Fixing Poor Quality Photos


Most of us are not professional photographers. At least I am not. And from time to time my photos are not exactly perfect. Naturally, there are situations when I need exactly some of these poorly shot photos and when that happens Photoshop is my best and only friend.

In this tutorial I’ll show you some ways to improve your poorly shot photos in order to make them acceptable.

Now, let’s start with the photo I choose to work with in this tutorial:

It was taken a couple of years ago with my old point-and-shoot camera and, as you can see, it has a lot of problems. Many people would choose to delete a photograph like this one because it looks really bad. In this tutorial I’ll show you how to fix these problems (at least most of them) and make a poorly taken image acceptable. Lets get started!

Our first step is to straighten the image and correct the lens distortion. Duplicate the original layer by pressing CMD/Ctrl+J on your keyboard (it’s always a good habit to keep your original photo untouched in case something goes wrong) and turn off the visibility of the original layer. I’ll use the lens correction filter. To access the filter go to Filter > Lens Correction (Filter>Distort>Lens Correction in CS2-CS4)

The Lens Correction dialog box appears as shown bellow:

The first job is to straighten the image. To do this, choose the Straighten Tool from the dialog box and draw a line across the horizon.

When you release the Straighten Tool Photoshop will rotate the image.

Now lets correct the barrel distortion. Click on the Remove Distortion Tool and drag toward the center to remove the barrel distortion (or away from the center if you have to remove pincushion distortion). You could do the same thing using the Remove Distortion slider on the right side of the dialog.

Finally I moved the Scale slider a bit in order to reduce the blank space at the edges.

I’ve enlarged the image just a little bit since I want to keep the rocks and the trees at the left side of the image.

We’ve done with this part so click OK to close the dialog.

Now lets fill the empty space along the edges. Hold down Command/Ctrl and click on the layer’s thumbnail to load a selection. Go to Select > Inverse (Shift+Command/Ctrl+I) to inverse the selection. Next go to Edit > Fill (Shift+Delete), choose Content Aware in the dialog box and hit OK.

Use the spot healing brush or the stamp tool if needed until you get everything smoothly blended.

Now it’s time to get rid of the color cast.

There’s many different ways to remove color cast but with this particular image I’ll be using the fastest and easiest one. Go to Image > Adjustment > Match Color and in the dialog box check Neutralize. Leave the other settings as they are and click OK.

The image looks much better now but it’s still too dark and the colors are flat so we need to adjust the shadows and boost the colors. But before that there’s one optional step. For this particular photo I believe the balcony and the parapet are quite disturbing and I decided to get rid of them. So I created a new layer above the background and removed them using the clone stamp tool. This is not a necessary step, it’s just my personal opinion and it’s up to you to decide whether your images need some objects to be removed or not.

Now it’s time to improve the shadows. I’ll be using the Shadows/Highlights adjustment. Right-click on the background layer and choose Convert to smart object. Now we can apply the shadows/highlights adjustment as a smart filter. Now go to Image > Adjustment > Shadows/highlights.

In the dialog box check Show more options and adjust the sliders until you get the desired effect. There are no settings that work for all images. Just play around with sliders until you like the result. These are my settings for this particular image:

Now lets boost the colors. We’ll be using adjustment layers and masks.

Add a Photo Filter adjustment layer and name it “water”. From the drop-down menu choose cooling filter (80) and increase the density to 32%.

The water looks better now but the rocks and the trees also became bluish. To fix this, click on layers mask to make it active and brush over the trees and the rocks with soft brush and black color. Paint carefully around the trees and use the smudge tool to improve the edges of the mask.

Here’s how my image looks when I finished with painting:

Now lets adjust the color of the trees. Add new Photo Filter adjustment layer, name it “trees” and make these settings:

Then hold down Option/Alt key and drag the layer mask from the “water” adjustment layer to the newly created “trees” layer to duplicate it. Confirm by clicking on yes in the dialog box, which will appear. Now press Command/Ctrl + I to invert the mask. Finally grab the brush tool and paint with black over the rocs to add them to the mask. Here’s how the image looks after applying the layer mask:

Now it’s time to boost the color of the rocs. Add another Photo Filter adjustment layer and name it “rocks”. Make these settings:

Again hold down Option/Alt key and drag the layer mask from the “water” adjustment layer to the “rocks”. Invert the mask by pressing Command/Ctrl + I. Now grab the brush tool and paint with black over the trees to add them to the masked area.

Here’s how my image looks so far:

We’re almost done. There are just a few final steps.

In the next step we’ll sharpen the image using the High Pass filter applied as a smart filter. Press Cmd + Opt + Shift + E (Ctrl + Alt + Shift + E on PC) to copy all visible layers. Then convert the newly created layer to smart object (right-click and select “convert to smart object” from the drop-down menu). Change the blending mode from normal to overlay. Now go to Filter > Other > High Pass and play around with the radius slider until you’re satisfied with the result. Don’t go too far or you’ll end up with a halo around the edges instead of sharpening. Usually a radius between 0.5 and 2.5 pixels is good enough. For this image I use 2.4 px.

Here’s how my image looks after applying the High Pass filter:

Finally I added a Curves adjustment layer with these setting on top of all other layers in order to increase the contrast and to brighten up the midtones. Then I changed the blending mode from normal to luminosity, which makes the curves layer to apply only to luminosity channel without any changes in saturation.

And the final result:

In conclusion I would like to say that even though we can improve the quality of our pictures in Photoshop (or other graphic software), it’s virtually impossible to turn bad photo into masterpiece. Photoshop is fantastic software but it’s not a magician so it’s always better if you get things right in camera.