always zoom in on the photo. Even if it looks sharp at a distance, at 1:1 view you will often find that it could use some sharpening, as in the case of our sample photo. It was taken with an aperture of f/1.7 and the plane of focus isn’t exactly at eye level. Because the eyes are the most important part of the photograph, it’s necessary to sharpen them. 

How to Sharpen Out of Focus Photos
Zoom the photo in to 100% so you can see what exactly is being sharpened

In the Develop module, you have two methods for sharpening available to you: 

  • Unsharp Mask
  • Smart Sharpen

Both work similarly, but Smart Sharpen has the additional Preserve contours option. This option makes sure that the sharpening doesn’t apply to already sharp edges. This means you don’t need to worry about over sharpening the photo. Using this method is a good idea, especially with more substantial editing. For less dramatic sharpening, Unsharp Mark is more than enough. 

Before and after sharpening using Smart Sharpen 

How to Sharpen Out of Focus Photos
Sharpness settings selected when sharpening this photograph

Just like with any other adjustment, every photo is different and universal values cannot be provided. 

In our case, we slightly increased Sharpening strength from 60 to 75. You don’t need to be overly cautious with this effect. Feel free to sharpen even more. 

But do be careful with Sharpening radius. It determines how large an area is being sharpened. If you increase it too much, you risk doing more harm than good. 

Smart Sharpen also offers the Preserve contours option. It helps ensure that sharpening affects only clearly defined edges (like eyes and lips) and won’t affect less defined areas such as the skin. This generally works well for portraits. 

The last slider is Sharpening threshold. It determines how different the colors must be in order to result in sharpening. As a general rule, setting very low values is sufficient. However, if the image contains noticeable noise, increasing this value may lead to sharpening (and therefore emphasizing) the noise. 


Sharpen the image locally

Sometimes you’ll need to additionally sharpen specific areas. To do this, use the Filter Brush (B) in the Develop module. Use the Unsharp correction slider for local sharpening. Increase it to positive values for sharpening or negative values for blurring. Use this method to easily sharpen light in the eyes or eyelashes. Or, use it to blur around the eyes, to help emphasize the eyes. 

How to Sharpen Out of Focus Photos
Local sharpening using the Filter Brush (B) in Develop

If you go a little overboard with sharpening, just lower opacity in the Filter Brush (B) mask or adjust the settings. 

What if your photo is blurry? 

It’s best to delete a completely blurry photo. If the picture isn’t good to begin with and it’s noticeably blurry, no amount of sharpening will save it.  

However, if for some reason you don’t want to or can’t delete or retake the picture, the following “last ditch” steps will help to some extent. 

  • Do as much natural-looking sharpening as you can in the Develop module 
  • Shrink the photo (for example, to 2048 px for uploading to Facebook) and then sharpen it 
  • Convert to black-and-white
  • Add artificial noise, which will lower the quality, but cover up the lack of sharpness 

These options are only to be used as a last resort when you want to save the image at all costs. It is almost always better to send a blurry photo straight to the trash. Save sharpening for those photographs that will benefit from the adjustment. 

Try sharpening your own photos today. Download Zoner Photo Studio X free for 7 days and fine-tune sharpness along with other imperfections in your photography.

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AuthorMatej Liska

I most love taking pictures of people. Weddings, portraits, graduation photos, balls... I am always in search of backlight, but I enjoy various types of lighting and mostly like to use shorter lenses. I love my Nikon, my guitar, and a kebab. You’ll find my photography on my website or on Facebook.

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