3 Reasons To Upscale Your Photos | Lightroom Everywhere Newsletter Issue 10
No matter how big our camera sensors get, photographers will always have a need for upscaling. And while it may not be something that we have to use often, it's helpful to have the best tool(s) at your disposal to get an optimal output. With that said, before I share three reasons why you'd want to upscale your photos, it'd help first to explain what upscaling is and what methods are available to you.
Image upscaling basically means that you are increasing the resolution of your photo. But there's also more to it than just making the image larger. There is an additional goal of retaining or enhancing clarity and detail. The best upscaling apps will enlarge your photo without making it blurry or pixelated, making it suitable for larger prints or displays.
And here's the thing. Upscaling has been around for a while relative to how long we've been editing photos digitally. While the upscaling techniques used by photographers years ago did the job of increasing resolution, the quality of that upsized photo pales in comparison to what modern-day upscaling apps produce, and I'll give you one guess why.
The answer is two letters, and you've likely heard more about it in the last year than ever before. You guessed it: upscaling has gotten significantly better because of AI. Speaking of which, one of the most powerful and popular AI upscaling apps, Topaz Labs Gigapixel 7, just got a major update, and I am going to share a walkthrough of how it works.
Imagine drawing a face on one of those rubbery stress balls. When you squeeze the stress ball, that face will get larger, but it'll also become softer and less clear. Traditional upscaling is similar. The simplest way it's done is by copying the pixels in your photo over and over to fill in the bigger space that is being enlarged. While the output file will indeed be a higher-resolution photo, it can make the image look blocky or blurry, especially when you look closely at things like hair or leaves.
There are slightly better methods, like bilinear and bicubic upscaling, where the upscaling app tries to smooth things out by averaging the colors of nearby pixels. This makes the photo less blocky but can still leave it looking a bit soft and blurry, like when you use a camera lens that's not quite focused.
Photoshop Bilinear Upscaling at 600% of a 600-pixel JPEG image
Photoshop Bicubic Upscaling at 600% of a 600-pixel JPEG image
These traditional methods are limited because they can only use the information already in the photo and guess how to fill in the extra space.
Unlike traditional upscaling methods that rely on the information already in the photo, AI upscaling apps like Gigapixel 7 use extensively trained models that have learned from looking at tens of thousands of high-quality photos. These models understand how detailed parts of a picture—like eyes, hair, or trees—should look when they are bigger. So, when you use AI upscaling, the model looks at your smaller photo, increases the resolution to your specified value, and adds in all the fine details that make the photo look clear and sharp.
Gigapixel 7 AI Upscaling at 600% of a 600-pixel JPEG image
It's almost like the AI model fills in what's missing based on what it knows a high-quality photo of that particular subject matter should look like. This is great for photographers—especially those using smartphones—because it means you can turn your smaller, less detailed photos into larger, clearer ones, almost like you took them with a large-sensor camera!
Now, let's look at three reasons why you'd want to use AI upscaling for your photos.
#1 - When you apply a heavy crop
When you crop a photo, you're essentially cutting out a portion of it to focus on a specific area. This is great for getting rid of distractions or for isolating a distant subject. With that said, cropping also reduces the total number of pixels in the image. This means the cropped photo can look less sharp and lack detail, especially if you want to print it or display it on a big screen.
This is where an AI upscaling app like Gigapixel 7 comes in handy. After you crop your photo, AI upscaling can make this smaller section larger again, but in a smart way. Unlike traditional upscaling methods, AI upscaling will intelligently figure out how the details should look.
So, let's say you used your phone to take a photo of an eagle flying in the distance. You can crop the photo just to show the eagle and then use AI upscaling to enlarge it while intelligently adding in detail.
Now, it's worth noting that AI upscaling isn't a magic bullet, so you should set your expectations accordingly. While I've gotten some amazing results using Gigapixel 7 and Topaz Photo AI, I've also gotten some poor results. It really depends on the source that you're attempting to upscale.
#2 - Enhancing older or lower-quality photos
If you're like me, you've probably taken lots of photos over the years, both with your smartphone and a variety of cameras that range in quality. Some of these photos might not look as great as your recent ones, either because the camera wasn’t as good or you were still learning how to frame up a strong composition. These older or lower-quality photos might be a bit blurry, not very detailed, or just not as clear as you'd like, especially if you want to print them or perhaps display them in a slideshow on a big-screen TV for your family and friends to enjoy.
AI upscaling is especially helpful here because it uses models trained to understand how a high-quality photo should look. When you apply AI upscaling to your older or lower-quality images, it analyzes the photos and intelligently improves them by making them sharper, clearer, and more detailed.
Some apps, like Gigapixel 7 and Topaz Photo AI, also have advanced options to recover facial details of older photos that lack sharpness. An important point to make is that while these AI models can do wonders to recover face details, the process involves adding those elements in.
Gigapixel 7 AI Upscaling at 600% of a 600-pixel JPEG image
So, if you are using face recovery on a vintage photo, the AI model will attempt to add and position new facial details to give the impression that the photo is sharp. While this can work really well, it can also yield surprising results. That's why, as I wrote in the first example, it's important to set your expectations accordingly.
#3 - Improving Drone and Astral (Starry Night) Photography
One of my favorite things about drone photography is that you can capture unique angles and perspectives of landscapes, cityscapes, or even everyday locations like your neighborhood (assuming you aren't prohibited from flying in any of those places). However, one challenge you might face is that sometimes the details in these aerial photos aren't as sharp as you'd like. Maybe you're flying your drone at a considerable height, or your drone's camera doesn't have a high-quality sensor or optics. This is where AI upscaling can make a huge difference.
Gigapixel 7 AI Upscaling at 600% of a 1535x2048 DJI Mavic Pro JPEG image
AI upscaling is particularly useful because, with drone photography, you can't always get closer to your subject to capture more details like you might with a regular camera. Imagine taking a photo of a forest with a mountain in the distance. Depending on your drone's camera, the mountain and treetops may look soft and lack detail, especially when you zoom in. AI upscaling can help by intelligently adding details to give the photo a sharper look, especially when printing it.
The same principle can be applied to astral or starry night photography. If you photograph the moon, AI upscaling can help make the craters and surface features more distinct. Or, if you capture a shot of the Milky Way, it can bring out the colors and structures of the star clusters and nebulae with greater clarity.
A First Look at Gigapixel 7
By now, you should have a much better idea of what photo upscaling is, how traditional and AI upscaling methods differ, and some reasons why you'd want to use AI upscaling with your photos. I also referred to Gigapixel 7 a few times, so I want to share this First Look video illustrating how it works. It's important to note that I am using Lightroom, not Lightroom Classic, and show two ways that you can use Gigapixel 7.