Adobe Photoshop Anti-shake Put To The Test

I first heard about Adobe’s astonishing anti-shake feature In October 2011 when they demoed it at their user conference. The tool works on photos that were focused correctly but had a slow enough shutter speed to introduce camera shake (usually from hand-holding the camera), resulting in a blurry photo. To put it simply, the tool will analyze these photos, attempt to derive the directional path that the camera was moving along at the time the photo was taken, and correct that blur path. If it worked, this would be the holy grail of photo correction, finally disproving photography teacher’s mantra – “You can’t fix a blurry photo.”

At the time it was touted as a feature “in development,” which in software speak means it is something we’re tinkering with, but might actually never be released. Therefore, I was very surprised when it was announced as a headline feature of Photoshop CC. Now that this was out, I was excited to put it to the test with some real world examples from my catalog. Would this be a handy tool in the digital photographer’s toolbox, or just useless demo ware – a good idea with poor execution?

To start with, I needed to find a couple of test photos. I did a metadata search in Lightroom through my entire archive for photos taken with my Canon 800mm lens at a shutter speed of less than 1/200 of a second. Even when mounted on a tripod with the image stabilizer turned on, such a slow shutter speed usually introduces camera shake. This results in blur, even when the subject is correctly focused. Most photos taken at this speed with that lens are mistakes, usually due to a rapid change in light or background. And almost all of them become throwaways, never seeing the light of day on my web site.

I quickly found two candidate photos, one of a female ring-necked pheasant at 1/180 seconds which was almost sharp, and a much blurrier shot of a swimming common gallinule at 1/100 seconds.

I first worked on the pheasant and brought it into Photoshop. I duplicated the background to create a working layer and opened the anti-shake filter. The first thing the tool does is to pick a portion of the photo and analyze the edges to make a judgement about the motion of the camera at the time of capture. It automatically selected a portion of the face, probably because it has the sharpest edges in the photo. I slightly adjusted the detection square so that it just included the most important parts of the bird’s face. This is the area I wanted maximum sharpness. Other than that, I left all settings default. I had no experience with custom settings here, and in those cases, it is usually best to leave things alone to see how the tool performs.

There is a large preview in the tool, but I found it didn’t really help me determine if the shake was corrected or not. I hit OK to see the following results:

In this photo, the blur introduced by camera shake has been corrected using Photoshop's new anti-shake tool.
In this photo, the blur introduced by camera shake has been corrected using Photoshop’s new anti-shake tool.

Compare the corrected photo above with the original below.

This image is the shot straight out of the camera, suffering from slight camera shake.
This image is the shot straight out of the camera, suffering from slight camera shake.

As I said, the original was almost sharp but not quite. But I was blown away with how sharp the corrected photo was! This definitely turned a throwaway into a keeper. (Thanks Adobe!) Here is a closer crop comparison to help see the improvement in sharpness.

The top image is the shot out of camera, suffering from slight camera shake. The bottom photo has been corrected using Photoshop's new anti-shake tool.
The top image is the shot out of camera, suffering from slight camera shake. The bottom photo has been corrected using Photoshop’s new anti-shake tool.

Very satisfied with the results of the ring-necked pheasant, it was time to really put the anti-shake tool to the test. I opened the common gallinule photo and followed the same steps above. This photo is much blurrier than the ring-necked pheasant, but I was fairly sure the subject was in focus, just blurry due to camera shake. This time I again chose a target rectangle around the bird’s head, as this was the area of critical focus (especially the eye). The results are below:

In this photo, the blur introduced by camera shake has been corrected using Photoshop's new anti-shake tool.
In this photo, the blur introduced by camera shake has been corrected using Photoshop’s new anti-shake tool.

The photo above is corrected, and the photo below is the original.

This image is the shot straight out of the camera, suffering from slight camera shake.
This image is the shot straight out of the camera, suffering from slight camera shake.

In this case, the sharpness improved quite a bit, but the results were not as stellar as the first photo. The resulting photo almost looked a little too crunchy, with small halo artifacts here and there. That said, this photo now became usable at smaller sizes. It will find a new life in web use and for smaller prints. Here is a crop to do a detailed comparison.

The top image is the shot out of camera, suffering from slight camera shake. The bottom photo has been corrected using Photoshop's new anti-shake tool.
The top image is the shot out of camera, suffering from slight camera shake. The bottom photo has been corrected using Photoshop’s new anti-shake tool.

So what do these two real world tests tell us about the tool? First and foremost, this is not a panacea for blurry photos. This is no reason to go sell your expensive tripod on eBay. However, it can rescue some photos that are right on the verge of sharpness, but suffer from some amount of camera shake. And for those photos, it really does a fantastic job.

I’ll definitely spend some time scouring some of my older photos that I rejected because of camera shake. I’m very impressed with how well Adobe was able to pull this off – it is definitely a worthwhile and very usable feature.

Gidget and Lola

Meet Gidget, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. She loves to fetch the ball, and will do it for hours if you let her. Afterward, she is quick to take long naps and generally look very cute.
Meet Gidget, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. She loves to fetch the ball, and will do it for hours if you let her. Afterward, she is quick to take long naps and generally look very cute.

I find myself doing more and more pet photography these days. I photographed some friends’ dogs on a recent trip to Las Vegas, where they live. These little ones are Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and they have the wonderful trait of remaining cute even long after puppihood. They both had a very sweet disposition and were relaxed and easy to work with. I didn’t try to pose them at all or add props – they were cute enough just hanging out and snoozing! Too see all the photos of these two buddies, be sure to check out the gallery here.

Meet Lola, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. She has a very sweet disposition and loves to cuddle.
Meet Lola, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. She has a very sweet disposition and loves to cuddle.

These are very impromptu and informal shots, but even if you are not creating a full studio setup, there are certain things to keep in mind to improve the photos. Most importantly, put the camera at eye level with your subject. This is a good idea for any time of animal photography (and people too!), but with pets, your environment is controlled and you really have no excuse not to. If the dog is lying on the floor, this usually means you are too. But the sore knees is worth it in the end.

Meet Gidget, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. She loves to fetch the ball, and will do it for hours if you let her. Afterward, she is quick to take long naps and generally look very cute.
Meet Gidget, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. She loves to fetch the ball, and will do it for hours if you let her. Afterward, she is quick to take long naps and generally look very cute.

Next, and again this is a general rule for many types of photography, use a tripod whenever possible. As I didn’t have a studio setup for these shots, I was relegated to normal home lighting, which can be quite dark. I stayed away from using a strobe as I didn’t have any diffusers or bouncers with me, and I was too lazy to create a make shift one. This meant that longer shutters and a tripod were a must.

Meet Lola, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. She has a very sweet disposition and loves to cuddle.
Meet Lola, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. She has a very sweet disposition and loves to cuddle.

Finally, if a pet is active or energetic, tire them out before any photography session. For Gidget this meant fifteen minutes of playing fetch with a ball. She was already pretty calm to begin with, but after a fetch session she was very relaxed in front of the lens. A tired pet will allow the photographer much more freedom in posing, props, or just making sure the pet will sit still.

Pet photography can be a lot of fun (in fact, I think I enjoy it more than taking people portraits!) and the results can be treasured keepsakes for loving owners.

Shooting the Ends of the Day

Stillness envelops the landscape of Mono Lake just after sunset
Stillness envelops the landscape of Mono Lake just after sunset

One of my favorite times of day to shoot is either just before sunrise or just after sunset. The sky casts the entire scene in deep blues and purple hues, and the light becomes very soft. It is actually a great time to shoot because all harsh contrast is removed, and the photo captures all the details in the shadows.

The photo above was taken about 45 minutes after sunset, just after the typical “magic hour” light had left the sky. For post-sunset photography, it helps to scout your intended shots earlier in the day, as it can quickly get quite dark, and it is harder to compose the photograph. There is only about half an hour with this type of light before it becomes night photography.

Additional benefits include lack of crowds (even most photographers leave after the sunset light goes away), and (usually) any wind will die down, allowing for reflections and keeping grass and plants from moving in those long exposures. Here it is helpful to have an intervalometer to help time really long exposures, as most cameras stop their auto exposure shutter timings at 30 seconds. A stopwatch can also work in a pinch, but that can become more fiddly, especially in the waning light.

Moments before the sun rises, Hot Creek reflects the cool glow of snow covered peaks
Moments before the sun rises, Hot Creek reflects the cool glow of snow covered peaks

This photo was taken at the other end of the day, about a half hour before sunrise. Again, there is little contrast difference between the foreground and the distant mountains due to the soft, even light. I had been to this location before, and had pre-visualized this shot in this kind of light. This helped me greatly in knowing where to go and how I wanted to compose this shot, so that I didn’t have to wander around in the dark (and cold!) of the early morning. I find it also helps with my early morning motivation to know exactly what I want to accomplish. Without a clear plan, it is far too easy to glance out the window and then roll over and go back to sleep!

A Counter-intuitive Tip To Tack Sharp Photos With A Long Lens

The hues of twilight cast offshore sea stacks in a blue glow as waves wash around them, Crescent City, CA
The hues of twilight cast offshore sea stacks in a blue glow as waves wash around them, Crescent City, CA

On my recent trip north up the California coast to photograph redwoods and rhododendrons, I also had an opportunity to shoot sea stacks just offshore in Crescent City, CA. After shooting a bit with my 70-200mm, I really wanted to go for a unique perspective of these rocks and stack them on top of one another. So I grabbed my go-to bird lens, the 800mm f/5.6. Using a Canon 7D with a cropped sensor gave me an equivalent focal length of 1280mm.

I waited until the sun set, giving me photos with the cool blue of dusk, and allowing me to slow my shutter speed to turn the crashing waves into a calming mist. This is the effect I was after – hard, sharp rocks shrouded in a blue fog of moving water. However, as soon as my shutter speed got longer than 1/100th of a second and started creeping toward the 1 and 2 second mark, the results on the back of my LCD were horribly blurry.

In normal shooting conditions with this lens, I never like to let the shutter speed drop below 1/250th of a second, and only if I have a stationary subject do I lock down the gimbal head on my tripod and go for something slower. But usually 1/100th of a second is my slowest usable shutter speed. What to do in this situation? Even by bumping the ISO very high I couldn’t achieve a fast enough shutter speed in these darkening conditions, and doing so would also counteract the effect of the moving water.

The solution seemed counter-intuitive at first. I found that by greatly lengthening my exposures, I was able to achieve much sharper results! The initial blurriness I was seeing was caused by the shutter vibration, amplified by the extremely long focal length (and yes, I was using mirror lockup). When I increased the exposure time, the percentage of time that the mirror shake impacted the overall exposure time was reduced, thus creating a sharper image. Using this principal, I found that by exposing for 30 seconds, I was able to achieve the sharpest results.

A couple things to keep in mind. First, this technique will only work if there is no wind. Even a slight breeze will blow a huge lens like that back and forth, ruining any chance of a long exposure. Second, make sure to check sharpness by zooming in to your resulting photo on the camera’s LCD. Never trust sharpness from a photo displayed 3 inches across – everything looks sharp when it is that small!

So next time you’re out with a giant lens trying to do landscape work (really not a very common combo!), remember to experiment with the slower shutter speeds. You might just find some sharpness in there.