Dealing With Noise – A Basic Workflow Primer!

Winter Evening, Camp 6, Yosemite National Park
Canon 5DMKIII, 24-70mmL @ f/2.8, 6400 ISO

With the newer models of digital cameras/sensors on the market, noise has become less of a concern for many photographers. In fact, I generally try to shoot at ISO 100 or 200 as much as possible. Yet, there are times when we need to push our cameras to the max in order to record an image. Recently, I co-taught Gary Hart’s Winter Yosemite Workshop. We spent and evening with the group at Yosemite’s Camp 6 on a moonless evening for a session of night photography. Without any moonlight to help provide illumination, the correct exposure was f/2.8 at 30 seconds at 6400 ISO.

I own both the Canon 5DMKIII and 1DX. My own tests reveal little, if any, difference in quality at high ISO’s between the two cameras, thus I do not prefer one camera over the other for night photography. What I do know about both cameras is that ISO 6400 is really pushing the threshold of where noise gets to be problematic. By that I mean that even with noise reduction software, I will not be able to completely eliminate noise while presenting a sharp image.

So what is my workflow for noise and how did I handle processing the above image? Well, let’s take a look. First off, I should say that there are many different noise reduction programs on the market and the aim of this blog is not to debate one over the other; instead, I will pick Nik’s Dfine 2.0 noise reduction software and show you how I go about using it. I am by no means a software expert. Most of my workflow comes about via trial and error.

I should note that all of my landscape images are captured in RAW mode, so if you shoot in JPEG mode this article may or may not be beneficial as your camera is adding a noise reduction step at the time of image capture. Granted, there is some processing going on behind the scenes with a RAW file, but it is minimal. In the RAW converter (I use Adobe Camera RAW), I turn off all noise reduction. I opt to do this because it really is hard for me to know how much to apply. I had a tendency to add too much and found it to be a guessing game for me, thus I eliminate it at that part of the process. Where I do apply it is when I come out of the RAW processor into Photoshop (or Lightroom). That is always step number one and I do it regardless of what my ISO setting I used.

The interface for Nik Dfine 2.0 is pretty straightforward and for most of my images, I simply click on the Automatic button and allow the software to do its thing. But on an image where I had a high ISO setting, I may need to go beyond. Note the top arrow pointing the the preset “Automatic” mode and the bottom arrow pointing to the Loupe showing a before and after version of the image. CLICK ON ANY OF THESE IMAGES FOR A LARGER VERSION.

DFine Interface

I should note on images captured at lower ISO’s, I am in automatic noise reduction mode, but once the image appears in my layer palette in Photoshop, I will enlarge it to 100% and then lower the opacity of the Noise Reduction layer if I think the reduction went overboard and caused a “pasty” look to the image.

Layer Palette

As noted, with my image captured at 6400 ISO, chances are good that I will need more noise reduction, especially in the lower half of the image as I will need to add some exposure to open the darker areas. Here is how I go about working that section of the image: Instead of clicking on the Measure button, click instead on the Reduce button:

Photo 1

Here you will find a panel that allows for global reduction of Contrast (Luminance) and Color noise. If the entire image needs more, then just use the sliders. But in the case of this image, only my bottom section needed more noise reduction once I opened the shadows. For selective noise reduction, I click on the +¬†and – buttons then click into the section of the image (Nik’s U-Point technology). The top line of this tree sets the size of the selection. The middle line controls Contrast noise, while the bottom line controls color noise.

Photo 3

Now I have control over just this portion of the image. To apply this, I simply clicked on the + button. Had I originally applied a global reduction and needed to reduce some, I would have chosen the – button. Note: it’s better to make your selection circles smaller and duplicate them by holding the option key (alt on PC) and clicking the on the solid black nub (closest tot he tip of the arrow).

There is even more help for very stubborn images. To access this panel, click on the triangle next the the word More.

Screen Shot 2013-02-22 at 9.21.33 AM

Now you will see options for controlling Edge Preservation (enables you to adjust the amount of detail preserved through the noise reduction effect), JPEG Artifacts (for you JPEG shooters), and Debanding (both horizontal and vertical). Simple sliders allow you to see the results in real time:

Photo 4

So as you can see, there is more to Nik Dfine 2.0 than initially meets the eye. Be aware that extreme processing of any image will cause bothersome artifacts. Get the exposure correct in-camera at time of capture and the majority of your problems will be under control. Also, do some testing with your camera(s) to see for yourself where their noise threshold resides. A little homework on the front end can be the difference of capturing an image that can be processed with a minimum of fuss!

There is far more that this plugin can do including allowing you to control noise by individual color channels, profiling your camera, etc. These are just some of the main features that I use on a regular basis.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of Dfine 2.0, please use me code DSMITH at checkout and receive a 15% discount off your purchase price. NOTE: this code works for any of the fine Nik products!

2013 Photo Workshops

4th Annual Magic Light, Moonlight, and Pfeiffer Arch Workshop – Winter in Big Sur and the Monterey Peninsula – January 26-29, 2013 (workshop completed – 2014 dates to be announced soon)

5th Annual Northern Arizona Workshop – Grand Canyon (full moon), Page (Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon) and Sedona – March 25-29, 2013 WORKSHOP SOLD OUT :: WAITING LIST ONLY

6th Annual Springtime in Big Sur and the Monterey Peninsula – Wildflowers, Misty Fog and Headland Color – May 6-9, 2013 (Hurry – 1 spot left)

4th Annual Kauai Workshop – Garden Isle and Tropical Paradise – June 21-25, 2013 (4 spots left)

1st Annual Grand Canyon Monsoon and Lightning Photo Workshop – August 19 – 23, 2013 (co-taught with Gary Hart) (WORKSHOP SOLD OUT :: WAITING LIST ONLY)

2nd Annual Fall Color in Grand Teton National Park – September 28 – October 2, 2013 (WORKSHOP SOLD OUT :: WAITING LIST ONLY)

2nd Annual Fall Color in Grand Teton National Park – October 2 – October 6, 2013 (WORKSHOP SOLD OUT :: WAITING LIST ONLY)

5th Annual Arches/Canyonlands National Parks – Full Moon Over Red Rock, Arches and Canyons – October 15-19, 2013 (5 spots left)

3rd Annual Bryce/Zion National Parks – Hoodoos and Fall Color – November 4-8, 2013 (5 spots left)

 Software Discounts

Photomatix Pro 4.2 type in code at checkout: donsmithphotography 15% discount
Nik Software type in code at checkout: DSMITH 15% discount
Topaz Software type in code at checkout: SMITHPHOTO 10% disount

Purchase Prints and Cards

Click on this link to purchase prints and cards from a growing library of my favorite landscape images:

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