Photographs are wonderful things, and one of their amazing characteristics is the detail we can see in a picture. I’m pretty observant of details in face to face contact, so I enjoy the fact that my camera can record those details with great clarity and I can share them with others.

However, digital noise sometimes obscures the detail and can create distracting color specs that I find really frustrating. In fact, when I first started photography, I wouldn’t raise my ISO above 400 for fear that noise would ruin the images.

I’d like to share with you a few methods I’ve found for dealing with digital noise in photographs, both in-camera and in post-processing.

1. Enjoy the Forrest; Ignore the Dead Trees

Have you heard the idiom, “he couldn’t see the forest for the trees”? It’s short for some thing like, “I was trying to see the forest, but I couldn’t because there were too many trees in the way.” Of course, the forest is composed of all those trees together, but fixating on the little details can make us unable to see the big picture, or miss it entirely.

When we’re talking about photography, this means you should enjoy the picture, the whole picture, and not stress too much about noise. Even the most beautiful forest contains some dead trees, but that doesn’t make it ugly. Make the best photographs you can, with good composition and interesting subjects, and forget the noise.

2. Shooting Tips For Less Noise

If you’re still reading, then I’ve got a few ideas to help you reduce the noise in a photograph at the time of capture. These techniques help me reduce the impact of noise from shooting at high ISO’s and long exposures, which are two times when noise leaves the biggest footprint.
  • Use a tripod. By using a tripod, I can use a longer shutter speed and keep the ISO much lower.
  • Practice nailing the focus. Out of focus areas of a picture are always more noisy than the in focus places. If you have the focus nice and sharp on someone’s ear, then their eyes may appear a little bit noisy and also not quite sharp. Practice all the good techniques for getting razor sharp focus and you’ll have less impact from noise.
  • Get closer and fill the frame. The main problem with noise is that it obscures the detail in the picture, especially when the grains of noise are as large or larger than the detail. The fix is to make the details bigger by getting closer to your subject. Instead of shooting a full length portrait, shoot a head and shoulders portrait. You’re using high ISO because you’re in an extreme situation, so don’t worry about shooting normally. If you want different results, you need to do things differently. Get in close and fill the frame with your subject and I’d wager that you’ll not only have less impact from noise, but also greater impact from your pictures.
  • Keep the camera cool. It used to be that I’d get really noisy pictures with long exposures because the camera was working the whole time during those exposures and that made the sensor get hot, and that caused a noise. Cameras these days are much better, and the heat in the sensor is less of an issue. However, don’t do anything to add to the problem. Don’t set the camera in front of the heater in the car, and don’t use handwarmers to keep it warm in cold weather. It’s not necessary, and it’ll give you trouble.
  • Understand High ISO and Long Exposure Noise Reduction. Your camera has built in settings to reduce noise in situations that normally have a lot of noise–high ISO and long exposure–and the default setting for many cameras is to have these activated. They may even do a decent job of reducing the impact of noise in your photos. However, they only work on JPEGs and in the case of the long exposure noise reduction, it takes a lot of time–as much time as it took to make your picture in the first place. If you have the capability of handling RAW files, disable these two functions in your camera, and use software, which does a better job anyway (see below).
  • Shoot black and white and call it ‘Artistic Grain’. I’m only half joking here. We tend to have a higher tolerance for noise when we’re making black and white photographs. For a century, if photographers wanted to make a picture in low light with a usable shutter speed, they just had to use high ISO film, which was grainy. And somehow they still made pictures, and still got published and still made a living. Give it a try yourself: set your camera to black and white and enjoy the ride.
I use these tips to make my pictures less noisy when I’m capturing them, and they’ll help you start with with less noise impact, too. Just keep this in mind as you make a picture and start griping about noise:

“A sharp picture with noise is always better than a blurry picture without noise.”

3. Use noise reducing software

I know I’m spouting all this stuff about not worrying about noise, but I like to eliminate it as much as the next photographer. Noise comes from the camera when we capture images, but we can also create additional noise during post processing. There are three or four applications I can recommend for reducing the impact of noise.

Athentech’s Perfectly Clear. I hope you understand something about our relationship with our marketing partners: we work with them because we like them and their products. I can wholeheartedly recommend Perfectly Clear because I use it in my own work and it’s remarkable. Normally, if I have a picture that’s dark, brightening it will introduce noise. But when I use Perfectly Clear to brighten an image, it doesn’t make noise in the shadow areas. I love that. It’s also got a good tool for reducing noise in already noisy pictures. It works as a plugin from Lightroom and Photoshop.

Lucid and Noiseless. I know not everyone uses Lightroom and Photoshop (shocker, right?) but there are two more tools I’ve used and can recommend that don’t require Adobe’s magic to work. First is Lucid, which is the stand-alone version of Perfectly Clear. It works on both PC and Mac platforms, so check it out (the mobile app is also remarkable). Also, I’ve had good results with Noiseless from MacPhun (Mac only).

Lightroom. Of course, I’ve been using Lightroom as a noise reduction tool for a long time. I highly recommend it’s color noise sliders, but the luminance sliders also help reduce noise and with finesse they can be good…otherwise, you may make your whole photo look like it’s made of shiny plastic.

Conclusion

When I was keeping my ISO low to reduce the noise, the biggest result was that I ended up missing pictures. I simply couldn’t handhold the camera well enough to make pictures that weren’t blurry for the slow shutter speeds I was forcing myself into, or my subjects would move too much and become blurry. It took me too long to realize that a sharp picture with noise is always better than a blurry picture without noise. I like to minimize the noise, and the above tips help to do that both when I’m shooting and when I’m finishing my pictures on the computer, but the most important thing is to make a picture. Go out and enjoy the whole forest and don’t worry about a few dead trees here and there.
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