Noise reduction is an often-overlooked aspect of post processing.
We are often asked how we make our images look so “clean”, even when the original photos are shot at high ISO. We find that Lightroom’s noise reduction is actually pretty good, but we’ve refined the method for using the noise reduction feature to make it even more effective.
While noise reduction should be applied across the board on all images, the strength of the adjustment can vary with ISO. Higher ISO photos get more noise reduction, lower ISO photos need less. The amount of noise at a given ISO can be quite different from camera to camera. A brand new Nikon D4 will have less noise at 6,000 ISO than a Canon 5DMk2 at 6,000 ISO. So it would stand to reason that they should get different noise reduction adjustments.
We need to factor in one more important variable: Exposure. Sometimes a photo, even shot at high ISO, is still underexposed. That photo might need a half, full, or in some extreme cases, a couple of stops of Exposure adjustment to get it where we want it. When we start increasing Exposure like this, the photo can appear much noisier. An underexposed photo at high ISO is going to look worse and worse the more the Exposure is pushed.
Let’s take a really close look at a photo, or detail from a photo to show what we mean.
Here we have the original, untouched RAW file, SOC. It was shot at 6400 ISO. The noise is pretty apparent in this blurred out region of the photo.
Now we have applied a basic noise reduction to the photo, which has helped quite a bit in smoothing out the noise.
Now that we have our noise reduction dialed in, we decided that the photo is underexposed. We bumped the Exposure value up to +1, which properly exposed the photo. You are seeing a specific background detail of course, but the main subject is now correctly exposed at +1.
The photo still has the original level of noise reduction, but now appears noisier. The Exposure compensation has amplified the noise. While not as bad as the original untouched, it’s still not looking too good.
In order to compensate for the Exposure push, we’ve doubled the noise reduction strength to 40, which has brought down some of the noise levels again. It might even need to go to a higher Strength, but at this point, we need to be careful not to ruin the subject of the photo. We are, after all looking at a background element.
So now we have to factor in all of those parameters: Camera model, ISO, AND Exposure compensation to create noise reduction profiles in Lightroom. Lightroom’s noise reduction works the same as the other adjustments: a photo, or selection of photos can be adjusted with any values you want. It also works the same as a Preset. Any noise reduction parameters can be explicitly saved as a Preset and applied later. This means that you can create a Low, Medium and High level of noise reduction as a Preset, and apply it to specific photos.
If you really want to get precise, you can create a folder of presets that have specific noise reduction values on a per-camera basis. So, create a Low/Medium/High for each camera type you shoot with.
Lightroom also provides a means to filter by Metadata values and isolate photos based on some of the key parameters. You can use this Filtering mechanism to isolate Camera and ISO. But what about Exposure adjustments? Unfortunately, Lightroom does not provide this as a filter field.
We still have a problem. You could make all of these presets for noise reduction values, and still not be able to isolate Exposure adjustments. Annoying!
There are actually two solutions to this problem, and both of them come from a genius Lightroom plugin developer: Jeffrey Friedl. I strongly encourage you to check out his collection of plugins. And make sure to send a donation to him for his work. Well worth it. Pay the man, use the plugins. You won’t be sorry.
Solution – Part 1 – Bulk Develop Settings
The first solution is the simplest, and most elegant. We like those qualities in workflow solutions.
The plugin is called Bulk Develop Settings. It is a standard Lightroom plugin that can be installed via the Plugin Manager.
This is a screenshot of the plugin interface. Absorb all the wonderful things it can do.
- Noise Reduction can be defined by camera model. The row of buttons across the top are all the various cameras that the plugin has found in your catalog. Everytime you run the plugin on photos from a new camera, the plugin can be taught your preference for that camera, and it can be saved.
- Noise Reduction can be defined by ISO ranges. In this case, the plugin does not require you to define each and every ISO value per camera, and all the noise reduction parameters for each. Instead, it is simplified to an Upper and Lower bound definition. The key here is that every ISO value inbetween is extrapolated based on your Upper / Lower values. Read that last sentence again. You define the low ISO and the high ISO. It figures out the inbetween.
- Noise Reduction factors in Exposure adjustments in Lightroom. Genius.
- Profiles can be saved and shared. The lower right “Export / Import” options mean this information can be saved and shared with co-workers, or just backed up for safe-keeping. Huge.
Ok, great, I’ve seen the plugin, now what?
Now you have some homework.
You know your cameras. You know what you like to see in your finished images. You know how you shoot. Start building your profiles.
- Start putting together a sample set of photos from each of your cameras at the Lower, Middle, and Upper ISO ranges of what you shoot. Look at the Filters in Lightroom and see where your ISO ranges typically fall. Grab a few different types. Dark photos, bright photos, etc. Get a good sample set.
- If you are pushing your D4 to 10k ISO, grab a bunch of those photos. The more the better, since it will give you a better look at the effects of the noise reduction.
- Isolate a camera and an ISO value. Punch in noise reduction parameters in Lightroom for these photos until you get the look you want. Write down those values.
- Open up the Bulk Develop Settings plugin and define the Upper and Lower bound values based on your preference. Make sure the Upper bound is high enough to encompass your highest ISO value.
- When you have it set, we recommend checking the upper right radio button “update regardless of setting”. This forces an overwrite based on your parameters.
- Export the settings everytime you set up a new camera. Keep this information safe.
- Share with your coworkers or other workstations so you can ensure consistency across your studio.
In Part 2 of this blog post, we will show you… Part 2 of the Solution.
It’s a bit more complicated, but allows for quite a bit more granularity in how the noise reduction gets applied. We will show you how to squeeze out even more customization, if you find you really need it. For 99% of the time, the Bulk Develop Settings Plugin is all you will ever need.