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Free Photo Editing, White Balance Settings, Photographing Stars, More Q&A

Dave answers questions about fixing blurry photos, free image editing, getting the right white balance, and taking photos of stars.

Have a question about digital photography? Send it to me. I reply to as many as I can--though given the quantity of e-mails that I get, I can't promise a personal reply to each one. I round up the most interesting questions about once a month here in Digital Focus. For more frequently asked questions, read my newsletters from August, September, and October.

How Do You Fix Blurry Photos?

Steve Cox of Lawrenceville, Georgia, recently asked how he can fix blurry photos in an image editor.

I'm afraid that you generally can't do a lot to fix a blurry photo. If you have an image editing program like Photoshop Elements, you can try the Unsharp Mask tool (found in the Enhance menu). Or, if you don't see that, just try the Sharpen tool. You might get some small improvements, but it's nearly impossible to eliminate blur caused by a shaky camera or a moving subject.

A better bet is to avoid the blur to begin with. I recommend using a tripod whenever possible, for example, and shoot at a shutter speed that's high enough to cover for camera shake. As a rule of thumb, that's the inverse of your focal length, so if you are using a 200mm telephoto lens, you should shoot at 1/200 second or faster.

All that said, fixing blurry photos--currently the stuff of science fiction and TV police procedurals--might soon become routine. Adobe recently demonstrated a new technology that might find its way into a future version of Photoshop. As you can see in the video on Petapixel, it seems like this future version of Photoshop can magically undo blur. If it's real, I can't wait.

Free, Effortless Photo Editing

Recently, you wrote about how to make GIMP easier to use. That's great, but I wanted to let you know that newbies who feel overwhelmed by photo editing software have the option of using a free photo editing service powered by humans called freephotoediting.com.

--Robert McLellan, Lyndhurst, Ohio

Thanks for the recommendation, Robert. There are a few services out there in which you can ask humans to edit your photos, but this is the first and only one I have found that's actually free.

White Balance Settings

If I wanted to manually set the white balance, what setting would you recommend for capturing a bright sunset? Should I choose daylight, shade, cloudy, or a specific number in degrees Kelvin?

--Bob Ruben, Calgary

You've got a lot of options when it comes to setting white balance, Bob. You can leave the camera on automatic, which is good enough for snapshots. If you shoot RAW, the camera's white balance setting doesn't matter at all, and you'll need to adjust it afterwards on the PC. For the ultimate color fidelity when not shooting RAW, you can set it off a white card before you start shooting. You could also approximate the white balance by dialing in a setting like "Sunset" or 6500K using the white balance control, if your camera supports it. Of course, it helps to know some common color temperatures, in degrees Kelvin, to know how to dial it in. Here's a quick guide to the most useful photo settings.

  • Twilight: 12000
  • Daylight shade: 7500
  • Overcast: 6500
  • Early morning or late afternoon: 4300
  • Sunrise and sunset: 3000
  • Candlelight: 2000

Photographing the Milky Way

Recently, reader Mike Hoffman asked if it was possible to take photos of stars without a motor drive. Mike wasn't asking about long-exposure star trails--he wanted to freeze points of light in the sky. My take was that it wasn't especially practical, because in order to photograph lots of stars at night you generally need a long exposure (which makes the stars blur) or very high ISO (which makes the photo extremely noisy). I challenged readers to try this for themselves, and Steve Zimmermann replied:

"I read about your suggestion to a reader about going to a very dark place in the countryside, dialing up the ISO and exposure time, and taking some photos of the night sky. Recently I did exactly that in northern Wisconsin and I've sent some results along."

Here are two of Steve's most successful photos. Using a Nikon D90 and an 18mm lens, this photo was shot at f/3.5 for 30 seconds, at ISO 1250. The camera was pointed straight up, and you can see a bit if the Milky Way.

Steve also sent along this photo, which was shot at the same exposure settings, but this time he captured Jupiter (the brightest point in the photo). You can also see a glow on the horizon, as the moon is about to rise.

Steve found that exposures longer than 30 seconds caused the stars to start to move within the frame, which is similar to my own experience. So if you're interested in shooting some stars on your own, this is about what you should expect to achieve unless you crank the ISO significantly higher--and then, beware of digital noise.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 800 by 600 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Ships at Rest in a Foggy Harbor" by Jerry B. Hissong, Hillsboro, Texas

Jerry took this photo aboard a yacht in the harbor just outside Valdez, Arkansas, about an hour after dawn.

This week's runner-up: "Reaching for the Sky" by Nancy Anderson, Phoenix, Arizona

To see last month's winners, visit our November Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.


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