Fixing out-of-focus HD video footage
You’ve shot some important, irreplaceable footage, only to later discover that it’s slightly out of focus. What can you do? This happened to me recently on a dance recital shoot which is my biggest event of the year, recording six 2.5-hour shows over two days.
I rented a newer HD camera for the event to get better low-light performance – and a better image overall – than my older HDV camera could provide. I’d rented that same camera the year before, so I knew how to use it and loved the results I’d gotten last time.
Being middle-aged, the eyes are not what they once were and I now wear bifocals. I find the on-camera LCD screen too small to provide a decent preview, especially for long events. I just can’t focus my eyes that close for long periods without severe eye strain, which in turn blurs my vision and compounds the issue.
My preview solution is to use an Ikan VL7, a 7” LCD mounted to the camera’s accessory shoe and connected via HDMI. This is not only much easier on the eyes, but also provides a better method of checking focus and framing during the shoot. If at some point you’ve moved from using SD cameras up to HD, you’ll understand when I say that focus is far more critical when shooting HD footage – it can be very unforgiving.
I use manual focus for stage events so that the auto focus doesn’t hunt. I carefully checked and tweaked focus throughout the day of shooting the first three of the six shows, and the focus looked OK to me on both preview displays. Using the manual focus ring, I would turn it back and forth to find the “sweet spot” where the image looked sharpest, and going one way or the other would then go softer.
When I got home late that night, I decided to check the day’s footage on a larger HD monitor before retiring for the night and was very upset to find that it was soft – ALL OF IT. What looked fine in preview was in fact “almost focused – but just not quite”. As I was constantly checking and tweaking focus all day, and the videos were consistently soft and never perfectly focused at any point, I was certain this was not user error – it would have been focused at least some of the time if that were the case.
The next day, I brought a larger 24” HD display to the venue as a preview monitor and had extra time to test the camera with it before the show. I had an assistant stand on stage for testing and found that it was impossible to get a razor focus – there was something internally wrong with the lens of the rental camera. I therefore shot the second day’s shows with the older HDV camera and got nice, sharp video, although somewhat darker for some acts.
However, I was just sick about the first day’s footage – over 7.5 hours of it to edit and deliver! What to do? I tried the Sharpen filter in Adobe Premiere CC and while it did what it was supposed to, it also created very noisy artifacting that I found unacceptable – I was trading one issue for another. The bigger problem is that the HD footage was going to eventually be downconverted to SD for DVD. If the HD source was bad, it was going to look even worse at the much lower resolution of DVD.
One of the suggested focus fixes is to use the Unsharp Mask filter in Premiere. As with any filter, it’s easy to over-apply it. I had to experiment with the settings to get the best result, which was to sharpen the video without adding objectionable noise and artifacts.
I found that the Unsharp Mask does take quite a while to render. A 2.5-hour 1080i AVCHD clip (of which I had three) took about 15 hours to render to an intermediate codec on a beefy new Core i7 system, but the results were well worth it. Not quite as good as the footage shot properly with the HDV camera the second day, but quite acceptable. I’ve now completed the first of the corrected shows and the DVDs look fine – disaster averted! I also got a prompt refund from the rental company for the faulty camera, so it all worked out in the end.
As mentioned, I used the Unsharp Mask filter found within Premiere CC, but other NLEs may have a similar offering built-in. Boris also offers their BCC Blur and Sharpen plug-in that works with several programs including Premiere and After Effects if you need or want to explore more advanced options.
Of course if you have footage that is really obviously out of focus, it may not be salvageable, but in my case an Unsharp Mask was the ideal solution, and maybe someday it will help you as well.