Dealing with noise in digital photos

What, me worry?

Collared trogon (female), Trinidad, West Indies
Nikon D850 at ISO 6400

Do your high-iso images seem noisy? Chances are that it has nothing to do with your camera, and a lot to do with your image processing. Here are some tips for dealing with noise in your raw digital images.

Before you freak out about noise… check to see if it’s noticeable in the final image

Most modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras deliver outstanding high-ISO performance. Unless your image is significantly underexposed, or you’re cropping heavily, noise that is visible at 1:1 zoom just won’t show up in a web-sized JPEG or a print. However, if you do see noise in your final image, then consider these tips:

Check your default sharpening and noise reduction settings in your raw conversion software

By default, Lightroom does not enable any luminance (grain) noise reduction.

Unless you are using your camera manufacturer’s raw conversion software, your image editor will apply default sharpening and noise reduction settings. In the case of Adobe Lightroom Classic, luminance (grain) noise reduction is always disabled. Why? Because most images don’t need noise reduction, and enabling this feature can hinder the performance of the software.

For high-ISO images, consider using Lightroom Classic’s masking slider (Detail Panel) to restrict sharpening to distinct edges. Set the Radius to a slightly larger value, such as 1.2 pixels, and dial back the amount slider if necessary.

Video workshop: Advanced Sharpening with Lightroom

Don’t pull up the shadows unless you have to

Noise hides amongst the shadows in digital images. Under-exposed images are especially prone to showing noise after correcting for exposure. I like to make sure that my subject is exposed properly and darken backgrounds or other areas that may contain noise to help hide it.

Use selective editing to restrict sharpening and noise reduction to where they are needed most

Comparison between default and custom sharpening and noise reduction settings in Lightroom Classic.
Left: Image with default sharpening and noise reduction settings.
Right: Image edited with localized sharpening and noise reduction using brushes and gradients in Lightroom Classic.
(Click to enlarge)

Sharpening and noise reduction algorithms are diametrically opposed to one another. Sharpening tools enhance details (and noise), while noise reduction tools blur noise (and details). Most of the time, trying to use a “one size fits all” setting for detail and noise reduction ends up being a frustrating compromise between soft or detailed images.

My approach is to use local adjustment tools (brushes and gradients) in Adobe Lightroom Classic to sharpen my image only where it is needed (the subject). Conversely, I apply noise reduction selectively to only the parts of the image where it is distracting (like out of focus backgrounds).

Video Tutorial: Advanced Masking in Lightroom

3rd-party noise reduction tools

There are several noise-reduction tools available for digital photographers, including Dfine (Nik Collection) and DeNoise AI (Topaz Labs). These products work either as a stand-alone editor or as a plug-in to a host program like Adobe Photoshop. I generally try to avoid these tools, because I can often get a cleaner result when I can work on the original RAW image in Lightroom Classic (my workflow is cleaner when I don’t have to convert my RAW images to TIFF/PSD format). However, 3rd-party noise reduction tools can be extremely useful for dealing with extreme noise, or removing noise/grain from scanned film. Just remember that the same compromise between noise and detail still exists with these tools, so a local (masking) approach is still best.

Have questions? Contact me for a private training session.

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