Photo Noise Reduction Tutorial

This photo noise reduction tutorial is for beginner photographers, who want to reduce or get rid of noise in their digital images and don’t know how to do it. I will first explain what noise is and how you can reduce it in camera and then I will show how you can reduce it in post-processing, using Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom and commercial plugins for Photoshop.

1) What is noise in digital images?

If you have a digital camera, whether you have an advanced top of the line DSLR or a simple point and shoot, you will at some point get images with small dots all over the image. Those small dots might not be very noticeable when you look at the image on the back of the camera, but when you zoom in and view the image at 100% on your PC, they all of a sudden become quite visible. Take a look at the following image:

Flying Duck

While nothing seems to be wrong with the image, here is how it looks when viewed at 100%:

Flying Duck Crop

See those tiny dots in the image? That’s what noise is and how it looks!

2) Causes of noise

Image noise originates from either the camera sensor or the sensitivity of the camera sensor, or sometimes both. Let’s talk about the camera sensor first. Every digital camera is equipped with a sensor that collects light particles via very tiny buckets called “photosites”, which later become pixels in the final digital image. For example, if your digital camera is equipped with a 10 megapixel sensor, it means that there are 10 million photosites present on the camera sensor. The size of the photosites plays a big role on the amount of noise that is present in the image. Generally, the smaller the photosite, the noisier the image gets. This is where the size of the sensor comes into play. If you took a DSLR and a point and shoot camera and both have 10 megapixel sensors, the DSLR would yield a much cleaner image with a lot less noise when compared to the point and shoot image. This is because DSLR’s have much bigger sensors (full frame sensors can be 15+ times bigger in size than sensors in point and shoot cameras) and therefore can accommodate larger photosites compared to point and shoot. If you use a phone camera, you might see plenty of noise in images even during bright sunny days, which happens because too many pixels are crammed into a tiny sensor. Consequently, smaller sensors with a large number of pixels generally produce noisier images.

The second source of camera noise is the sensitivity level of the camera sensor, known as ISO in photography. If you do not know what ISO is, I highly recommend reading my “Understanding ISO” article that I wrote a while ago. Basically, as you increase camera ISO, the amount of noise automatically increases as well. For example, increasing ISO from 100 to 200 doubles the sensor sensitivity and could therefore result in more noise.

Now what happens when you couple a small sensor with high ISO sensitivity? That’s where you could get a trashed image, where you will not only see a lot of noise/grain, but also bad colors and all kinds of artifacts in the image.

3) How to reduce noise in camera

If you are getting noisy images out of your camera, it could mean two things – either the size of the camera sensor is too small (as pointed out above) or the ISO level in your camera is too high. While there is not much I can do to help with the former, you can certainly fix the latter by changing the ISO level or “maximum ISO level” on your camera. Bear in mind that by changing the ISO level in your camera, you are essentially decreasing the sensitivity of the sensor, which might result in slower shutter speed. In turn, slower shutter speed could introduce camera shake or blur to your images, so you have to understand this relationship first. Check out my “Understanding ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture” article to understand the relationship between camera ISO and shutter speed first. Decreasing ISO on digital cameras is very easy – check out your camera menu and if you don’t find it there, read the camera manual to find where it can be changed from.

Many modern DSLR cameras such as Nikon D90 have an “Auto ISO” feature in the camera. Auto ISO automatically increases and decreases the sensitivity of the sensor based on the amount of ambient light. If you have wrong Auto ISO settings in your camera, you could be adding unnecessary noise to your images. See “what ISO should I set my camera to” to modify your Auto ISO settings. If you have a DSLR camera with a DX (cropped) sensor, I recommend setting “Maximum Sensitivity” to 800 and if you have an FX (full-frame) sensor, you can bump it up to 1600 or even 3200.

Some people play with their camera settings and forget that they set their ISO to a really big number, which would obviously create a lot of noise even in daylight situations. Decreasing ISO to the base ISO level such as 100 or 200 would help in reducing and possibly eliminating noise in the images.

4) How to reduce noise in post-production

If you already have an image that has too much noise, there are several ways to reduce the noise in post-production software such as Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. In addition, there are many third party utilities and Photoshop plugins that do a terrific job in decreasing noise in images without affecting the image quality.

4.1) Reducing noise in Photoshop

Photoshop has a built-in “Reduce Noise” filter (Filter->Noise->Reduce Noise), but it is pretty weak in functionality compared to other solutions. To be honest, I never use it, because it does not do a good job and does not provide many options to effectively reduce noise. Here is a screenshot of the Reduce Noise filter:

Photoshop Reduce Noise Filter

Photoshop Reduce Noise Filter

You can try removing noise through “Per Channel” tab in Advanced mode, but it was not effective at all for the above image. If you want to give it a try, play with the settings and see what you can get. Let’s take a look at Lightroom’s noise handling solution instead.

4.2) Reducing noise in Lightroom

Lightroom comes with a better and a more advanced tool to deal with noise – the “Detail” panel that is available in the “Develop” module of Lightroom. Simply press “D” to go to Develop module, click the image to view it at 100%, then open up the right panel and scroll down until you get to “Detail”, where you will see settings for Sharpening and Noise Reduction. Why is sharpening included? Because applying heavy noise reduction could soften your image and combining noise reduction with some sharpening typically yields better results. Here is a screenshot of the detail panel and some settings that I have used for my duck image:

Lightroom Detail Panel

Lightroom Detail Panel

Lightroom has the following controls for Sharpening and Noise Reduction:
Sharpening: Amount, Radius, Detail and Masking
Noise Reduction: Luminance, Detail, Contrast, Color and Color Detail

Start off from Noise Reduction settings and first increase the Luminance level, which is the amount of noise reduction you want to apply. I used 100 for the above example. Next, go to Detail and experiment with it a little by moving it from left to right – it controls the amount of details you want to preserve in your image. If you move it all the way to the left, you will see that the whole image becomes very soft, including details that should not. If you move it all the way to the right, the image does not change much at all, because you are trying to preserve too many details. I find that values between 40 and 60 work best in most situations. When it comes to Contrast, which is a tool to remove contrast noise, I typically leave it at “0″. The same applies to Color and Color Detail – I rarely touch those settings, unless I have Color/Chroma noise that I need to remove from an image.

Once you are done with removing noise from the image, if you see that you have lost some of the sharpness in your image, play with the Sharpening settings above – you can achieve great results by using sharpening and noise reduction together.

Here is the extracted image with noise reduction applied in Lightroom – move the mouse over to see the original for comparison:

Lightroom Noise Reduction

4.3) Reducing noise in Nik Software’s Dfine

If you are looking for the best solution to reduce noise in your images, you should try using third party tools such as Nik Software’s Dfine, Neat Image or Noise Ninja. The great thing about third party noise reduction tools, is that they allow you to apply noise reduction selectively, meaning to only certain parts of an image. Take a look at Nik Software’s Dfine in action:

Nik Software Dfine

Nik Software Dfine

The areas that are selected in dotted squares are the ones I want to apply noise reduction to. The software analyses the noise pattern and figures out what it needs to do to eliminate the noise. I can manually control the settings by telling the software the amount of noise I want to reduce and I can even specify which areas not to touch while applying noise reduction. Here is what I used for my image:

Nik Software Dfine Settings

Nik Software Dfine Settings

As you can see, I’m applying some heavy contrast noise reduction at 150%, then I dropped an exception point on the duck’s head so that noise reduction does not affect it. The result is the following image:

Dfine Noise Reduction

Move your mouse over the image to compare it with the original version.

4.4) Reducing noise in Neat Image Pro

Another great tool to remove noise from images is Neat Image Pro. I have used Neat Image Pro in the past and I really enjoyed it before seeing Dfine and Noise Ninja. It has many more options than Lightroom and Dfine, but lacks Dfine’s ability to exclude certain areas of the image from getting touched (will probably be added in future versions). Here is how the user interface looks like:

Neat Image Auto Profile

Neat Image Auto Profile

It has camera profiles for many digital cameras, and as you can see from the above screenshot, my D300 was quickly identified and it automatically selected a noisy area to work with after I clicked the “Auto profile” button. Next, I went to Noise Filter Settings and I slightly increased Noise Reduction “Luminance channel” amount, then increased the sharpness of the image under “Sharpening Amount” to 40% and finally pressed the “Preview” button to see what my changes would look like:

Neat Image Settings Preview

Neat Image Settings Preview

After I was done, I clicked the “Apply” button to get the image processed using the above settings. Here is how the final image looks like (move the mouse over to see the original):

Neat Image Noise Reduction

4.5) Reducing noise in Noise Ninja

The last tool I want to show you is Noise Ninja, perhaps the most popular tool among photographers today. It is certainly more powerful than both Neat Image and Nik Software Dfine and offers many ways to fine-tune noise reduction. The biggest benefit of Noise Ninja, is its ability to selectively apply or reduce noise reduction through a special “Noise Brush” tool. It is somewhat similar to Dfine, but is much more precise, since the brush can be applied to any area, just like a masking tool in Photoshop. You can paint over individual parts of your subject with either a soft-edge or a hard-edge brush and it is possible to isolate areas that need or do not need noise reduction applied. Here is what I used for the filter settings:

Noise Ninja Filter

Noise Ninja Filter

And here is the Noise Brush tab, where you can brush over areas that you want to include or exclude in/from noise reduction:

Noise Ninja Noise Brush

Noise Ninja Noise Brush

Here is how the final image looks like (move the mouse over to see the original):

Noise Ninja Noise Reduction

5) Conclusion

If you want to get serious about your photography, you need to learn how to post-process your images and make them look good to present them to your potential clients, to show them on your web portfolio or print on paper. While having noise in your images can make them look interesting and film-like, not all types of noise look good and not on every picture. Most professional photographers shoot clean images and then add noise to them as an effect later, if necessary, rather than intentionally shooting with noise. In many cases, noise degrades overall image quality and the above tools serve to help fix problematic photographs by removing noise from them. As you can see, most third party tools are very similar in their core functionality and certainly allow the granularity that neither Photoshop nor Lightroom can offer. If you do not already own noise reduction software, I highly recommend to try out the demo/trial versions of the above software and see what works best for you.

I hope you found this article useful. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to drop a comment in the comments section below.


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Avatar of Nasim Mansurov About Nasim Mansurov

is a professional photographer based out of Denver, Colorado. He is the author and founder of Photography Life, along with a number of other online resources. Read more about Nasim here.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Michael

    Digital noise Nikon DSLR cameras make is very nice – it is grainy and looks like from old analog cameras. It’s quite easy to reduce or remove it from picture without loosing details. My favourite software is Nikon Capture NX – not the best one but still good.

    I heard Topaz DeNoise is very good too but i haven’t tried it yet:
    http://www.topazlabs.com/denoise/

    Thanks for another very nice tutorial:)

    • Michael, I have heard a lot of good things about Topaz DeNoise. I will certainly give it a try and will update the above article with it.

      From the website images, it looks very appealing…

      Thank you for your feedback!

  2. 2
    ) Morten

    Excellent post!

  3. one more method:

    Photoshop
    Filter -> Blur -> SmartBlur

    or
    Duplicate layer
    Gaussian Blur
    Eraser tool on upper level

    • That’s an interesting method, I will give it a try, thank you :)

  4. 4
    ) Gyula

    Congrats Nasim,

    I’ve been waiting for long long time for an article like this about noise reduction methods. Personally, I use Noiseware Pro, which has a self-learning mechanism which automatically calibrate a precision noise profile and choose the optimal settings for each individual image. It has a few presets too, like portrait, night, landscape, etc. Most of my images are taken at night, and I am quite a happy with the result I get from Noiseware Pro.

    Thanks again for this article!

    • Thank you Gyula!

      Self-learning sounds very interesting, I will certainly give Noiseware Pro a try…

  5. 5
    ) Nicola

    Thank you so much for this excellent article and site. Since buying my first DSLR I have been trawling the internet looking for articles such as this, explaining things in simple but unpatronising terms, and at just the right length of article. You manage to hit it just right and I have learnt far more from your site than I have done from the rest of the internet put together. Well done!

    • Nicola, I really appreciate your feedback, thank you! :)

  6. 11
    ) Gyula

    Alright Nasim,

    let me know then your experiences with Noiseware Pro, please.
    You could add it to this article later if you find it useful…

    Thanks!

    • Sounds good, I will do that as soon as I get a copy of it.

  7. 12
    ) Girish

    Hi Nasim,

    Thanks for very nice article. (I have PnS camera) I read so many articles about the shutter speed aperture, iso and the creative angles of taking photographs. After reading all that I was eager to buy entry level dslr (D3000) although I want D90, Now after reading your article I think I can edit my images taken by pns to match somewhat with the dslr quality and save some money for D90. The s/w cd I got with my Samsung pns has very basic tools for editing photos. I have never tried using Photoshop. I will focus now on the postproduction. (before reading this article I was under impression that it is very difficult to do). Thanks again for the post.

    Girish

    • Girish, you are most welcome!

      Yes, you should definitely learn how to use Photoshop and Lightroom and start editing your existing images. And your decision to wait and get the D90 instead is a good one, because D90 is worth the wait.

  8. 13
    ) Peng

    I couldn’t agree more with Nicola. Somehow I wonder how you find the time to write these excellent articles for all these years. Let alone having to test different lens, cameras, software. That’s a lot of work! and you nailed them all.

    FYI, I check your site everyday to see if there is any update. I’m a big fan. Keep up the good work. Thanks again for the great post.

    • Peng, as you can see, I have been too busy to respond lately :)

      Thank you for your feedback and for visiting my site, I really appreciate it!

  9. 14
    ) GDX

    Thanks a lot! Noise has been my problem for quite some time now! Thanks for the concise and informative article!

    • GDX, you are most welcome! Let me know if you have any questions.

  10. I’ve used Neat Image for years with my D70 and now with my D700. I especially like the 64-bit version of the plugin. It works best if you create you own noise profiles for your specific camera, and especially with the same settings as your workflow. I set my cameras on a tripod with a variable ND filter and shoot Neat Image’s target on the LCD. I choose every shutter speed (1 stop increments) from 30 seconds to 1/4000 for every ISO (also 1 stop increments). This is usually not possible without a variable ND filter. I then process the images through Capture NX 2 with the typical settings I would use and save them as 16-bit TIFFs that Neat Image can create the noise profiles from. I created a PhotoShop Action for the D700 that has Neat Image “auto match profile”, “auto fine-tune”, and “remove only half of noise”. The rest I do manually and selectively as needed on skies and flat areas that need more. I find that it’s rare I need to do more with the D700 though unless I’m over 5000 ISO. I disable high ISO noise reduction in camera, but occasionally use long exposure noise reduction if I’m using a tripod, and I do no noise reduction in Capture NX 2. This keeps Neat Image from getting a plastic look like it tends to with the default profiles.

    PhotoShop CS5 has the same noise reduction capability as Lightroom 3 since they both share Camera Raw 6 underneath. Here’s the trick on using it for .jpgs, .tiffs, etc. that have already been converted from raw files: right click on the image in Adobe Bridge and click “open in camera raw”. You will then have Lightroom 3′s luminance noise reduction and other sliders under the detail tab. Works great for those that aren’t using Lightroom 3 or don’t want to import an unfinished work. :-) I’m not sure how to do it in PhotoShop without opening Bridge though for non RAW files.

    I’ll have to play with some of these newer noise reduction programs, many improvements have been made over the years! Thanks for the in-depth article!

    • Aaron, I used Neat Image for about three years and I switched to Nik’s Dfine last year. Now after seeing Noise Ninja, I think I will be using it for select images :)

      Looks like Neat Image has been working great for your workflow. I’m sure it saves you a lot of time if you are doing batch processing…architecture is a little different to deal with than wildlife/people when it comes to noise, since you do not have to deal with selective noise reduction as much.

      As far as Photoshop CS5, yes, Camera RAW is the same for both Photoshop and Lightroom, but I wanted to specifically show the noise reduction filter, which I found to be pretty weak. Thanks for the tip on opening images in Camera RAW without LR3. If you want to open files in Camera RAW within Photoshop, you simply go to File->Open and select the RAW format. Any compatible RAW format will automatically trigger Camera RAW to open up in a separate window.

      Definitely try out Noise Ninja, it is very powerful!

  11. 16
    ) Juan

    How do you think about Noiseware plugin?

    Have you try it?

    It have a lot options and it gives you the posibility of exclude noise reduvtion by tone (highlights, midtones, & shadows), colour and much more.

    I’m still learning it and I consider it a very good one.

    Thanks!

    • Juan, I have not tried Noiseware yet, but will certainly give it a try. I wonder if it can exclude certain areas from being touched as Noise Ninja does…

  12. 24
    ) mymy

    Hello Nasim, I just bought the nik software bundle but i dont know how to add it to Lr3…pls help..
    Again, thank you so much for the tips, i now appreciate my photos from D90

    • Mymy, did you buy the LR3 plugin version, or the one for Photoshop? I believe they sell both.

      If you bought the LR3 version, then just install it, then open up Lightroom, press D, right click on the image, then go to Edit->Open in Nik Software. If you bought the Photoshop version, then you have to open up Photoshop in 32 bit mode first, then edit the image in Lightroom via Photoshop.

      Let me know if you have any questions.

  13. 25
    ) Liju Augustine

    Nazim,

    Thanks for the nice article. I use NX2 for whatever adjustments needed for the pictures but I don’t have Photoshop or LightRoom for further processing. I heard lots of good stories about Noise Ninja (confirmed by you now) and I was wondering, if the standalone version of the software is any different than the plugin? Do you see any advantage with the plugin over the standalone version ? – I am thinking about purchasing a Pro Standalone (of course after trying a bit)

    Thanks
    Liju

    • Liju, there is no difference between standalone and plugin versions of Noise Ninja – it is the algorithm that counts and it is the same for both.

      • 27
        ) Liju Augustine

        Nasim,

        Thanks for replying. Have you had any experience with Capture NX2 noise reduction? I think, its doing a good job. I never tried a high noise image with it but just wondering, if you had any experience with Nx2 noise reduction.

        thanks

        • Liju, yes, I have tried Capture NX2 before and it does an OK job with noise reduction…

          • Thanks for replying. I will surely try Noise Ninja in the coming days.

  14. Nasim,

    Do you have a recommended workflow, when using Noise Ninja? Would you recommend noise reduction at the end of all the processing or as the first step.

    Thanks
    Liju Augustine

    • Liju, not sure how I missed your comment!

      I would recommend to use noise reduction before applying sharpening in the final image – that’s how I do it.

  15. 31
    ) william

    Dear Nasim,
    I must thank you for your inparting knowlege of photogrpahy world wide.I am benefiited by reading and am excited about photography.

  16. i didn’t know that lightroom had the noise reduction feature (it was rolled up in my detail settings). thanks for this informative post! it has helped me once again :D

  17. Thanks for the article. I noticed that Noise Ninja introduces artifacts (zigzags) on the bird’s beak, while the other programs did not. Is that something ‘normal’ with NN?
    The LR example destroys the texture, I actually like the original better, but maybe tastes differ :)

    I normally don’t touch the luminosity, but always use about 10% colour noise reduction, especially when shooting at higher ISO. Even the Canon 5DII has some colour noise then and it is very easy to get rid off.

    Thanks again

  18. 37
    ) RUSS

    I THINK YOU ANS.MY QUESTION, RE: NOISE REDUCTION SOFT WARE,. USING LITE RM. 3, D’FINE OR NOISE NINJA CAN GET RID OF NOISE @ SPECFIC AREAS OF NOISE, I.E SHADOWS, DISLIKE THAT PLASTIC LOOK WITH TOO MUCH LUMINANACE.
    USING A NIKON D200. ANY ADICE WOULD BE MUCH APPRECIATED

    I ENJOYED YOR TIPS AND COMMENTS, KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK

    RUSS

  19. 38
    ) Kabir

    I’m a newby and found this page very helpful, many Thanks.

  20. 39
    ) Fernando

    Hi, Thanks for all the great information.

    I have a question hoping that someone would be kind enough to answer it:

    My Canon 60D has 2 noise reduction settings:

    1.Cfn II Image 1: Long exp noise reduction.Options are off,Auto and On (when it is on ,it takes almost as long as to save the file in the card as it takes for the picture)
    2. Cfn II Image 2: High Iso noise reduction.Options are Standard,Low,Strong and Disable.

    Is it better to let the camera do the noise reduction with some possible post noise reduction if needed? ,or just do it only with software? Which one would give better results?

    Thanks again

    • 44
      ) random guy

      Fernando,

      Long exposure noise reduction reads the sensor noise then subtracts that from the photo you shot. I forget at what shutter speed it kicks in, but I think it is around 1 second. Unless you need to take long exposures in rapid succession, I would turn it to Auto or On.

      High ISO noise reduction uses the camera’s built in noise reductions settings for various ISOs. If you only shoot to jpeg and use photos for web display or small prints, this is OK. However, for best results you should disable this and tackle noise in post-processing. Another consideration is whether you want to spend a lot of time post-processing; a surprising number of wedding and event photographers shoot jpeg so they can save hours of post-processing the hundreds of “keepers” from the thousands they shoot per event. Of course, you can use high ISO noise reduction for non-critical photography to save time in post and disable it for any “special” images you want to make as good as possible and print large.

      Hope this helps.

  21. 40
    ) Goody Mistry

    Nasim

    I have been doing a lot of reading on the Internet to know more about photography and takean informed and balanced decision for purchasing my first DSLR.

    I have not found any site as detailed and comprehensive as yours. Whether its a Camera or Lens review, whether it is clarification of technical concepts such as Fx vs Dx formats, whether it’s learning about post processing – I found your articles to be detailed, informative and written as Lucidly as possible.

    Thank you for all your extensive knowledge and experience on photography which you so passionately want to share with others.

    Best wishes.

    Goody Mistry

  22. 41
    ) Vilas

    Thank you so much for quite informative tutorial!

  23. 42
    ) Lisa

    Hi Nasim-
    I am a novice & have Nikon Coolpix 7100 & P500. I was told that I can not do a good job of editing my pics since my cameras fdon’t shhot in RAW files. So, is this true? I do not want to spend the money on Photoshop or Lightrioom if that is true. Thank you.

  24. 43
    ) David Johnson

    I need some help with a very important matter. This matter involves one of the worst crimes in Canadian history. Would you be willing to have a look at 2 images and advise how they were manipulated and explain the process of how to show the way in which it happened?

    If you agree to have a look at the images I will pass oblong the website explaining the complete story in detail. This involves a major case of Racial Profiling to the point where the Black Family involved has lost everything they own.

    Yours Truly.
    David Johnson

  25. Nasim,
    Thank you for the information shared through your webste.

    Knd regards
    Renier

  26. Hi,
    Very nice and informative article, thanks for this!

    I had a question -
    I use Neat image for Noise Reduction, it does its job but however I find the image a little soft post doing NR. I wanted to know about how to do Selective Sharpening in Photoshop CS4. As I mainly shoot wildlife / birds, selective sharpening only the bird/animal after doing Noise Reduction would help, I presume!

  27. 47
    ) David

    You can also try out Smart Image Denoiser (http://smartimagedenoiser.com)

  28. 48
    ) Andrew

    Was I the only one that thought the Lightroom noise reduction gave the best result out of the three here?

    Besides that, if you have Photoshop, you can easily export multiple versions of the same photo with different amounts of noise reduction applied in LR, then mask them together however you want. Not as convenient as Noise Ninja I guess, but good enough for me.

  29. 49
    ) Jochen

    Try DxO Optic 8 Pro Elite. It knows your sensor (camera body), the ISO value from the EXIF data and if there is a suitable profile for your lens available it *automatically* removes noise accordingly. The guesses are amazing but still can be modified manually.

  30. Thanks for this great info. You are amazing Man… :)

  31. 51
    ) Jacqueline Peters

    I was directed to your site via Google. I recently photographed a wedding and I’m not happy with some of my results. Some of the photos have a lot of noise and odd coloring. I currently use Elements 11 for my editing and the noise editing portion in horrible. You suggested Noise Ninja. Is there a way to try to this software with one of my photos before I commit to purchasing the entire product? Thank you for any help you can give to me.

  32. 52
    ) John Reed

    Does working in 16 bit mode allow more or better noise reduction than working in 8 bit in either Photoshop or Lightroom?

  33. Hi Nasim,

    What is your personal preference and what do you use for your noise reduction?

    Warm Regards

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