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One of the most common rejection reasons on stock photography websites is out of focus or blurry images. Shutterstock is especially notorious for rejecting many images for this reason.
In this tutorial, we cover how to deal with this rejection reason to maximize your approval rates. In particular, we go over the best image sharpening techniques we use in our own stock photography workflow.
In-Camera Settings for Sharp Images
We had so many images rejected by Shutterstock for the out-of-focus reason that we stopped counting. Here is a list of things to watch out for when you are in the field taking photos.
Incorrect Shutter Speed Setting
The most common reason for blurry images is an incorrect shutter speed setting. There are no rules for the proper shutter speed. But fast-moving objects often require faster shutter speeds. For instance, you may need a shutter speed in excess of 1/2000 of a second to capture a flying bird. To set the right shutter speed will demand some experimentation on your part.
When you take photos handheld, ensure that the shutter speed is at least double that of the focal distance. Let’s say you are taking a photo of mountains without a tripod with a 200mm focal length. Your shutter speed should be at least 1/400 of a second. Otherwise, your image will be blurry. But, if you have a tripod, you can use whatever shutter speed you like for static scenes for the desired effect.
Low F-Stop Number Setting
Another factor that can contribute to out-of-focus images is a low f-stop number. A low f-stop number produces a shallow depth of field and beautiful bokeh. But, it also brings a narrow focus distance with it. That is because low f-stops open up you camera lens and let in more light. This makes it harder to keep everything in focus.
You must be especially careful to ensure that your object is in focus when using a low f-stop setting. Always review your taken photos immediately on your camera preview screen at 100%. This will let you immediately determine if your subject is in focus.
Post-Processing for Best Sharpening Results
Sharpening in Lab mode on Lightness Channel
After we finish our edits in Adobe Photoshop, we sharpen our images in LAB mode. While we edit our images in RGB mode 99.99% of the time, we temporarily convert the color space to LAB mode for sharpening.
You may know that RGB mode specifies colors through red, green and blue channels. LAB mode does that through lightness (L), green-red axis (a) and blue-yellow axis (b). Without going into too many details the gist is this. Sharpening images using the Lightness channel in LAB model does not touch color pixels. If you sharpen color data, this can create artifacts and other unattractive anomalies.
Here is how you sharpen images in LAB mode in Adobe Photoshop.
Step 1: Convert to Lab Mode
First, choose the following in Adobe Photoshop: Image>Mode>Lab Color. Choosing Lab Color will convert your current color space (likely RGB) to Lab color.
Step 2: Select Lightness Channel
Next, head to the Layers tab and duplicate your image layer and create a mask for it. This will allow you to apply sharpening on a duplicate layer in a selective manner.
Then, select the duplicate layer image and head to the Channels tab. When you are there, click on Lightness channel. You will see your image turn black and white. Then, activate the eye symbol for the Lab channel to make it visible. You will see your original image but with the Lightness channel selected.
Step 3: Apply Unsharp Mask
Then, apply sharpening with Unsharp mask from Filter>Sharpen in Photoshop. We often use amount from 100% to 150%, sharpen radius from 0.2 and 2, and threshold from 10 and 15.
Step 4: Mask Out Parts of an Image
After applying Unsharp mask, use the brush tool to mask out any part of the image you do not need sharpened. After you finish sharpening in Lab color mode, convert the color space to RGB.
Image Sharpening in Topaz Sharpen AI
Sharpening in LAB color mode works almost always if you have a more or less sharp image. But, it may happen that you have a great image, but it is a bit blurry. Or sometimes, it is very blurry. After testing several programs, we decided to use Topaz Sharpen AI for this purpose. It can sometimes do wonders to out of focus images.
After discovering Topaz Sharpen AI, we saw higher approval rates on stock photo sites. This was especially true for images that got rejected for out-of-focus reasons. We re-edited those images with Topaz Sharpen AI and resubmitted them. Later, they got accepted by the likes of Shutterstock.
Topaz Sharpen AI uses a trained computer algorithm to recognize the blurry parts of an image. Then, it can apply selective sharpening and denoising functions where necessary. The software comes along with many sharpening models. These can be motion blur, out-of-focus and too soft.
When we have a very blurry image, we use the motion blur model. It creates sharpened edges that were not even there in the first place. The program is not perfect. But, it helped us many times to save a photo that would be otherwise unacceptable for stock photo sites.
That will be it for this tutorial on how to deal with blurry, out-of-focus images for stock photography websites. If you have questions on or additions to our list of sharpening techniques, please leave us a comment. Also, take a look at our other tutorials for stock photography that you will find useful.