No matter how careful or how experienced you are every now and again a photo will come out softer than you were hoping for. Sometimes you can have the wrong focus point selected but sometimes the autofocus just screws it right up. Its frustrating and sometimes you can’t repeat the photo especially if its an action short.

As I began writing this I suddenly remembered I had one such picture I wanted to try and repair in Photoshop. It’s a photo I took of local surf spot on a very good day.

In the above photo, I had the wrong focus point selected. The surfer is soft and blurry but the shoulder of the wave is tack sharp. Not what I wanted.

Why don’t I just accept failure and delete it?

Because I like the shot, it’s not something I can easily reproduce. The wave was backlit and the surfer is deep in the barrel, it’s definitely worth a go. As far as softness goes this photo isn’t too bad there isn’t any motion blur. The ISO is at 400 and the shutter speed was 1/4000 sec (too fast but I was a newbie) a lower speed would have kept the ISO down.

What a determines the success of sharpening an image is:

  • How out of focus is it?
  • How high the ISO is, sharpening photos will introduce noise and grain?
  • Is there motion blur as well, reducing motion blur and lens together blur is near impossible?
  • How light or dark is the photo?

In Photoshop

Smart Sharpen

First I duplicate the layer (Ctrl + J) This means I can always go back to the original. Its good practice to have a copy of the original image to compare the results to. Try to practice good naming in photoshop, I would call this layer something like blur fix 01. (I forgot)

I am going to try the smart sharpen filter. Smart sharpen can be found under:

Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen

The regular sharpen filter is a bit of a hack job, it doesn’t give you any settings to play with.

I select remove Lens Blur, I find the Default setting to be a bit weak so I tweak the settings until I reach the point I think its sharper.

I try my best to keep the noise down but it WILL get noisier. I have to compromise between noise and sharpness. This is the problem you face when your ISO is higher –  you lose the ability to do more extreme editing later.

I apply the effect.

Below is a comparison of the original and the sharpened image.

To be honest I think it turned out okay. It is definitely more grainy but I prefer grainy over soft. The wave sharpened up nicely and the majority of the noise is in the dark areas.

The above image is at 100% zoom and it has been compressed for the web so please consider that.


If I was doing this for a print or something more professional I would also mask the area I want to be affected. There is no need to sharpen the rest of the image.

To do this I select the newly sharpened layer and then select Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All

Hide all means the mask begins with nothing visible, from here I can paint the areas I want to be sharp.

I’m going to use a soft round brush to paint in the areas I want to be sharpened. I’m picking areas where I think the softness is more obvious. A soft brush makes the edges less visible.

I’m doing this in Quick Mask Mode because it makes for a better screenshot and demonstration. This is not necessary you could simply paint the layer mask with a white brush. This is normally what I would do but Photoshop has several ways of doing the same thing.

So In quick mask I have painted the area I want to be visible when I disable quick mask I have a selection made. I then select the paint bucket tool and fill it with white (make sure you select the layer mask). 

When working with layer masks anything black will be 100% transparent and anything white will be completely opaque. The grey tones in between will be somewhere in the middle.

How much time you dedicate on the masking will be determined by the complexity of your image I was fortunate enough that this photo had no difficult shapes or objects. If the area I wanted to correct was obscured by a foreground element I would need to be much more detailed. Fortunately with this technique the mask is non-destructive so you can edit it and start again at any time.

If I hide the background layer you can see my selection isolated (above). I am only really interested in sharpening the area people might actually pay attention too.

Put it all together and this what I have.

A fixed photo will never be as good as a properly focused photo, but you don’t have to delete it just yet. This is why you should always wait until you download your pictures from the camera before deleting them.

Not all photos need to be super high quality to have value, this photo would probably not be good enough for a huge 30 x 20″ print. It does, however, have plenty of uses for small web images and small prints etc.

Somebody would find a use for it.

You never know what can be salvaged!!!


Works part-time as a Graphic Designer and Website Designer. Studied Animation and has been using and learning design software for over 15 years.