Sunday, January 1, 2012

What’s All The Noise About Noise

Above: Michael Monroe band. Captured with my compact digicam, an Olympus SP500UZ. I used an ISO of 400.

Noise is a subject on the mind of many digital photographers. Not because they don’t like loud music, but because digital noise in photographic images can be problematic. Read reviews on digital cameras and they all get measured and rated on the amount of noise in their image files. Read forums on the internet, and you’ll see posts from people comparing noise between various brands, specific camera models, and ISOs. What is digital noise and what can you do about it?
Digital noise is a term referring to those annoying speckled color dots and artifacts that are most apparent in ISOs of 400 and up. Most newer cameras these days render images that have very little noise compared to models from just 5 years ago. Cameras with smaller sensors, like compacts, also have a tendency towards capturing noisier images than larger DSLR cameras.

The speckled color dots are not only ugly, they also soften image detail. Images with lots of noise have a tendency to appear less sharp than noise free images. Images with lots of noise are frowned upon by most digital photographers. These days the trend is towards smooth unspeckled images and photographers seek cameras that produce the least amount of noise throughout the entire range of ISOs.

But once again I would like to offer a different perspective on the subject of noise. As someone using an older camera, noise is a constant companion of mine. My Olympus E1 renders some minor noise in images captured at ISO 400. At ISOs 800 noise is extremely high and at 1600 it is at levels at what most of today’s photographer’s would consider to be unacceptable. Does it mean that I don’t use those high ISOs? Of course not. Now I admit that there are times that I wish that this was not the case, I would love to be able to use high ISOs fearlessly without worry of noise obscuring details and adding unwanted "texture" to some of my high ISO captures. I have passed on taking images because light levels were so low and I didn’t want to capture photographs with too much noise and under such poor lighting conditions. But over the years, I have just learned to deal with it and use it as part of my artistic interpretation.

Now most of the time I choose to embrace the challenge of using this digital noise as chance to capture an image with strong atmosphere. Back in the days of film, there were a few photographers that would use high ISO films t produce gritty textured images loaded with romantic atmosphere. Sheila Metzner & Deborah Turbeville are two of my favorites. Their high fashion images, captured using natural light and high ISO films, were some of my favorites to view in my fashion magazines. Not all photographs have to be tack sharp and super detailed to be appreciated. Occasionally a softer, more painterly image is more suited towards the subject matter. Sometimes it’s a choice of style, other times it’s out of necessity. But even when it is out of necessity, it is better to use it as an artistic effect than complain about it.

Lately I opt to use available light for my concert photography. That usually means using my compact camera or DSLR with high ISOs. I receive many compliments for my photographs captured this way by the band, fellow photographers, and fans. Shooting without flash is also a way to assume a low key presence which makes you tolerated by security and fellow concert goers. Nobody seems to mind the noise and many actually like it.

Here are a few tips to help you deal with and artistically use digital noise.

Above: Bluejay in springtime.
I captured this image with my Olympus E1 and
used an ISO of 800. Noise was most noticeable
 in the bird, but I used Imagenomic's Noiseware
Proto eliminate the color speckled chroma noise.
Get Rid Of The Colored Speckles

Ugly speckled color dots. I hate ‘em and pretty much most people do. It’s the most offensive and unappealing aspect of noise. I use noise removal software to get rid of the colored speckles known as "chroma noise." I usually choose a setting of a high chroma noise removal with a low "luminance" noise removal setting to preserve the texture. I do this because I think the texture adds a bit of sharpness to the image and also adds a nice atmospheric touch similar to those captured with high ISO film.

Remove Noise

You can take the noise removal a step further and remove the luminance noise. This will get rid of the gritty texture that is a result of noise. This can work on some images but on some types of images it may not work well. High settings of luminance noise removal can lead to ugly artifacts. Also note as previously mentioned, excessive image smoothing can lead to images that lack sharpness and are too soft focus.

Experiment with your software and images to find the settings to please you. Favored settings will be different for different images or different types of images.

Use "Advanced Noise Removal Layer Technique" In Photoshop

Noise is usually most apparent and annoying in smooth backgrounds (dark areas without detail, blue skies, etc.) You can opt to use higher settings to get rid of the noise in those areas and have another layer with the main subject using less noise removal to retain texture & detail. Here’s how:

#1 In Photoshop or similar program that offers layers, make a duplicate layer.

#2 On the base layer apply noise removal settings optimized for the subject,

#3 On the duplicate layer, apply stronger noise removal settings optimized for the background.

#4 Create a layer mask.

#5 On the layer mask, paint out the parts of the image that contain the subject with black. That will ensure that the extra smooth noise removal is applied only to the background.

#6 Save

Occasionally you may find that the images are too different in noise levels to blend well with each other. I recommend using low/close noise removal settings so that they blend more seamlessly.

Expose Properly
Try not to underexpose your images when using high ISOs. Underexposed image areas have a tendency to have a lot of noise. Plus the noise will increase when you try to lighten the image during post processing. Try to get your exposure as close to correct as possible when using high ISOs.

Rosebreasted Grosbeak.
I forgot to change the ISO from 800 when this surprise visitor came by. But since the scene was so brightly lit and the subject was properly exposed, there was relatively very little noise. All that was needed was a little chroma noise removal in Imagenomic’s Noiseware pro software.


The RAW format renders images that tend to have less noise compared to JPEG captures. This is usually due to in camera processing and how much varies from camera to camera.

A Young Buck
I always seem to spot deer in very dim lighting conditions necessitating high ISOs. This buck was photographed using ISO 800.

Enjoy The Noise!

Gritty grain and texture can be used artistically. Images with grain often have a lot of mood & atmosphere further enhanced by the fact that most noisy images are captured in moody low light conditions. Use some of my techniques mentioned here to remove chroma noise, and what you’ll be left with is a texture similar to high speed film.

Find Ideal Subjects For Grainy, Moody Imagery

Ideal subjects include: portraits, flowers, still lives, night time urban landscapes, country scenics, and a whole lot more.

Alice Cooper captured with my Olympus SP500UZ. ISO 400.
I love using available light during concerts. It can be challenging, but the results are often worth the extra effort. More about concert photography in an upcoming blog post.

Fake It.

Love the look of film grain/digital noise but have a camera that captures smooth noise free images? Don’t fret, you can always fake it. You can add noise and texture in Photoshop or most any other image processing program. There are even programs and plug ins that mimic particular film stocks.

Get a Camera That Captures Low Noise Images

Shoot a lot of low light images? I hate to be conventional here, but you may want to consider getting a camera that can produce noise free images with lost of detail. This is particularly important for many wildlife, concert, and wedding photographers, especially those that make a living with their photos. But keep in mind that there are also photographers making a living by creating images that do contain noise. So if you love the textured images rendered by high noise captures, don’t feel you need to stifle your style just to fit in with the others.

Use Lenses With Wide Apertures

Wider apertures allow you to use lower ISOs and faster shutter speeds for greater image sharpness. But be aware that wide apertures offer shallow depth of field and unless you focus carefully you may find yourself with blurry photos.

As with most aspects of photography, dealing with digital noise comes with many trade offs. Whether it means losing some detail due to high ISO noise or spending lots of dollars for high tech cameras and wide aperture lenses, you will be challenged. You can choose to work with noise as an effect or spend lots of money trying to control it. The choice is yours. For now, I will choose to embrace the grain and use it as part of my own personal style. This may or may not change in the near or far future. Remember, when creating your images it is your art so do as you please!

Above: Butterfly on yellow coneflower
It suddenly went from cloudy to shady with no time for me to change the ISO 800 on my Olympus E1. While some of the detail of the butterfly is softer than it would have been if captured at ISO 100, I am still very happy with this and the other images from this series. Like most of the images in this post, I removed chroma noise using Imagenomic’s Noiseware Pro software.

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