Monday Musings – Reducing Noise in your photos

Before I even start on anything photographic today, this is a great day to be alive.  Not only is it the first installment of MNF (Monday Night Football), but it is my own beloved Denver Broncos!  Having been a fan since the age of 8, and cried through the first 4 Super Bowls in sadness, and then in exhilaration for the next 2 in happiness, let’s just say GAME ON as the season gets underway with us revving up against the Raiders (yes, I’m a Raider hater like nobody’s business!) tonight at 8pm!

Okay, now having set the stage for tonight, let’s shift back to the photography theme of the day – reducing noise in your images.  Let’s start with a little background:

From even the early days of film, photography as a medium has always had noise as a factor.  Before digital came of age, this was actually referred to as grain rather than noise, and the speed of the film was directly proportional to the amount of noise that you would get.  Higher ASA values meant you could capture images in lower light, but at the expense of grain.

As most major forms of photographic expression have moved to digital, we now are looking at this issue using more current semantics, that being noise rather than grain.  Digital noise is introduced as we increase the ISO levels within our digital cameras.  This has been a major advantage to digital photography, because you can change the noise/grain tolerance from one frame to the next, whereas with film, you had to choose your tolerance level when you put the film in.  If you put in too high a film speed, and you wound up with a lot of noise in images that otherwise did not need it.  Alternatively, if you put in too low a speed film, none of your pictures would turn out.

Some of us try to introduce grain/noise for artistic effect, while others try to minimize it to achieve clean smooth color transitions without any granularity.   Each of these could merit its own discussion, so today I am going to look at 3 of the ways that you can reduce noise in your photography:

  1. During capture – if you want to minimize noise, one of the best ways to do that is to ensure you are shootig with the lowest noise tolerance in your camera.  This means ensuring that your ISO is set to its lowest possible levels.  Most point-and-shoot cameras allow for this type of adjustment these days, as do practically all SLR cameras.  As a general rule of thumb, the better the camera, the lower the ISO.  Most consumer grade SLR’s will allow you to adjust ISO settings down to 100.  As you price into higher quality SLR’s, some can drop this value further to 50 or even 25.  At that level, expect to pay about $2000 or more for the SLR body that can accommodate this.
  2. In your photo editor – There are many options here for reducing noise if your in camera settings did not minimize noise enough for your tastes.  Everything from Photoshop Elements, to Lightroom, iPhoto, Corel, and of course Photoshop CS3 have internal controls that allow you to make adjustments to compensate for noise in images.   Some methods perform noise reduction better than others and even some programs excel at this better than others, but by and large, variances in the quality of noise reduction will be a function of the cost of the software itself – iPhoto is free, so the noise adjustments will not offer much in the way of malleable controls.  Elements, at about $75 is a little better at handling noise, while Lightroom and Photoshop round out the higher end of photo software programs both in their price and in their handling of noise.
  3. Specific Noise Reduction programs – Because there is such an interest in managing noise, a growing body of software caters specifically to this function, and this function only.  Software developers have seen a need for this and specially designed programs are now made to handle just the management of noise in images.  Most offer as a part of their programs, a way to incorporate their algorithms into larger photo editing software by means of plugins.  Some of the most common and well-known noise editing programs include Noise Ninja, Noiseware, NeatImage, and Dfine.

As you can see, there are many ways to manage noise, including in camera options, within your photo editor, and with free standing noise reduction software.  I have found that the best results lie in a combination of all of the above.  I try to remember to make necessary adjustments in camera for the type of images I am capturing.  From there, as I move into my photo editor, if noise is present but not excessive, I will use the built-in noise reduction measures.  For images where the noise levels are high, I use Noise Ninja and have been happy with the results.

But, just like haircuts, there are more opinions out there on what constitutes effective management of noise in photos.  So, let’s hear it!  What methods do you use to manage noise in your photos?  Feedback, thoughts, and discussions are always welcome in the Comments section.   Well, I guess that means tomorrow I will probably have to do a tutorial on noise management in images.  So, until then, happy shooting and watch those apertures!