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…or how the Adobe Super Resolution add-on works with smartphone photos

Pho­to­shop has a new addi­tion — Super Res­o­lu­tion. It helps to increase the clar­i­ty (detail) of pho­tos. This is very use­ful if you need to crop a pho­to or print it in a large for­mat.

Here’s an exam­ple of what you can get with the new ↓ exten­sion.

When Adobe first intro­duced the Super Res­o­lu­tion fea­ture, it helped to enlarge pho­tos with­out los­ing qual­i­ty. But it was­n’t clear if such mag­ic extend­ed to images tak­en with a phone.

In short, Adobe admits that it pri­mar­i­ly opti­mized and devel­oped Super Res­o­lu­tion to work with RAW files, but also “trained” it to work with already processed files, includ­ing those processed on smart­phones, since by default phones always take pic­tures in JPEG or HEIC for­mat (for iPhone).

Like cam­eras, smart­phones have increased in megapix­els over the years, and in some cas­es have been equipped with larg­er image sen­sors. But, if you need to do some­thing more with a pho­to, some­times prob­lems arise. For exam­ple, a pic­ture can be post­ed on Insta­gram and small dis­plays will hide imper­fec­tions. How­ev­er, when the pho­to needs to be print­ed, the flaws are revealed.

It’s all about the pixels

Eric Chang, Senior Research Fel­low in Dig­i­tal Imag­ing at Adobe, blogs about many of the tech­ni­cal details of how Super Res­o­lu­tion tech­nol­o­gy works.

“We’ve trained the pro­gram to work with a lot of images com­ing from sen­sors of dif­fer­ent sizes, so they deal with real­ly small pix­els that you can find in a reg­u­lar smart­phone,” Chan says.

“How­ev­er, if you apply Super Res­o­lu­tion to a high-qual­i­ty DSLR file and then to a smart­phone image, both will improve, but don’t expect the improve­ments to be the same. It all depends on the qual­i­ty of the source.

orig­i­nal pho­to
Enhanced with Super Res­o­lu­tion and Edit­ed with Super Res­o­lu­tion

And there are a num­ber of rea­sons for that. Smart­phones are some­times used aggres­sive noise reduc­tion, in par­tic­u­lar when it is very dark — the ele­ments are smeared or soft­ened. Then Adobe tech­nol­o­gy will not be able to restore the details, espe­cial­ly if the object in ques­tion has a tex­ture. Cloth­ing fab­ric may look more like plain than pat­terned fab­ric, even after addi­tion­al res­o­lu­tion has been applied to it. The same can be said, for exam­ple, about the clouds in the night sky.

JPEG smart­phones can also com­press pho­tos heav­i­lymak­ing it dif­fi­cult to find all the details in an image.

By the way, for a smart­phone, even the JPEG for­mat can be huge. The 1.2 MB test image turned into a giant 126 MB DNG after going through the Super Res­o­lu­tion process — that is, the file increased in size by 100 times!

RAW from a camera and from a phone are two different things.

Dif­fer­ences in the sig­nal-to-noise ratio, plus the size of the pix­els on the phone’s dis­play are already force smart­phones to take high­er qual­i­ty, high­er res­o­lu­tion pic­tures. This makes it eas­i­er to work with JPEG and HEIC files.

Accord­ing to Chan, while RAW images from the phone’s sen­sors won’t match the details of the cam­era images, they con­tain enough infor­ma­tion:

— In 2019, we added the Enhanced Details fea­ture [расширенные детали], which has opti­mized pix­el-lev­el detail­ing from RAW to RGB,” says Chan. — So when you apply Super Res­o­lu­tion to a RAW file, you get both func­tions in one stepand this is where most of the improve­ments in pix­el-lev­el res­o­lu­tion and qual­i­ty take place.

Pho­to tak­en with Apple Pro­RAW, unedit­ed

Chan says that using Pho­to­shop or oth­er image-edit­ing tools, whether it’s sharp­en­ing or edge enhance­ment, may not make much of a dif­fer­ence when apply­ing Super Res­o­lu­tion after­wards.

“Any arti­facts you might get from fid­dling with the edges might just become more vis­i­ble,” Chan says. — We con­tin­ue to rec­om­mend: if you want the best result, start with RAW. It is clear that many peo­ple have images that they took in the past and which are pre­served in the JPEG for­mat. They can use Super Res­o­lu­tion for them too.

Pho­to tak­en with Apple Pro­RAW, unedit­ed, 100% cropped
Pho­to tak­en with Apple Pro­RAW. After Super Res­o­lu­tion and 100% crop

How­ev­er, image pre-pro­cess­ing, such as with Light­room, will not cause poten­tial prob­lems. Run­ning Super Res­o­lu­tion on an image com­ing from Light­room applies some res­o­lu­tion to the pix­els in the orig­i­nal image, there­by copy­ing and past­ing changes — pre­sets, clar­i­ty, col­or cor­rec­tion, tem­per­a­ture, etc. — over the result­ing DNG file. Or you can first run the pris­tine orig­i­nal image through Super Res­o­lu­tion and add the result­ing DNG file to Light­room for edit­ing. In any case, there is no dif­fer­ence in the out­put.

Comparison with SLR cameras

Josh Haf­tel, prod­uct man­ag­er at Adobe, says that high ISO often caus­es noise and arti­facts that dis­tort the image from the phone.

Night and low light modes try to fix this with brack­et­ed HDR cap­ture that low­ers ISO val­ues, but if the process also includes sharp­en­ing and noise reduc­tion, it makes Super Res­o­lu­tion hard­er to work with.

orig­i­nal pho­to
Enhanced with Super Res­o­lu­tion and edit­ed in Light­room

How­ev­er, results even for well-lit images can be sub­jec­tive, espe­cial­ly if the high­lights are washed out or the pho­to was tak­en with a poor-qual­i­ty sen­sor. For exam­ple, images tak­en with an iPhone 5 in 2012 may pro­duce dif­fer­ent Super Res­o­lu­tion results than images tak­en with an iPhone 11 Pro in 2019.

To com­pen­sate for the low lev­el of image qual­i­ty, phone man­u­fac­tur­ers have resort­ed to soft­ware opti­miza­tion. They tried to improve the pho­to even before the user takes the pic­ture by apply­ing terms like “arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence” or “scene recog­ni­tion” to it. It cre­ates addi­tion­al pro­cess­ing that may affect Super Res­o­lu­tion out­put.

Pho­to on iPhone 7 Plus after Super Res­o­lu­tion

Change in perception

The Adobe DNG for­mat is wide­ly used by smart­phone man­u­fac­tur­ers that offer shoot­ing in RAW for­mat.

Apple devel­oped its own Pro­RAW for­mat when it released the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max. It means that the com­pa­ny has offi­cial­ly incor­po­rat­ed RAW into its own cam­era app. Pre­vi­ous­ly, users required third-par­ty appli­ca­tions to work with RAW.

For­mat won’t work with Apple por­trait modebut will work with oth­er fea­tures such as Night Mode, Deep Fusion, and Smart HDR.

An unedit­ed iPhone 12 Pro Max Pro­RAW pho­to super­im­posed over an enhanced ultra-high res­o­lu­tion ver­sion.

If your Android has a pro­fes­sion­al or man­u­al mode, chances are that RAW shoot­ing is avail­able. There­fore, if there is such an oppor­tu­ni­ty, then it is bet­ter to use it:

“If a pho­tog­ra­ph­er wants to do some­thing amaz­ing with a pho­to — print the pho­to and turn it into a gift or present it on a big TV screen — it’s worth get­ting seri­ous about start­ing with the best,” says Haf­tel.

Pho­tos processed at ultra-high res­o­lu­tion may increase in size sig­nif­i­cant­ly.

Conclusion

Super Res­o­lu­tion is a cool Pho­to­shop exten­sion. And this fea­ture can real­ly come in handy in life — have you ever print­ed a huge birth­day ban­ner?

Of course, there are cer­tain nuances when work­ing with pho­tos tak­en on the phone. At a min­i­mum, the for­mat of such pic­tures is dif­fer­ent from that of the cam­era, and this degrades the qual­i­ty of the images. Although some phones have the abil­i­ty to shoot in RAW for­mat, it is still con­sid­ered to be infe­ri­or to the RAW of a SLR cam­era.

But let’s face it: we already knew that the qual­i­ty on a phone is worse than on a cam­era, right? There­fore, if you are famil­iar with Pho­to­shop, then you should def­i­nite­ly get acquaint­ed with the new addi­tion. After all, your mom’s or grand­ma’s birth­day is just around the cor­ner!

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