Three of our review team take on the excellent Focus Magic and give it a thorough testing. We really like it so you'll find this worth a careful read.

 

 

Craig Lamson I would like to introduce Craig Lamson.  Craig has been a professional product photographer for over 3 decades.  Craig has done it all and I encourage you to check out his website for the best product photography you’ll ever have the privilege of viewing.  Often times I can spend a great amount of time viewing just one of his images and learning while observing how he uses light.  Craig is a master of light, and I’m afraid that is an understatement. If you've ever wondered who I go to when I have a question you now have your answer.

 

Focus  Magic

A review by Craig Lamson

 

Focus Magic example image

"Going up?  Or coming down?"  copyright Craig Lamson 2009

 

 

How sharp is sharp?

Today’s high resolution DSLR cameras such as the Canon 1DsMkIII among others produce stunning images right out of the camera.  That is until you pixel peep at 100% or more in Photoshop.  Then it becomes abundantly clear that something is robbing your very expensive camera of sharpness.

The culprit is the so called “anti aliasing” filter mounted in front of your sensor.  Normally this filter is a good thing and the camera makers put it there for a good reason.  Without going into a detailed scientific explanation of why this filer is important, let’s just accept that it removes artifacts in our images that we would find offensive and might require hours of post production work to remove.

These filters work by slightly blurring the image before it reaches the sensor to help keep artifacts like moiré and edge stair stepping to a minimum.  Anti- aliasing filters can be quite helpful but how do we overcome the loss of sharpness they induce?

Since the beginning of the post processing of digital imaging, photographers have searched for a method to reduce the blur caused by the anti aliasing filter.  By far the most common practice is the use of the USM filter in Photoshop.  While quite effective, this filter really does not overcome the effects of the blurring, and if overdone can cause other artifacts like halos in the resulting image.  Another and in my opinion better method of doing capture sharpening is the use of a disconvolution filter. 

 

Wikipedia describes disconvolution as:

“In optics and imaging, the term "deconvolution" is specifically used to refer to the process of reversing the optical distortion that takes place in an optical microscope, electron microscope, telescope, or other imaging instrument, thus creating clearer images. It is usually done in the digital domain by a software algorithm, as part of a suite of microscope image processing techniques. Deconvolution is also practical to sharpen images that suffer from fast motion or jiggles during capturing. Early Hubble Space Telescope images were distorted by a flawed mirror and could be sharpened by deconvolution.”

 

That’s a mouthful but in layman's terms the software resamples the image to remove the blur.

 

Focus Magic fills the need

There are a number of programs available to provide deconvolution.  By far my favorite is Focus Magic by Acclaim Software Ltd.

Focus Magic is available for both PC and Mac platforms and runs as a standalone or as a plug-in for many of the standard photo editing programs such as Photoshop.  It is priced at a very reasonable $45.00 US.

Focus Magic bills itself as an image restoration program, and can refocus, defocus, remove motion blur, resize, and de-speckle images.  While I’ve briefly played with all of the features I generally only use refocus as a Photoshop plug-in as part of my raw conversion process.  I will be limiting this review to this aspect of Focus Magic.

 

Focus Magic, copyright Craig Lamson

"1...2...3"  copyright Craig Lamson 2009

 

 

One man’s workflow….

As I mentioned I find Focus Magic to be essential to my raw processing workflow.  My preferred camera is a Canon 1DsmkIII and I find it has a fairly heavy AA filter.  Focus Magic does a superb job of reducing the effects in my processed files.

My personal workflow is as follows, but it should not be considered as a gold standard, it is simply my personal choice.  Regardless of your camera or processing habits Focus Magic will work for you.

I always shoot raw and my first step it to create a tiff file for post processing by running my Canon files through Phase One Capture One Pro version 4.  I prefer to turn off all file sharpening in Capture One and do my capture sharpening in Photoshop.

Once my file has been exported to Photoshop I complete all my retouching and layers work before applying any filters.  Since I layer most of my important images it is important not to apply any re-sampling to the images that might effect critical pixel level alignment between layers.  When I am satisfied with my image I’ll flatten the file and then sharpen first with Focus Magic plug-in via the filters menu dropdown.

 

Focus Magic plug-in

The Focus Magic plug-in is activated from the filters menu.

 

Upon opening, Focus Magic will check the image and recommend a “blur width” for your image as well as selecting digital camera as the source.  Some will find this helpful but I would prefer that the UI would remember the last settings used.  At this point you can either accept the recommended amount, check for yourself by positioning the red box on a specific area of the frame and hitting the detect button, or by simply entering the blur amount manually.

 

Focus Magic, user interface

The interface of the Focus Magic plug-in is simple and easy to use

 

In addition you can adjust the amount of refocusing to apply in percentages from 0% to 300%, and to specify noise removal parameters.

My standard settings for refocusing are a 1 pixel width, 100%, no noise removal.  After applying the Focus Magic filter I usually adjust the final look of the image by fading the filter effects using the Edit>Fade command in Photoshop to taste.

The final step in my capture sharpening routine is to apply a local contract adjustment using either a custom made Photoshop action or commercial software such as Topaz Detail.

 

Let’s review the results.

With Focus Magic it is easy to overdo the process and create artifacts in your images.  Below are examples of a 1 pixel width blur at 0%, 100% and 300%.  Notice how the image begins to get crunchy as the percentages increase.  Remember, the goal here is to just eliminate the effects of the AA filter, not to over sharpen the image.  We can always add more sharpening later when we do output sharpening, which is reproduction size dependant.

 

Focus Magic, examples

From left to right: 1 Pixel width at 0%, 100% and 300%

 

Selecting too large of a pixel width can be both helpful and harmful.  Given the resolution demands of today’s DSLR cameras, I always try and use a tripod when possible to assure tack sharp images.  However, there are times when you must handhold the camera and that will often take the edge off the sharpness of your images.  On those rare occasions you might want to use a larger blur width such as two or three pixels to attempt to recover some of the lost sharpness.  You will need to experiment to find the right settings for each image.  Just be careful.  Too many pixels of width and you start to create artifacts as the images below illustrate.

 

Focus Magic example at 100%

Pixel width at 100% from left to right: 2 pixels, 4 pixels, 6 pixels

 

The good, the bad and the ugly.

While not perfect Focus Magic has earned a valued place in my digital image processing workshop and is used on most every image I produce.  It does a masterful job of reducing the effects of image blur cased by slight camera movement and the ever present AA filter.

The weak points in my opinion are the lack of sticky settings in the user interface and the slowness of the program even on a fairly speedy computer.  I understand that the calculations required are enormous. Both of these issues are minor when compared the quality this program produces.

That leaves us with the ugly.  While Focus Magic itself is not to blame, the possibility exists for a user to overdo the refocusing and create some truly ugly results.  My hard learned advice is that less is more.

All in all, Focus Magic is, in my opinion, a must have addition to the workflow of any serious photographer.  Those who are less serious will also find this software invaluable for restoring old photos and perhaps salvaging the inevitable botched image.

About the authorCraig Lamson has been a professional advertising photographer for nearly three decades.  His work can be found at:  www.craiglamson.com

All copy and images are copyrighted Craig Lamson 2009.  All right reserved.  No rights shall be granted without written approval from Craig Lamson

 

tom tweedel Tom Tweedel is a good friend with significant experience in China and has self-published several interesting volumes of his travels in China complete with many great images and informative narrative.  Last year he visited Thailand for the first time and I had a great time showing him around the area.  Somehow he found time to put together a like 364 page book of his travels around Thailand!

When Tom agreed to become part of our small select product review team I was both excited and grateful.  I hope you enjoy this and future reviews by Tom.  For those whose plans include extended travel in Thailand and China I’d recommend contacting Tom and inquiring into obtaining copies of his books.  Tom Tweedel is an Austin, TX based photographer and can be reached at: tomsds@austin.rr.com

 

Motion Blur

One of the key features of Focus Magic is its ability to reduce the effect of motion blur.  Motion blur is caused by appreciable movement of the camera or the subject while the picture is being taken.  It most commonly shows up in lower light when your shutter speeds are longer.

Focus magic does not have the ability to completely eliminate motion blur. A corrected picture will not look identical to one taken where there was no movement. But it does have the ability to reduce the effect of the motion blur and significantly improve the quality of the image.

 

Usage

The user interface of Focus Magic is fairly simple.

 

Focus Magic screen shot

Screen shot of bar

 

You open the image up and it displays the image at 100% (no other options for the stand alone version).  From the dropdown you select what type of filter you wish to use (in this case motion blur). Then you have two controls.  Direction and distance.  Direction is changed with dropdowns in 10 degree increments between 10 and 170 degrees.  There is even tilt indicator that lets you know what direction you have selected.  One apparent oversight is that you cannot select 0 degrees (horizontal). It defaults to this when you pull the image up the first time but you can’t get back to it without closing and re-opening the application.

When you select the angle of the blur the direction of the blur (left or right) cannot be specified.  I assume the software automatically detects and compensates for that.  The only other variable you have to put in is the distance of the blur in pixels.  You can objectively measure the distance of the blur by opening the image at 100% and counting how many pixels of displacement.  I tried this on a few images and found the results were not necessarily optimal.

By clicking on a section of the picture you get a preview square that shows you the effect of the changes that you have proposed.  The best way to use the software is to select a good spot where you can really see the effect of the motion blur and designate it as your preview.  Then set the direction of your blur.  You should be able to get a rough idea by looking at the way that the object displaces or smears.  After direction start clicking up the blur distance one at a time and observing the changes.  f you go too far your image will begin to look warped and twisted. Again, don’t expect perfection, only improvement.

After you have settled on a good distance for one area do the same thing for several more areas in your picture. I have found that the settings to make one area look really good are often too strong and make another area look really bad. You’ll need to make some choices and compromises about what is the most important part of your picture and bias the settings towards what fixes that the best.

After you have figured out what settings to go for you hit the process button (which looks like a green light). The program then works its magic. It seems to process the image section by section and updates the image you are looking at in real time. It will do a 3000 x 2000 pixel image on a Dell 2.2Ghz Laptop in under 30 seconds.

 

Lets look at this in action

 

Focus Magic, Train station

Train Station Unmodified

 

This was a shot of a train station in China I took early in the morning. The light was low and we were in a hurry, I didn’t have a fast lens on the camera at the time so I just took the best shot I could by pulling the camera up and snapping away. The resulting image was blurry.

You can really see the flaws when we zoom to a 100% crop on train station sign

 

Focus Magic, 100% crop of train station

100% crop of train station sign

 

So let’s try it out in Focus Magic.  I chose the sign as my preview point and put in 170 degrees as the direction and poked around till I got 9 pixels as the distance.  The exact amount varies on the image size. 5 pixels seems a good start.  Keep increasing it till the effect looks over done, then back it down a bit and check other parts of the image.

 

Focus Magic, Screen Shot of preview

Screen shot of preview with some degree of correction

 

After I decided that was as good as I was going to get I hit process and got this as the final result

 

Focus Magic, 100% crop of sign after

100% crop of sign after focus magic.

 

As you can see it’s not perfect but it is a vast improvement over the original.

 

Image Magic complete image resized to 600 pixels 

Complete imaged resized to 600 pixels

 

It took the image from “regrettable” to useable which was good because this was the only shot I had of the train station.

 

Example 2

This was a shot of “The Terminator” sculpture in the floating market in Thailand.  You’ll see variants of this at many tourist places and they universally seem to have a “No photo” sign on them for some reason. (Because they're breaking all kinds of copyright laws and they don't want it documented.  Steve)  I figured it didn’t apply from a boat so I snapped a shot.  Unfortunately due to the fact the shutter speed was not too fast and the boat was moving the shot is a bit smeared.  So I decided to see what focus magic could do.

This was the entire image.

 

Focus Magic resized to 600 pixels

Picture resized to 600 pixels

 

I started off using the “formula method” when I looked at the phone number on one of the signs it was very easy to count the number of pixels of displacement.

 

Focus Magic 100% Crop of Sign

100% crop of sign

 

I measured 13 pixels of displacement and typed that in. The result wasn’t the best

 

Focus Magic Preview with 13 Displacement

Preview with 13 displacement

 

So I had to back it down.  I checked a few critical areas of the photo and decided on 8 pixels for the amount of correction.  I then processed the photos.  The body and the sign look much better at the lower level of correction

 

Focus Magic unprocessed crop

100% Crop of Body and sign

 

As does the overall image

 

Image Magic Processed

Processed Image

 

Limitations

It’s important to understand that while this product can work some magic it does have its limitations. The biggest limitation is that you can only correct for blur in one direction.  If your picture is blurred in multiple directions this isn’t going to help nearly as much.  For example I took this shot of an elephant on the streets of Bangkok as we zipped by in a car.

 

Elephant before Focus Magic

Elephant Picture

 

It was a reasonably long exposure. We’ve got motion blur of me zipping past the elephant (since the camera was moving faster relative to the elephant).  We’ve got motion blur of the elephants legs moving as they walk as well as the mahout and the trunk.  Each of these objects is moving in one direction or another. Not the best candidate for focus magic but I tried it anyway.  This was the result:

 

Elephant after Focus Magic

IMAGE12  Elephant after Focus Magic

 

Not the best but it is an improvement in some parts.  This type of image is better off using a more traditional sharpening routine which Focus Magic also provides.

 

Conclusion

The motion blur tool in focus magic is a welcome addition to the photographers tool box.  It useful for improving shots where there is a little bit of movement or more frequently you may not have been holding the camera as still as you should have.

 

Steve's Comments

Let's do something different and start with the bottom line.  Focus Magic has earned its way into our collective workflows in a huge way.  Not a single image comes off my workstation, either files or prints, which hasn't had some degree of Focus Magic's voodoo magic!

We review with a team concept whenever possible and immediately upon first trying Focus Magic I emailed both Craig and Tom and asked them to be involved.  Each of us has different end uses and different workflows so I was assured Focus Magic would get a good wringing out and a fair review.

We're not talking huge night and day differences between Focus Magic and standard Unsharp Mask (USM) utilities like you'll find in Photoshop and other image editors.  We are talking small subtle but very significant differences.

Sharpening is very much part of the artistic process.  How much we sharpen, which part of the image we sharpen, and which details we wish to emphasize all lend a certain 'look' to an image.  Often this look is part of a photographers signature look.  We mask certain objects, we isolate lines, build contrast, and use every trick we can think of to get as much from an image as possible.  Focus Magic is one neat trick!

The tendency for those new to processing images is to over sharpen.  This almost always results in ugly and undesirable artifacts and halos.  Focus Magic is no different, use it too heavily and watch the artifacts dance throughout your image.  However, Focus Magic does seem to allow you to achieve more sharpening effect before artifacts present themselves.  Use any sharpening tool with a light hand and if in question error on the side of less sharpening.  Remember the adage "The Enemy of Good is Better.."

Craig and Tom, thanks for your excellent reviews!  And thank you Acclaim Software for a great product and your excellent support throughout this review period.  We look forward to reviewing your future products and new editions of Focus Magic.  And Acclaim one more thing.  Are you listening?  Can you please incorporate a Lightroom Plug-in?  That would be most excellent..