In a perfect world, we’d always be able to shoot at ISO 100 f/8 at 1/250 and we’d never have to deal with the noise associated with using higher ISO’s. However, the reality is that photographers always find themselves in situations where the light is less than ideal, and we are forced to crank up the ISO to higher levels to get the aperture or shutter speed setting necessary to get the shot. It’s worse indoors, where we are forced to use the dreaded flash that never seems to give us the results we want, or crank the ISO way up to levels we know are going to give us lots of noise.
While cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon D700 and D3 offer sensational high ISO performance compared to cameras of the past, not many of us are able to afford these great bodies. What’s worse is that even those high end bodies start to see some level of unacceptable noise in 100% online images at ISO 1600 and greater. This means that we face a dilemma as old as photography – crank up the ISO to get the shot (fortunately we don’t have film issues to consider anymore) or use a flash. In the spur of the moment sometimes a higher ISO is the best bet. This means we have to turn to software to help us with reducing the noise in these images, and hope that they don’t reduce it to the point of softening our images to an unacceptable level. In this (and linked) article(s) I will demonstrate some of the most popular products used for noise reduction and offer my suggestion on what product(s) will give you the best results. After all, I’m a photographer too and I face this problem all the time, and I wanted to know myself what’s the best solution so I can get the best results possible.
There are a decent number of products that offer noise reduction no the market today, and the odds are you own at least one of them. During this roundup I’ll compare 5 products, but my main focus will be on the last three third party solutions for reasons you’ll understand later.
Here’s the products chosen for this round-up: (links to demo versions provided for 3 – 5)
- Adobe Lightroom 2.3 / Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) 5.2 – Lightroom is rapidly growing as the most popular photo management and editing software around, and the funny thing its develop tab is just a fancy wrapper around Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) which has been around longer than Lightroom. ACR offers some basic noise reduction which some people is sufficient, and in the right hands you’ll discover it isn’t horribly bad.
- Adobe Photoshop CS4 / Photoshop Elements – For this review I will be using Photoshop CS4, but nothing has changed from CS3 in noise reduction, so what you see here applies to earlier versions as well as Photoshop Elements.
- Nik Software Dfine 2.0 (15% discount coupon code: rmartinsen)– If you’ve read books or articles by Vincent Versace, Matt Kloskowski, Rick Sammon or other big names in the Photoshop world then you’ve probably heard them mention Dfine as their tool of choice for noise reduction. I’m a big fan of Color Efex and Viveza, so I was anxious to see if this was as good as some of their other products. DEMO
- PictureCode Noise Ninja 2.x – This is the king of noise reduction and the standard by which all others are measured. When I talked to pro photojournalists about what they used, they unanimously recommend Noise Ninja. As a result, this is the product I purchased and use frequently so it is going to be fun to see how it compares. DEMO
- Imagenomic Noiseware 4.1.1 (15% discount coupon code: RONMART) – Huh? Prior to Scott Kelby mentioning this product in some of his recent books, I hadn’t even heard of it. With the power of Nik and PictureCode, there isn’t much hope of it holding its own with the big boys, or is there? DEMO
What about Neat Image?
An early FAQ has been inquires about why Neat Image wasn’t in this round up. The answer is simple, they didn’t respond to my inquires however they were invited (actually by the request of Imagenomic).
To put these products to the test, I decided to take images from my library taken from four different cameras. My apologies to Nikon fans (I’m a Canon shooter), but here’s what I used:
- Canon G9 point and shoot – This popular point and shoot (#4 on Flickr) is said by some to be a mini-DSLR, but the reality is that after ISO 100 its small sensor makes it a bit of a noise monster. I used it on a trip to Disney and enjoyed the results, but I spent a lot of time cleaning up photos in Noise Ninja to get results I could live with.
- Canon Rebel XTi – This highly popular, yet entry level DSLR, is one of the most popular cameras for images uploaded by Flickr members. It was my first DSLR and a constant companion on many trips to Asia, so I had a night shot taken with it that I thought would be perfect for this roundup. It never really performed well over ISO 400 when it came to noise, so I was hoping that this test might allow me to go back to some of my RAW images and bring them back to life.
- Canon 5D Mark II – The latest buzz in the camera industry is all about new sensors capable of high ISO’s that photographers never dreamed possible, and the side effect of this higher ISO expansion is that they are pretty darn good with noise reduction at the lower levels. Despite that, noise can still creep into pictures once the ISO goes north of ISO 1600 (a ISO that normally yields unusable results in lesser cameras). I’ll include a image taken during a snowy day using a high ISO most would dare not to even select.
- Canon 1D-Mark III – The fastest DSLR on the planet used by pro sports photographers to catch the action, which also translates into kicking up the ISO to get those shutter speeds up. This was my first pro body so I have a wide variety of shots taken with it, so I’ll be including a travel photo in this roundup.
The Sample Photos
Disneyland - Canon G9 ISO 400
This shot represents a typical indoor shot you’d get on a family vacation (as I had done here). Lots of noise caused by pushing this sensor to its limit. It was a fun shot of my son that I’d want to save if I could, so I thought it would be a fun candidate for this test.
Tokyo - Canon Rebel XTi ISO 800
This shot represents a typical tourist snapshot. The memory of the trip was great, but the noise left behind in the photo isn’t.
Sledding - Canon 5D Mark II ISO 2500
When I got my state of the art 5D Mark II I took pictures of anything I could, and as luck would have it there were kids sledding behind my house. This shot required me to crank up the ISO to 2500 to get the 1/320 sec shutter speed I needed at f/5.6 to properly expose this panning shot. It is a cute shot of some kids by my house and the highest ISO shot I’ve had to take with the 5D Mark II since I bought it.
Chicago - Canon 1D Mark III ISO 3200
When people think of shots taken with a 1D Mark III, they think sports. I have tons of those to choose from, but the funny thing is that the best high ISO shot I have in my entire collection is this one which was taken in Chicago at an astonishingly low 1/15 at f/5.6 hand held!!!! It’s a great shot where the noise isn’t distracting, but it would really benefit if I could make some of it go away without losing detail in the buildings.
All images were processed using their RAW format version with NO noise reduction done in Adobe Camera Raw 5.2 to avoid any anomalies associated with JPEG compression. The final versions posted here and in future posts are JPEG compressed using a setting of 12 (except Tokyo which uses 10 because I’m an idiot). All photos are copyright Ronald R. Martinsen and may not be redistributed or reused for any other purpose.
The Evaluation Process
Photographers should be able to spend their time taking great pictures, not trying to reduce noise that higher ISO’s introduce. With that in mind, I wanted to run a test to see what results I would get using the minimal amount of user interaction I could with these products to see just how well they would work. I processed a series of 4 photos myself without reading any manuals or doing any special calibration so that I could get what I call the Out of Box Experience (OOBE) for each product (i.e., the results you’d probably get if you used them).
I’ve also sent the sample photos to Nik Software, PictureCode, and Imagenomic to see what they could do with these photos. I had them send me the EXACT steps (which I’ve included in the individual product reviews) as to how they would have processed the photos, and I perform those steps to get what should be the best results possible with each product. This ensures they aren’t doing anything with any unreleased product behind the scenes, and it makes sure they are things that you and I could do if we actually read the damn manual!
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Stay tuned in upcoming days as I review these products and make my final decision as to the winner of this ultimate Noise Reduction Roundup!
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