Cleaning up Grainy, Low-Quality Digital Photos with Photoshop

Before mocking up new homepage designs for a client, I make sure I’ve received proper design assets like text, a vector logo, photos, and any other digital materials pertinent to the layout. If the photos are coming straight from the client’s digital camera, they’re rarely received in optimal condition – they might be dark, grainy, bland or unbalanced. But if they’re the best the client has got and there’s no budget for stock photography, it’s our job as web designers to improvise. It’s similar as for student to write a good literature review for his professor. The goal is not hyper-realism necessarily, but to create a smooth, attractive photo with no distracting flaws. Basically, take fifty cents and try to make a dollar.

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Depending on how our client’s golf photo will be used, it’s good figure out how best to crop it. I usually find a focal point (the golfer) and try to work in its favor, keeping in mind the rule of thirds. Early in the cleanup process, I also keep an eye out for details which might distract from that focal point. In this particular case, I’ll use the Clone tool to blend bits of sand traps and grassy brush until the golf course looks cleaner and more open.

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Levels, Curves and Contrast

Shadows and Midtones. My first move would be to try Layer->New Adjustment Layer->Levels. Select “Auto” and see how things look. If necessary, make additional tweaks with the Shadow and Highlight sliders, then click “OK”.

If that’s not quite right, some of the same effects can be accomplished with the Curves adjustment layer. I find the best results with a subtle S-curve, configured like this.

Are parts of the photo now too dark or light? Add a vector mask, and with a soft brush paint in/out the regions you don’t want.

Here is one more method for getting better contrast: duplicate your original layer, set the blending mode to Overlay, then slowly lower your opacity. Again, if there are bits and pieces you don’t like, paint them out with a vector mask. The key here is to avoid irreversible damage to your photograph by using Adjustment Layers and duplicates whenever possible.

Hopefully the photo has overall better balance now, but notice the golfer’s skin and clothing are still especially dark. Use the Lasso tool to isolate these problem areas, make a selection, then create another adjustment layer for Levels. From there, work on reducing the shadows until things look balanced, tweaking your Midtones settings like this. Or, you can always set your Dodge tool to around 30%, select the “Shadows” range and slowly remove the darkness that way – but beware of edits that you can’t reverse!

Grain, Noise and Artifacts

Everyone handles noise differently. The first thing I’d ask myself is if I want to reduce noise for the entire photo or just parts of it. If I wanted to repair only the mountains, I’d select them with my Lasso tool, feather by 8-10 pixels, then make a new Layer Via Copy. From there I might try Filter->Noise->Reduce Noise and configure my settings like this.

But let’s say you want to clean up noise on the entire photo. For me, a good non-destructive technique involves using the NeatImage plugin. After installation, restart Photoshop, go to Filter->Neat Image and select the “Noise Filter Settings” tab. Under “Recent Preset”, select Advanced->Remove only half of weaker noise. Once the effect is applied, you’ll have a non-noisy layer to play with, mask, reduce opacity and so forth, all without destroying your original image.

Regardless of which method you chose, the grain has hopefully been minimized. It’s here where I often duplicate the main photo layer and apply Filter->Smart Blur with settings configured like this. This is not for the faint of heart – some say it gives photos an artificial filter-y appearance. I would argue that if done right, the effect is actually smooth and warm and helps create important distinctions between backgrounds and focal points. Scroll to the final picture to see its effect on the mountains.


In this case, I used Hue/Saturation and Color Balance to get the blues and greens looking brighter and more harmonious.

But, like with many amateur outdoor photos, the sky here is white and blown out. To fix this I chose Layer->New Adjustment Layer->Photo Filter, selected Cooling Filter (80), and unchecked “Preserve Luminosity”. This gives our entire photo a sky-blue tint. So with a vector mask and a soft brush at 80% opacity, I slowly paint out the blue from everywhere except the sky.

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I usually leave this step for last. Now that grain and artifacts are gone, our golf photo needs just the subtlest bit of sharpening. For many people, the Unsharp Mask filter would provide decent results. Going that route, I usually duplicate my photo layer and apply the filter with settings like this.

A less destructive technique would be to duplicate my photo layer, set the blending mode to Overlay, then apply Filter->Other->High Pass with a radius of 0.5-0.8 pixels. The result is a nice finely sharpened layer which can be made subtler simply by lowering the opacity. If certain details are too jagged, they can be always be masked out with a soft brush.