Graphic Thoughts: Making Low-rez Images Work at Broadcast Size
Posted Jun 5, 2009

‘You can't always get what you want.' How true that statement is, whether I hear it from my radio as The Rolling Stones sing it, remember my mom saying it to me as a child, or, heck ... hear a client say it to me when he or she delivers content for a video production! I'm talking about all those times when a client decides to give me a one-pixel GIF and says something like, "Just Photoshop it!" All right, so that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's not unusual for me to receive unusable material with the expectation that I'll work miracles on it. And I'm sure it happens to you too. To help you deal with that all-too-common dilemma, I'll show you a quick technique I applied to a recent corporate gig when I was forced to use less-than-high-quality resolution stills for a video.

I was producing for a 720x480 NTSC resolution screen, but the clients submitted only still photos gathered from their website that were in the 300x200 range. Understandably, they were miffed about how I was going to "stretch" the photos to make the stills look decent because they had already attempted this and realized the results weren't pretty. Little did they know the solution wasn't in stretching the canvas but in approaching the problem more creatively.

Step 1: Create a 720x480 Photoshop Document and Import Your Photo
In my Fast & Fabulous, Vol. 1, video from PixelPops, I show a technique like this using a set of filters. But for this example I'll go with the basics, which really could be applied in almost any graphics or video application when you have an image that doesn't fill the entire screen you need it to cover.

In the example, I'll open Photoshop and choose a new video resolution document (NTSC DV 720x480). With the document open, I'll import my photo and drag it to the middle of my canvas.

Note that with two documents open, you can simply click and drag your photo "into" the blank canvas, and it will end up on its own layer (Figure 1, below).

Adobe Photoshop

Step 2: Duplicate and Free-Transform Your Photo
With your image in the center of the screen, simply duplicate it (Ctrl/Cmd+J). Choose the bottom version (in my sample, it's called Layer 1). Now you'll want to free-transform it by clicking (Ctrl/Cmd+T). As soon as you do this keyboard combo, you'll see nodes on each corner of your photo. Simply click any corner and, while holding Ctrl/Cmd+Shift, drag it out to the edge until it fills the entire canvas.

Note that the addition of holding the Shift key allows all the nodes to span out simultaneously. What you should now see is the original photo in the center, with a larger version of it around the outsides (Figure 2, below).

Adobe Photoshop

Step 3: Add a Blur and Complete the Effect
I'm now going to add a filter to the larger version by selecting its layer, choosing Filter > Blur > Guassian Blur, and creating a blur of something like 16.0 pixels. Naturally, you could always choose a different filter in place of or in addition to the blur.

To make the photo stand out a little more, I'll select the larger photo and drop its opacity to 70%. You can do this by changing the slider at the top of your Layers palette area or by using an even faster technique: Just press the "7" key on your keyboard! To give the photo a little more personality, I'm also going to add a layer-style drop shadow and white stroke border. You can access Layer Styles by simply double-clicking to the right of the layer name and tweaking to your heart's content.

This is a really simple process, but I can't tell you how many times it's saved us on projects where we just didn't have what we wanted in the way of high-resolution photos to use. Finishing out this project for my client was a breeze. I added a bit of motion to the photo and shipped it off to the networks for broadcast around the country (Figure 3, below).

Adobe Photoshop

So there you have it: a quick and simple technique that you can use "as is" or make more elaborate by adding a few more tweaks!

Lance Gray (lance at is the chief creative pixelmonkey at PixelPops Design, LLC. For questions, thoughts, or ideas, simply email him.