how to reduce digital noise

How to reduce digital noise in your photographs

How to reduce digital noise in your photographs
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Digital noise reduction is most effective if you start doing it the moment you’re taking the photograph.

It’s true that it can be very useful to know about all the different noise reduction software on the market (or even the best apps to reduce noise in your cell phone photos). However, if you can prevent noise from the get-go, itll be much easier to get clean and sharp photographs.

If you use the best techniques to reduce digital noise and you still get noise, you can learn how to reduce noise in Lightroom or how to reduce noise in Photoshop.

how to reduce digital noise iceland northern light photograph with noise

Digital Noise Reduction using 2,5 seg,  f/2.8 , ISO 4000

However, in this article from our series “Noise in Photography“, we will focus on how to reduce digital noise during shooting and how to prevent it from occurring when printing your images:

  1. How to reduce digital noise in your photographs 
  2. Camera settings for digital noise reduction
  3. Tips for printing noise-free photos

HOW TO REDUCE DIGITAL NOISE IN OUR PHOTOGRAPHS

There are many techniques you can use to reduce and remove digital noise, both while you’re shooting and afterward, and when you’re editing and processing.

Throughout the following section, we will show you the best way to get rid of digital noise using the best camera settings. However, keep in mind that if the lighting is bad, noise will probably keep appearing, so you might need to use noise reduction software after you’ve taken your photos.

BEST WAYS TO REMOVE THE DIGITAL NOISE

In general, this is the best digital noise reduction process:

  1. Take photos with full-frame sensor cameras, since they can capture more light.
  2. Shoot in Raw. This is the best way to capture as much information as possible.
  3. Set the ISO as low as possible, since sensitivity increases the noise.
  4. Expose your images correctly, the golden rule to avoiding noise when shooting.
  5. Don’t take super long exposures,since that can heat the sensor and lead to color noise.
  6. Use large apertures and large aperture lenses.
  7. Use Lightroom or Photoshop, the most effective and simple ways to reduce digital noise.
  8. Use external noise reduction plug-ins, such as “Noiseware” or  “Luminar”.

BEST CAMERA SETTINGS for digital noise reduction

If your goal is to avoid digital noise, the first and most basic thing you can do is use the right camera settings so that your camera does not generate noise.

The best and most important advice would be to know your camera. Each camera is different and knowing the limitations of your equipment is essential.

In order to prevent digital noise, in addition to reading your camera instructions, you should practice as much as you can, especially taking photos in all kinds of situations and lighting conditions.

Best camera settings to reduce DIGITAL NOISE

Briefly, these are the best camera settings for digital noise reduction:

  • Shoot in Raw.
  • Get a correct exposure.
  • Keep the ISO under control.
  • Be careful when taking long exposures.
  • Use large apertures.
  • Leverage your camera noise reduction.
  • Take advantage of your camera high ISO noise reduction (if you shoot in Jpeg).
  • Use cameras with full frame sensors.
digital noise reduction in night photography iceland

Digital noise reduction by using the right camera settings. 3 sec, f/9, ISO 1000

 

Shoot in RAW to reduce the noise

To avoid digital noise in your photos, the first and most basic step is to shoot in Raw.

Jpegs files can’t capture as much information as Raw files, and the Jpeg compression will make the noise more obvious and more difficult to remove during editing.

Get a correct exposure

Always try to expose your photos correctly. Avoidshadows and black areas lacking information, since your camera will generate noise when it processes these areas.

To make sure your exposure is correct when shooting, don’t use the camera light meter; instead, use the histogram, where you can see the image’s blacks and highlights that will be difficult to process.

“Exposing to the right” (ETTR) is widely considered a basic digital noise reduction technique and has created an endless amount of debate in the photography world. This technique uses parameters that cause the histogram to be as exposed to the right as possible, without reaching the pure whites.


reducing the digital noise in Northern lights photos

How to reduce digital noise in Northern Lights photos Gluggafoss Iceland
Reducing the digital noise by properly exposing our images 1,6 sec, f/2.8, ISO 6400 – 25 sec, f/2.8 ISO 3200

 

ISO and Digital Noise – Keep it under control

Three parameters make up the exposure triangle: Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO; the latter is the most significant in terms of digital noise reduction.

The higher the ISO you use, the more noise will be generated by your camera.

As you increase the ISO, you will increase the sensitivity of your sensor to the light. This will make your camera processor create random information and, in the process, create more digital noise.

To avoid this, you should try to use a low ISO whenever it is possible.

There are indeed circumstances where lighting conditions might require you to raise the ISO, for example, in night sky photography, so it is crucial to know your camera well and try to control the ISO as much as possible.


How to reduce digital noise photography Milky Way

Reduce digital Noise Milky Way photography Canadian Rockies
Digital noise reduction by decreasing the ISO and increasing the exposure time. 5 sec, f/2.8, ISO 6400 – 30 sec, f/2.8, ISO 3200

 

* Invariant ISO/ISO less sensors and Noise:

While the aforementioned Exposure to the Right technique has traditionally been seen as one of the best shooting techniques to avoid digital noise, nowadays some new cameras use sensors called ISO invariance (“ISO-Less”). In short, these types of sensors give you the same result as shooting at a native ISO (ex. ISO 100) and overexpose the image later in the processing than shooting at a high ISO.

This way of shooting has advantages, especially when you have highlights in the image that run the risk of being blown out if you raise the ISO, such as in photos of  the Northern Lights,, lampposts, or any other source of strong light.

Some examples of cameras that use an ISO invariant sensor are:

  • Sony A7RIII / Sony A7RII
  • Nikon D810 / Nikon D750 / Nikon D 7100 / Nikon D7100 / Nikon D5500
  • Fuji XT1 / Fuji X100 / Fuji XE1
  • Pentax K5

If your camera is not on the list, test it so you know if your sensor is ISO-less.

If noise is a potential problem for your photo, the way you photograph will be different depending on if you use a conventional sensor or a ISO invariance sensor.

Be careful with long exposures and avoid chromatic noise

As we have already explained, taking long exposures is one of the most common causes of noise in digital photography.

Since the sensor temperature heats up after being used for a long time, the amount of noise increases, especially the chromatic noise.

To reduce this effect, try to avoid long exposures of several minutes, or to take many shots without stopping.

Long exposures are inevitable in certain types of photography, such as star trails or time-lapse, but you should take this into account and keep it under control whenever you can.

Northern Lights photography Skogafoss how to reduce digital noise

Band of color noise resulting from a long Northern Lights session at high ISOs 2.5 sec, f / 2.8 ISO 5000

Use large aperture AND LARGE APERTURE LENSES

One of the best tips to reduce digital noise is to use large apertures for your lens in low light conditions.

Although the aperture does not directly affect the amount of noise, a small aperture in low light situations will force you to take photos with longer shutter speed or a higher ISO, both factors that will make your photography grainier.

Use as large aperture lenses as possible, with low f values.

Milky Way photography Jasper Canadian Rockies digital noise reduction

Photograph taken with an aperture of f/2.8 to capture more details in the sky and avoid noise. 2 sec, f / 2.8, ISO 3200

Leverage your camera noise reduction

In order to avoid digital noise, today’s cameras have a built-in automatic noise reduction system.

With this system, after you’ve captured the image, your camera will carry out an automatic process where it captures an exposure the same length of time as the original photograph.

Pros of the automatic noise reduction

It allows you to reduce digital noise automatically in the RAW file, without having to use any software later.

Cons of the automatic noise reduction

You cant use the camera for the entire duration of the process (always the same length of time as the original shot).

So, if you take a 30-second shot, your camera will be busy with the NR process for another 30 seconds.

In my case, I don’t use this process, since I prefer to apply digital noise reduction more selectively through different noise reduction software.

Long exposure digital Noise Reduction in camera NR

Nikon D800 menu: Long exposure Noise Reduction (NR)

 

Take advantage of your camera’s high ISO noise reduction (If you shoot in Jpeg )

If you’re not going to edit or process your photos, and you prefer to shoot in Jpeg format, you can use the automatic noise reduction on your camera to reduce the digital noise of your images.

In my case, I always shoot in RAW, so this option is disabled on my camera.

Use cameras with full frame sensors

Your camera sensor plays a key role in avoiding digital noise.

One of the main differences between cameras that use crop sensors (APS-C) and cameras that use full-frame sensors, is the amount of noise they generate.

The large size of the full-frame sensor captures more light and collects more information. In other words, cameras with full-frame sensors will generate much less noise than cameras with APS-c sensors.

In some types of photos such as Milky Way Photography or Northern Lights photography, the difference from one camera to another will be very significant.

photography Milky Way New Jersey beach digital noise reduction

Photography taken with Nikon D800 full-frame camera and Nikkor 14-24 f / 2.8 lens. Panoramic of 5 vertical photographs at 15 sec, f / 2.8, ISO 4000

If your camera has a crop sensor and you are planning to take night sky photos or you are taking a trip where you expect to shoot at high ISOs, my advice is to get a full frame camera if quality is something that matters to you.

Full-frame sensor cameras are not particularly cheap, but you can also rent gear for a photo shoot or a trip. In my case, I always rent  cameras and large aperture lenses through Lensrentals.

TIPS FOR reducing the digital noise in your prints

Printing images without noise is one of our main goals so viewers are not distracted from the main elements of our image.

How to print photos without noise

In order to avoid noise in your photography prints, follow the tips below:

  • Use techniques to prevent noise while shooting, as this is the best way to have a sharp and clean print.
  • Remove the noise in your photos before making the print through one of the different options of noise reduction software on the market.
  • Keep a close eye on the homogeneous areas of the image that take up a large space and have a uniform tone or color, such as clouds or water, as the noise will be more visible.
  • Keep the size of the print in mind, since the bigger the print, the more obvious the errors, such as noise, will be.
  • Consider the viewing distance; even if the print is large, if it’s going to be seen from a long distance, the noise will not be noticeable.
  • Print on paper of the best quality and use the surface that best suits the particular type of photography in order to avoid digital noise. On bright surfaces, noise often goes unnoticed.
  • Check with your lab. They can advise you on the right size print based on the image’s digital noise.
how to reduce digital noise in prints Antelope Canyon Dan Zafra

Antelope Canyon print on aluminum dibond without noise

Conclusions about digital noise reduction

As you have seen, the key to avoiding noise is knowing the best digital noise reduction techniques on camera, always shooting with the right settings, and making sure that you get an image thats as clean and sharp as possible.

However, there are cases where, due to circumstances such as low light or lack of time, you can’t get the best conditions for the shot, and your picture shows noise in one or several areas.

In these cases, you should read up on anti-noise software and plugins and, especially, how to reduce noise in Lightroom and how to remove noise in Photoshop, since they are the most effective tools to remove noise in your images.

Finally, if the noise is likely to be due to a technical limitation, get photography equipment designed to avoid noise, such as large aperture lenses and full-frame cameras.

If budget is a problem for you, you can always rent a camera/lens for your photo shoot or trip through a photography rental company such as Lensrentals, or buy second-hand gear through MPB.com (in the US, UK or Europe), since they offer a 6-month warranty.

My last tip is: don’t zoom in and actively look for noise because, in the end, all photos have noise. Worry about fighting it when it’s visible to the naked eye, but don’t get obsessed with digital noise reduction.

What about YOU? What techniques do you use to reduce digital noise in your photographs?

Text and Photography by Dan Zafra - Capture the Atlas Photography Blog

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