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3 Simple Ways to Improve Low Resolution Images (and Typography)

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It’s not a miracle, but these helpful tips can improve the quality of an image when enlarging from a low-resolution sample. It’s surprisingly simple and quite easy. Fire up Photoshop and check it out for yourself!

At How-To Geek, we’ve written extensively about how it’s impossible to “enhance” images and reclaim detail that is lost or isn’t there to begin with. Are we changing our tune? Nope, there’s nothing magical about these tips, except for the improved results you’ll get when you improve your own low resolution images. Keep reading and give it a shot!

A Better Way to Enlarge Images

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Here’s our image at our starting point. This is zoomed to 100%, only a paltry 150 pixels wide.

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As we can see, this is painfully low resolution. Let’s improve things somewhat with a basic enlargement.

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Navigate to Image > Image Size. Where it says “Resample Image” you can change the type of anti-aliasing used to enlarge and smooth the image. Change it to “Bicubic Smoother (best for enlargement).” By default, Photoshop uses “Bicubic.”

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Notice the difference in the Bicubic Smoother version on the left versus the basic “Bicubic” enlargement on the right. Changing the type of anti-aliasing can make a huge difference the edges in your image, helping to keep them smoother, less jaggy. This can make a big difference

Improving Detail in Enlarged Images

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Most Photoshop users don’t go beyond RGB or CMYK. Today, we’ll be using a different color mode called Lab Color. Switch any enlarged image (we’re going to be using our image from before) and change it to Lab color by navigating to Image > Mode > Lab Color.

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Make sure you have a channels panel open by going to Window > Channels. Then select the “Lightness” channel or click the hide layer beside the a and b channels as shown.

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With “Lightness” selected, we’ll perform a Smart Sharpen filter by going to Filter > Smart Sharpen.

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The settings above worked for our example quite well, but feel free to fiddle around and find your own. You’ll probably want to keep your “Remove” setting to “Gaussian Blur” as shown above.

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You can remain in Lab Color or convert back to RGB. Unlike a conversion between RGB and CMYK, RGB converts perfectly to Lab without any noticeable color shift. In either color mode, select your combined channelset by pressing Ctrl + 2.

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It’s not perfect, but the comparison of before and after is pretty dramatic. Our updated image (on the right) has a much richer skin texture and doesn’t look like it was enlarged nearly 2000% from an image 150 pixels wide.

But Wait! Wild Typography Appears!

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Typography is a different beast altogether. This low resolution sample is set at only 100 pixels wide and has some big, very noticeable problems.

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Resize your image to your target size. Here, we’re increasing the size by 10 times and using the “Nearest Neighbor” setting to keep our edges jaggy. Don’t worry, this will all make sense in a moment.

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And it looks no different than before! Let’s see what we can do to change that.

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Apply a Gaussian Blur by going to Filter > Gaussian Blur and using a setting that blurs the edges without making the text completely unreadable.

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Your final type should look something like this.

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We’re now going to use a “Threshold” adjustment layer. Click the adjustment layer in the Layers Panel to insert one.

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Is it perfect? No. Is it less blurry and jaggy? Yes, surprisingly so. But any further improvement would have to be done with the brush tool and a lot of patience. This can be a surprisingly helpful trick for anyone that has to work with typography and is often stuck with low resolution files.


While our “enhanced” image cannot ever reclaim the detail of the original high-resolution image, we can, at a cursory glance, say that we’ve improved our image quality, both with the typography and with the photo of the girl. Not satisfied with these tricks? Have some better ones of your own? Sound off in the comments section and let us know what you use when you have to improve a low quality image.

Image Credit: Girl at the River Near Momostenango by David Dennis, Creative Commons.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 02/16/12

Comments (17)

  1. bemymonkey

    Interesting article – what’s the advantage of sharpening only in the lightness channel, as opposed to just using smart sharpen in regular old RGB mode?

  2. webdev

    Not everyone has / uses / wants PhotoShop, so why not mention a free alternative which imho even gives better results? SmillaEnlarger is a tool specialized for exactly this job. Just load your image, apply a preset or (which can give even better output) create your own – done. You should really give it a try (look for SmillaEnlarger on SourceForge).

  3. Harry

    I believe most if not all these tricks can be achieved in The Gimp (though usually this is mentioned, I agree).

  4. Michael

    Extremely handy! Thanks!

    Probably gimp will have these same or very similar settings and features, yesno? That’s a free alternative that does much of what Photoshop does, for those who don’t like the Photoshop cost as part of the equation.

  5. Eric Z Goodnight

    GIMP has a smart sharpen, but I don’t think it supports Lab color, which is why I didn’t mention it in the article. You can use plugins to get bicubic smoother style upsizing, but I’ve not done it, so I can’t personally verify it.

  6. minnetonka

    Would like to be sure I understand at what point you determined how large your first image example turned out: in the image size box it shows the original “paltry” 105 pixels wide and how to set the resample setting to Bicubic Smoother and proceeds with information about each of the next steps. The last paragraph says, “… enlarged nearly 2000% …” Was the enlargement size entered in the first image size box? The text smoothing example appears to show the enlargement from 100 pixels to 1,000 pixels.

    This is a wonderful article. It’s frustrating to get family photos sent via email only to find out they’re pathetic thumbnail size not even capable of having a 4×6″ print. I might ask someone to send the original, but they think the thumbnail is the original . . . so then you’re completely on your own if the photo is important enough.

  7. DeadlyDad

    Actually, the best way is to use one of these.

  8. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Minnetonka: Original image was 150px, enlarged to 3000 px.

  9. Jack Byard

    The article, 3 Simple Ways to Improve Low Resolution Images (and Typography). Is there any way I can save this article, I tried but was not successful, or print out the article.

  10. LadyFitzgerald

    @ Jack Byard. There are several ways you can save the article, depending on what software you have. One way is to highlight the entire article, then copy and paste it into a Word processing program, such as MS Word or the word processor in Open Office. That option will let you play around with the formatting if you are familiar with how to do so (I usually do it this way so I can clean up the formatting and save space on screen, then convert it to a PDF for stability). Another way, if you have a virtual printer installed on your computer, is to to hit the print button at the end of the article, choose the virtual printer, then “print” the article to PDF. I have full blown Adobe Acrobat on my computer that I use for that but there are freebies that will work just about as well for this purpose, such as CutePDF or PDF Creator.

    I just successfully made a PDF using the Print button and Adobe so the print output of the article is working. If you decide to clean up the article in a word processor, be sure to leave in the credits for the author. Also, get permission from the author before sharing the saved article with anyone. I’m assuming the fact that provision was made to print the article gives us permission to save the article but for our own personal use only.

  11. asosking
  12. d

    ha, love to the nod to the mention of how it’s impossible to enhance small images. I’ve discarded many an image due to it’s smallness.

  13. Killywiz

    if you have Microsoft’s ‘one note’ part of office you could use the “Print to one note” option. Easy!!!

  14. GIMP ROCKS

    “Eric Z Goodnight

    GIMP has a smart sharpen, but I don’t think it supports Lab color, which is why I didn’t mention it in the article. You can use plugins to get bicubic smoother style upsizing, but I’ve not done it, so I can’t personally verify it.”
    We’re in 2012 ! GIMP implements LAB since many years now !
    http://docs.gimp.org/2.6/en/plug-in-decompose-registered.html
    True there is no Bicubic smoother natively but it just makes the method change.
    I can’t wait for GIMP 2.8 to be out ! =D
    Anyway nice guide. I don’t care if is deals about PS or GIMP or some other software. When you understand the steps you can just adapt it to any other software. ;)

  15. Michael Kemp

    Zoner editor 10 is pretty good, it’s not free (although i got it free courtesy of http://www.giveawayoftheday.com), but it’s relatively cheap compared to other photo editing suites (or on par depending on where you look), so give it a shot. I can also recommens SnagIt 10, but I haven’t seen it free yet (hint,hint giveaway of the day).

  16. Jack Byard

    Many thanks for your help, a new computer and operating system plus advancing years, not the best combination

  17. Haroon Zaz

    Thanks a ton for such useful information

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