The Client Wants to Buy Their Favorite Image From the Photoshoot, but It Is Not Sharp. What Do You Do?

The Client Wants to Buy Their Favorite Image From the Photoshoot, but It Is Not Sharp. What Do You Do?

It's a very mixed feeling: you are happy they like the shot, but you are also disappointed that it's not sharp. I'm going to share my way of dealing with the situation, but I am also curious about your way of handling the problem.

Self-Assessment

My first reaction is to see the reason why it wasn't sharp, so that next time, I won't make the same mistake. There are four main cases when that happens.

You've Missed the Focus

That's the most obvious case. It happens when your depth of field is so shallow that any slight deviation from the best sharp-focus position results in a blurry image. It may be you or the client who moved. Sometimes, it's the autofocus that failed. A shallow depth of field is not only when you shoot at f/1.2, but also if you use a long lens (like a 135mm or a 200mm) even at f/4.0 or f/5.6. The longer the focal length, the shallower the depth of field is and the easier is to get an out-of-focus image.

When photographing more than one subject, it's even trickier, because they have to be all within the depth of field for your current settings. If you can arrange them so their faces (if you're photographing people) are on the same plane, it will be almost as safe as if you're photographing one person. Beware of too shallow depth of field, because the distance from the sensor to the person in the middle is shorter than the distance from the camera's sensor to the persons at the ends of the group, and they may become blurry despite the fact they are all on the same plane. If the advice has to be technically strict, you have to arrange the subjects in a curve so everybody is at the same distance from the sensor. If there are subjects one behind another, your depth of field should be broader either by using a shorter focal length or a greater aperture value.

Subjects on the same focal plane

Autofocus Has Missed

Depending on the lighting conditions and the movement of the camera or the subjects, the autofocus may not work flawlessly. One of the cases in which my autofocus fails is when I have a strong light facing me that the autofocus struggles to find high-contrast areas. I deal with that by temporarily blocking the light with one hand while I half-press the shutter with the other to get the focus locked.

Your Lens Is Not Sharp at That Aperture

Even the most expensive lenses are not perfect and have flaws. In general, the cheaper the lens, the more the imperfections there are. The good news is that all lenses have apertures and focal distances where they show their best performance. Usually, the sharpest images are obtained when shooting at aperture values that are in the middle of the aperture range. Some lenses are sharp at all apertures. If your lens can be adjusted from f/2.8 to f/22, setting it from f/4 to f/16 or so will give you very crisp results. There are exceptions, of course.

Your Shutter Speed Is Too Low

This is when the image doesn't look sharp but in a different way. There is a ghost-like effect. That's when your shutter speed was too low for your current focal length. The general rule of a thumb is that your shutter speed (as a reciprocal) should be greater than your focal length. For example, a focal length of 70 mm will require a shutter speed of at least 1/70 of a second. If your hands are not steady, make sure the shutter speed is above twice the focal length or, in this case, above 1/140 of a second.

Saving the Image in the Edit

Back to the greatest blurry image from the photoshoot. I will try to save it somehow using known and not so known methods for sharpening.

High Pass

The technique consists of applying a High Pass filter over a copy of the image layer. Then, the blending mode of the layer copy is set to Overlay. I may repeat the procedure depending on the level of sharpness I would like it to have. After applying that technique, the image may become grainy. You can smooth it by applying noise reduction over certain areas, like parts of the skin when it's a portrait of a person.

Sharpening with a high-pass filter

Use Contrast to Fake Sharpness

Together with the High Pass, I may add a Curves layer with an S-curve and apply contrast over areas that I want to look sharper. Technically speaking, this won't sharpen the image, but to the eyes, it feels like it's more in focus. Apply a Luminosity blending mode to prevent it from altering the colors too much.

Using high contrast selectively to sharpen image

Using Another Image

Another option I have used is to get the face or part of the face (or part of the subject I want to be in focus) from another photograph and replace it over the blurry one, carefully blending it. I may ever blur it just a little to prevent it from looking like a patch.

Fixing a Low-Shutter Speed Shot

There may be more hope fixing a low shutter speed than dealing with an out-of-focus shot. Not always, but sometimes, the ghosting effect can be fixed by patiently working with the Clone Stamp tool to remove that effect from the edges.

Ghosting effect when photographing at too low shutter speed

Blurring the Background

Tricking the eyes into thinking that something is sharper than the background is the core of this technique. If the background is more blurred than the foreground, this may feel that it's a sharper image. It requires blurring the background and then manually masking out the foreground.

Drawing

If you have the skills, you may grab a (digital) brush and a few colors and paint over the areas you want to be sharper or hire an artist who is capable of doing that if it's a really important photograph.

Low-Resolution Image as a Saver

If your agreement with the client is for delivering low-resolution images, this can serve as a relief, because the smaller the image, the less noticeable the lack of sharpness is.

The Unfortunate Case

As a last resort, I would ask the client if they would like to choose a different shot, because this one is technically imperfect. Even if they insist on having the photo, I may not charge them unless I can (somehow) save it in post. I feel guilty of charging someone for a defective product. The worst case is when you have a faraway background in focus while your subjects are very blurry. I will not even try to save such an image.

Conclusion

To have fewer cases, you need to know your gear, know how it acts in different lighting conditions and environments, and shoot at least two images per arrangement or pose, because one of them may have better focus. The last advice is especially applicable if you shoot handheld. Fixing photographs in post is not the best way, but sometimes, it's good to know a trick or two. Please share your experience with saving blurry photographs in the comments below.

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55 Comments

Deleted Account's picture

"Sharpness is overrated."

~ Keith Carter

Scott Murphy's picture

Not so sure I agree with this. Any professional strives to give their client the best possible images. If something is slightly unsharp like this one, try to rescue it with various software. If it is not up to your standards, then cull it.

The other option would be to re-work the image in soft focus, which would mitigate the slight unsharpness..

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

What about shooting tethered and the client tells you this is their favorite image from the shoot?

Scott Murphy's picture

The customer is always right, if they like it, then stick with it.

Chase Wilson's picture

0. Don’t show the client the not sharp ones.

Deleted Account's picture

Say it's a portrait session of someone's kid, and one of the slightly OOF photos was the one where said child shows the best expression or captures their personality the best? I'd show it for sure.

Sharpness < Story

Kirk Darling's picture

If you show the unsharp image for other reasons, then you shouldn't have any problem selling them that unsharp image.

Bottom line: Don't show what you don't want to sell. That's simple enough.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Shooting tethered sells more than shooting non-tethered just because there may be a couple of photos that are out of focus that can be dealt with (most of the time). As I answered in another comment of yours, the article is not a complaint, nor is shooting tethered. Clients love it. I love it too.

Deleted Account's picture

Exactly!

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

You forget about shooting tethered where the client sees everything in real-time. That's what I do. They may mark their favorite shot (being out of focus) right away.

Kirk Darling's picture

No difference from shooting with live view. You're in control. If you let them see "everything in real time" then you have already made the operational decision to sell them everything you let them see. If you don't think you'll want to show them everything they see, don't show it to them.

Chase Wilson's picture

I guess that’s really a personal style kind of thing. I do shoot tethered for all commercial projects. And they’re never going to choose one that’s out of focus or isn’t sharp.

I shoot tethered for portraits too. And similarly the customers want a sharp image. I do miss focus a little even on a tripod, but it’s never a super offensive amount of blur.

I never shoot families. And certainly never shoot people kids. So that seems more like the scenario you’re describing. And I can see having to print some soft images as a result. But really, I can’t imagine caring enough about those photos to do anything in post. I’m sure that’s a result from my bias of not liking family photography.

Anyhow, if you’re experiencing this problem - I’m glad you’ve found a solution that works for you. And it’s cool you’re sharing it with the world. I didn’t mean to come off as a dick. I just couldn’t imagine a situation where a customer would see and pick an image I wasn’t ok with them choosing. I get it now :)

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The shot above is something I did 10 years ago. I have a recent case with an out-of-focus image for a commercial client, but my contract doesn't let me use the shot as an example. It was a cold but sunny afternoon and I had to do portraits of the managers of a company and they were in a hurry. That outside location was one of the "sets" and it was a three-minute photoshoot where I could hardly see what happened, because of the bright sun light. One of the photos they really liked was a little out of focus (I shot at f/10) and we could not re-do it. I had to fix it in post.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Great article, but a small aside. Client shouldn't ever see images that missed focus or have motion blur. ;) They shouldn't ever have the opportunity to want to buy them because you culled them away before the client ever gets to see proofs. ;)

Deleted Account's picture

It really depends. If you're shooting commercial, then sure. Portraits are more about the content. If the moment isn't as well captured in other photographs, being a little out of focus shouldn't be the end of the world. We need to remember what's important to the client.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Yeah but if they want a huge print of that one out of focus images that's a nope.

Deleted Account's picture

Why? They want to buy a huge print... why not give them what they want. Just make sure they're aware of the focus.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Shooting tethered is what I do. The client sees them in real-time and may select something they really liked. I shoot commercial work. I can discuss with the client that the image is not technically perfect, but sometimes they don't care, especially if it's going to be used in a small resolution and nobody would care about sharpness.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I have experimented with tethered shooting but always found that it made the client/model too self conscious. They spend the whole shoot stressed about minor blemishes and things that don't matter so I always go back to hiding the work until it is "ready" for them to see.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

So, it seems it depends on the clients.

Scott Murphy's picture

Sheet happens. Topaz Sharpen AI does an amazing job of sharpening images like this without producing artifacts. Normally I would cull all images that were not sharp in the post process but in the case of this one I would try and rescue it before I sent it to the trash can
.

Brian Rodgers Jr.'s picture

Scott Murphy I agree. In my personal opinion, Topaz Sharpen AI is one of the best sharpening tools on the market today, if not the best. I've been super impressed with it. My only complaint is that it's pretty slow, but I also realize there's a lot of math going on behind the scenes in order to make it work.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

There seems to be a flaw in the logic of this scenario.

You should only be presenting photos that you are okay with the client purchasing. Otherwise, you are presenting photos that you do not want them to choose.

Either cull the ones that are not sharp, or there is no dilemma when the client chooses something that isn't sharp because you chose to make that image available.

Control what you can control. You can't control what they will like, but you can control what they will see. If you choose to make an image available, then there should be no dilemma when they choose to buy it.

No different than not putting your photos of your cousin's wedding on your website if you do not want to be contacted to shoot weddings.

Jason Frels's picture

The flaw in this logic is that it is built on the assumption that sharpness >>> everything else and that it is the only gating factor. Clearly the main point of this article is that the subject is >>> greater than sharpness and what do about that.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

I don’t think you understand what I wrote.

My point is if you present an image to a client, you cannot then have a problem with them choosing that image, regardless of what flaws you feel it has.

If you don’t want them to choose it, don’t show it to them and then have feelings about it when they do.

Sharpness is merely the flaw that the author used as an example, which is why I referred to it.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I shoot tethered. The client sees the images right away. Sometimes they like an image so much, that they don't care if it's sharp or not (or they don't see it's blurry). You can't control what they see when you shoot tethered.

When I have control, they don't see technically-flawed photos.

BTW, I have blurry photos in my portfolio. This didn't affect my business, because of the emotion such photos bring (the primary reason they are in my portfolio, not technical perfectness, although I strive to be technically perfect).

Alexander Petrenko's picture

I was surprised how many times, out of tens of photos made on the session, clients pick one that is slightly blurry. It seems blurry photos just look more appealing to the clients (I’m talking about headshots).

Kirk Darling's picture

If you let them see everything tethered, then you have already made the operational decision that you will sell them everything they see, or you're okay with arguing with them about it. There's no getting around that fact. It's the decision you've already made.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Of course, I already made that decision. The article is not about complaining about it, but with dealing with that fact in a practical way that will make the client as happy as possible.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

I shoot tethered, too. You can't control what they see, but they've hired you because you're the expert. What I've found (with headshots) is people generally go with what I advise them when it comes to keeper candidates and throwaways.

But if somebody wanted to choose an image that wasn't sharp after I'd pointed that out to them, it wouldn't bother me at all. I don't have any emotional attachment to paid work. If they're happy with what they paid for, that's all that matters. I'm never going to look at those images again anyway. On to the next project.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Remember that getting a blurry image is not always a matter of not being an expert, but sometimes the subject may move as well. In the case I mentioned somewhere above, I shot corporate portraits of busy managers outside and it lasted about 3 minutes (it was very cold, but the sun was just right, and very very bright). One of the images they wanted was slightly out of focus. That's commercial work. That's headshots. It's not in studio. They liked the image very much, but it wasn't up to my technical standards. It was fixable and I fixed it post.

By the way, I don't make any difference between commercial (or commissioned) and personal projects. You can't make a difference between them in my portfolio.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

I'm not suggesting that experts always have tack sharp images. What I'm saying is being regarded as the expert on photography matters is generally quite useful in guiding clients away from flawed images.

If they're okay with the flaw after having it pointed out, then it's fine with me. Putting a lot of time and effort into trying to recover a flawed image when there are others to choose from isn't something I'm willing to do, unless the budget for the job already covers it. Trying to fix one image can take more time than processing all the others combined. Somebody's gotta pay for that and it's not going to be me.

Indy Thomas's picture

The first part of the article talks about how to ensure a sharp image the next time. If you are going out as a pro you should already know how to use your gear properly.
The second part is the useful bit in salvaging a soft image.
However, I have to say it is often best to cull that image from the set.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Unless you shoot tethered (in my situation) and the client wants to mark the image that pops on the screen right away, because they liked it very much.

Even if you are pro, you will have images that are out of focus, not because your hands are not steady or you don't know your gear, but because your subject may have moved. This may be their favorite image.

Ed C's picture

Why did the client even see the image if it wasn't sharp? If you know it is a client that would be OK with some creative processing of some kind or print on canvas where it matters less then fine but everybody misses shots. No sense calling attention to them.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Because I shoot tethered and they see everything in real-time and sometimes they want to select an image right away, because they liked it a lot.

Michael Dougherty's picture

In a later version of Photoshop, apply the Shake Reduction filter. Maybe not perfect but looks a lot better.

Filter ... Sharpen ... Shake Reduction

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Unless you're a CS6-er.

Michael Dougherty's picture

I still use CS2 to complete final edits with older plugins. However, I do subscribe to the $9.99 Adobe subscription because of shake reduction, Content Aware, and RAW editing capability. For me, these features really make a difference.

Daniel Medley's picture

In regards to those saying that "clients should never see the less than sharp images" I disagree.

If I'm in a studio environment, I always shoot tethered. The client can see the images pop up as they're taken. I encourage it. In fact they are, to some degree, part of the culling process. After the shoot, I actually, God forbid, have them sit down and mark the ones they like. Double God forbid, even before I edit them.

It's not a big deal. No one shoots 100 percent all the time. No one.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

That's exactly what my situation is. Clients often select "on the fly" or after the shoot right on the tethered computer, and they don't really care about perfect sharpness.

Dan Donovan's picture

I check all photos at 100% for sharpness, before showing the final selection to the client.

VINICIUS YUZO ZUCARELI's picture

I really hope you're not a wedding photographer

Bryan Thatcher's picture

A suggestion would be to print it on canvas or something like a watercolor paper. The paper has less resolution and will appear sharper

Dan Cantero's picture

Turn it to B+W add grain and call it "Art"! ;-)
In all seriousness, I've shown slightly out of focus images to my clients and they don't seem to care anywhere near as much as I do. I've never had anyone ask me why it's blurry. Of course, I won't show anything that is propper blurry but if it's just a little I don't think it's an issue. If my croissant is a little bit out of shape.... I'll still eat it!

Paul Scharff's picture

One of the more famous blurry photos is the cover shot for Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde album.

Photographer Jerry Schatzberg took the shots at 375 West Street (now the West Side Highway) at Morton Street in Greenwich Village in New York. Jerry's studio was at 333 Park Avenue South at 25th Street, and Mr. Dylan lived at the Chelsea Hotel at 222 West 23rd Street between 7th and 8th, so travel was minimized. Mr. Schatzberg said he had no particular destination as a background on the day of the shoot and was looking simply for late afternoon sunlight.

The best expression and shot was taken at the end of the shoot and had some motion blur from both a shivering subject and photographer because of extreme cold on the shoot day. If you look at the outtakes it's clearly the best shot for composition and feel, in part because, incredibly, they only took 14 photos in all. (Back then, they just didn't shoot that much -- even the iconic Abbey Road shoot yielded only *6* photos.) Two shots with the chosen pose were taken, both of which had motion/shiver blur -- one with Mr. Dylan smiling, not used, and one without the smile, which was the final select.

Since their preferred shot was so superior, they used it as is. Some argued the blur was part of the artistic purpose, but the reality was that it was simply the best shot and they knew that they could get away with the blur because people would consider it purposely artistic. If they had gotten it sharp, they would have preferred it and used it.

I don't think even Topaz software can clean that one up, yet, but at some point I'm sure technology will allow us to see it in the crystal clarity the photographer wished he had captured.

Paul Scharff's picture

My retouching is limited to normal enhancements of photos for delivery to clients, so I'm not nearly as well-versed as others of you. But with some downtime at home, I took a stab at trying to de-blur the cover, and the result wasn't half bad.

Aum Sathva's picture

Don't look at how the photo looks, but how the photo FEELS, If an image is feeling right, conveying the message/emotion it is supposed to convey, then if it does not LOOK right then it's ok. (as long as your clients are ok with all of this xd) i'm not against sharpenning photos, but i'm completely disagree with the "culling" part,The sharpness is for the photo, the photo isn't made for the sharpness, this mixed feeling when a photo looks good, but it's out of focus and u wanna keep it but u don't, that (a lot of times) is basically when the image feels right but does not look right, if the bigger part of the creation is good, then what is the need to fuss over the small part

Bob McClenahan's picture

This happened to me on a senior portrait session last year. Every single image from the shoot was slightly out of focus. I couldn't tell until I got home and looked at them on the computer. Client couldn't tell and was ecstatic with them. I felt that I couldn't charge them for less than perfect images. They ended up "tipping" me the full cost of the shoot. I sent the camera in to fix and never had an issue before or since.

Mike Ditz's picture

I shoot tethered with commercial clients who understand the process and that things aren't always 100 perfect but why do you shoot tethered with regular people who really don't know a lot about the process, it does add to the "show" but might you be showing too much?
As long as they are aware that it is not 100% sharp then I would not have a problem with it.
The problem is shooting tethered where the client sees all the clunker shots instead of just the selects. Do what you can with the magical PS tools to make it better. But it won't be 100% sharp.
The reason pro photographers seem so good is that we don't show the bad ones.
Would the family like the tack sharp Billy or the slightly fuzzy Billy that they know and love.

“Sharpness is a bourgeois concept” is a favorite quote by Henri Cartier-Bresson but he was not taking family photos.

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