Cleaning up Grainy, Low-Quality Digital Photos with Photoshop

If client-submitted photos are coming straight off an older digital camera, they can be dark, grainy, bland or unbalanced. If they’re the best the client has got and there’s no budget for stock photography, it’s time to improvise. The goal is a balanced, attractive photo with no distracting flaws.

The Original Photo



Let’s start with cropping. I usually find a focal point (the golfer) and try to work in its favor, keeping in mind stuff like 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.

Levels, Curves and Contrast

Quality-wise, our photo has plenty of problems, especially the distinctions between Highlights, 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.


Dealing with color, it’s especially important to use adjustment layers which can be tweaked later on. 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.


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.

The Final Photo


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  • Joe

    Excellent article, thanks!

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  • thewild1

    wow.. that looks so much better

  • Joel

    Good article !

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  • Jenny


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  • aman

    WOW! The difference in the original and the final photo is just mind boggling. I wish I had a better grip of PS.

  • Thuy

    Your article has been very helpful, thank you so much!

  • FYQue

    nice .i like that.really informative

  • MOin

    i really like this post the technique you mentioned really helped me editing photos which were having bad quality.

  • Fizz

    Have a bit of a problem, got some pics (using a digital camera) where they have become blurry on the edges -they look like thy double exposed—the result of my friends shakey hands!!! And also some that are too bright! Can you give me any tips on how to render them in photoshop. I have a general grasp but asm no pro like you!!
    PS I love what you did to the golfer—makes you think what the catalogues do to images eh???!!!!
    Thanks alot

  • ryan

    Awesome, used this to clean up a load of school pics for an academy website. Thanks.

  • Will DeLoi

    Very nice job..such simple steps and minor tweaks can make an ok photo really stand out and look great. Thanks for illustrating this here. -Will D-

  • Dan

    I am on my knees bowing to you!

    I thought I had zero usable image for a certain project, and I actually have enough! Thank you for the well-written tutorial and steps to follow!

  • Dani

    Wow! Awesome tips! The link to that plugin alone is a huge find. Thank You!

  • Molly

    This was fantastic!!! Thanks so much for the advice and the program suggestion.

  • pooja kedar

    i want to do photoshop.but i want to know that is it good carreirr option or not

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  • Sage

    It’s nice but you lost a bit of detail and now everything looks a little plastic-like.

    The article is very good though, that’s pretty much my work flow for removing noise as well.

  • Tyler

    wow, thats exactly what Geoffrey Paris does for $20…now I can do it myself and not have to pay and have more fun! :D

  • T

    This is really weird…

    I was looking for some tips to fix up some wedding photos that were taken in ridiculously low light…

    But uhm…I’m 90% positive this picture you have here, the golfer, is my Dad. Seriously.

    • ADGV

      well he’s gotta be someones dad

  • john

    i have a pic of a qsl card that i made is there any way to resize it then clean it up with this method i have cropped it from a prog that does not export/save diff file names i cannot make it a jpeg or a tiff or anything else but i want to blow it up plz and tnx for the info

  • Liwei

    Muack! very nice and detail article…i like..

  • Brandon

    The difference between those pictures is amazing.

    I am facing a problem myself. I scanned in some photos and they have lots of dots all over them and I am looking for a way to get rid of them.

    Thanks for the tips.

  • rexusdiablos

    This is one of most useful and concise tutorials I’ve come across. It’s like a crash course in tools I’ve never really dabbled with before. Thanks!

  • Sarah

    This was an amazing transformation! I only wish you had a video tutorial too! I am very visual and have only began working with image editing. But I am bookmarking this page for future reference. Thanks!

  • Tery Brett

    Excellent thanks

  • Tiffany

    This was an awesome tutorial and the photo turned out like it should have looked to begin with.

  • Zequez

    3 years later and still helping people ^^
    Thanks ^^

  • Shlomo Minzly


  • Shlomo Minzly

    Thanks. amazing.

  • Jairo Santos

    FIVE years later and still helping people, HAHAHAHA

  • Donovan Dikaio

    I couldn’t get the exact result displayed here but made my photo look exceptional. Thank you.

  • Valia

    Great article, exactly what i was looking for! Thanks!!

  • kelly

    i need you to help me do this with some of my wedding photos

  • Nessa Nguyen

    You did a really good job with the example. It could use a lot of color saturation & contrast enhancement.

    However, I find the blurring most effective for my photo – which is high quality but grainy due to lack of light. But Smart blur doesn’t do much for me. I use Gaussian blur 1.2 px and set layer opacity to 50%

  • reslus

    Thank you for the great tutorial!

  • Raymond de Vries

    Many thanks for the tip about Neat Image, that is a fantastic plugin!

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  • Rico

    Thank U so much..this tutorial really helps me on retouch..

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    Leaving a date :D