In my recent post about high-resolution cameras, I stressed the importance of sharp lenses to get the most out of these 36+ megapixel sensors. But lens sharpness is an issue with any camera – at least when you start making larger prints. Even with a 16- or 20-megapixel sensor, lenses make a significant difference in large prints (16×20 inches and up). This is especially true in the corners; most professional-quality lenses are sharp enough in the center (at least with middle apertures like f/8 or f/11) for even a 36-megapixel camera. It’s the corners and edges that separate the decent lenses from the great ones. Those great ones are hard to find, and tend to be expensive.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could fix imperfect lenses with software? Well yes, of course. But my experience with such fixes hasn’t been good. I’ve seen some great before-and-after examples online showing a blurry photo fixed with software, but when I’ve tried those programs myself I’ve invariably been disappointed. These cures tend to be just more-sophisticated sharpening methods, which may help a little, but if you apply more than a small amount things get really crunchy, or you see other weird artifacts. I can usually do just as well by selectively adding more sharpening to the corners in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw.
A few months ago I stumbled across another program that promised to help with fuzzy images, called Piccure+. I decided to download the free trial, and found that it worked surprisingly well. It’s not a magic bullet; there’s really no substitute for sharp lenses. But it can help with those soft corners, or overall softness caused by diffraction. Like any of these tools, it will definitely make the image look too crunchy if you overdo it, but I’ve been able to push the sharpening effect further in Piccure+ than with other software I’ve used, with good results and minimal artifacts.
Here are a couple of examples, both made with my 36-megapixel Sony A7r. The first is a photograph from North Lake in the eastern Sierra, made with my Canon 17-40mm lens at 40mm and f/11. You can see the full image at the top of this post, but here are two 1:1 (100%) views. The first version shows the upper-right corner before using Piccure+, the second shows the same area after applying Piccure+ (click on the images to view at actual size, or 1:1):
It’s still not perfectly sharp, and there’s some minor crunchiness, but it’s definitely better. In a 24-inch wide print the corners look as sharp as the center. In a 40-inch wide print you can see a little softness in the corners, but only a pixel-peeper would notice.
I used this next photograph of a dogwood as an example of corner softness in my article about high-resolution cameras. This was also made with my Canon 17-40mm lens at 40mm and f/11 (with this copy of the lens that’s the worst focal length, though f/11 is its sharpest aperture in the corners). Here’s the whole image, and then the upper-left corner before and after using Piccure+:
Again, Piccure+ made a definite improvement. The corners of this one don’t hold up quite as well in prints as the previous example, because they’re softer to begin with. In a 24-inch wide print you can see some corner softness, though not enough for most people to notice. In a 40-inch wide print the soft corners are a bit more obvious, but the result is still quite acceptable – at least to me.
Compared with other software fixes I’ve tried, Piccure+ does a great job of correcting for soft lenses. But it’s not perfect, and there are limits to what it can do.
First, It’s slow – really slow. I don’t know how Piccure+ works, but I’m sure all the calculation involved takes a long time. The most recent version is faster, though on my older Mac laptop I still expect to do something else for at least five minutes while it renders. But this isn’t a tool that you’ll need or want to use on every image. I use it selectively, only when I’m ready to make a print that’s at least 16×20 inches – and only if the image needs it because of soft corners or some other issue.
Second, Piccure+ exacerbates noise. It works well with low-ISO images, but the sharpening process that’s designed to accentuate a photograph’s fine details will accentuate noise. There’s a Denoise control in Piccure+, and it helps – I’ll talk more about how to use the software below. But in general Piccure+ works better with low-ISO images.
Third, don’t overdo it! It’s easy to go too far and create a crunchy, over-sharpened look. The right setting for sharpening soft corners will make the center of the image way too crunchy, so I use a layer mask in Photoshop to apply the effect only to the edges and corners. I’ll talk more about that below also.
Fourth, Piccure+ can help with correcting camera shake, but in my experience it works better for correcting soft lenses, or slightly out of focus images, than with blurring caused by camera movement. It can help, and it’s worth a try, but it probably won’t help as much.
Then there’s the $109 price. That’s pretty typical for many software plugins these days, so it’s not out of line, but you’ll have to weigh whether it’s worthwhile for you. For me it is, because I care about making prints that are sharp from corner to corner, and after I’ve spent the time and made the effort to capture an image worth printing, I hate to see it ruined by an imperfect lens.
The instructions that come with Piccure+ say that for best results you should apply it to the Raw image. But doing this bypasses the powerful Raw-processing engines in Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, Capture One, or whatever you normally use. I’ve had good results using Piccure+ as one of the last steps (as part of my final print sharpening) rather than at the beginning. Doing that allows me to keep a fluid, flexible, non-destructive workflow that takes full advantage of Lightroom’s powerful tools.
You can use Piccure+ as a standalone app, or as a plugin for Lightroom, Photoshop, Capture One, or DxO Optics. If you have Photoshop, I recommend that you use it as a Photoshop plugin so that you can apply the effect selectively with a layer mask. If I’ve processed my Raw file entirely in Lightroom (which I do for 90% of my images these days), I’ll open the completed Raw file in Photoshop as a Smart Object (from Lightroom, go to Photo > Edit In > Open As Smart Object in Photoshop). Once open in Photoshop, I resize the image to my final print size and resolution, then go to Filter > piccure+, Run piccure+. This runs Piccure+ as a Smart Filter, so I can edit its settings later if necessary. It also automatically creates a layer mask for the filter, so if I want to only sharpen edges and corners, I’ll paint with black over the middle of the layer mask so that the filter only affects the edges. (You could also apply Piccure+ selectively to a foreground or background that’s slightly out of focus.) Here’s what the layer mask looks like for the dogwood photograph shown above:
You could run Piccure+ directly from Lightroom to correct overall softness caused by diffraction, or a slight focusing error. To do this, set up Piccure+ as an external editor by opening your Lightroom preferences and clicking on the External Editing tab. (When you do so, make sure you choose ProPhoto RGB for the color space, otherwise you’ll see a color shift when taking the image from Lightroom to Piccure+.)
Regardless of how you get there, once you’re in Piccure+ the choices are pretty simple. At the top you can choose Lens+ for lens blur, or Motion+ for motion blur. Either way, under “Speed vs. Quality” I recommend using the Quality+ setting for best results. I leave Sharpness at 0, since I don’t want additional sharpening in addition to what I’ve already applied in Lightroom. For low-ISO images, leave Denoise unchecked. For high-ISO images, checking Denoise will help, but you’ll have to experiment with the setting. In my (limited) experience, anything above 50 will make the image too soft.
That leaves one more setting. In the Lens+ mode, under Optical Aberrations, you can choose Micro, Normal, or Strong. I’ve had success with all three settings depending on the image. Fuzzy corners probably need the Normal or Strong setting; I used Strong for the North Lake image above, and Normal for the dogwood photo, where the Strong setting looked a little too crunchy. For slight overall softness you might want to try Micro first.
If you’re in the Motion+ mode, the Optical Aberrations setting changes to Camera Shake Intensity. Under that you can choose five settings from Micro to Large. Just take your best guess to begin with.
Once you’ve chosen your settings, click Preview, wait for it to render, then zoom in to 1:1 to check the results. If necessary, try different settings and click Preview again. Once you’re happy with the settings, click Save in the lower-right corner.
As I said, there’s no substitute for sharp lenses and good technique, and Piccure+ isn’t a magic cure. But it works remarkably well in correcting lens softness – better than any other software fix I’ve tried.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve signed up to be an affiliate for Piccure+ because I like the product, and use it regularly as part of my printing workflow. So I’ll get a small commission if you click one of the links on this page and end up buying the product. As always, I really appreciate the support that you and all of my readers have given me over the years!
— Michael Frye
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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.