Here's Why You Should Stop Worrying About ISO Noise

Most photographers try their absolute best to avoid ISO noise in their photos and some spend an age trying to rid their images of it in image editing software. But it's not as much of a problem as you think and here's why.

The general rule of thumb is that the higher your ISO sensitivity is, the more noise you get. If you don't know what I mean by noise, it's those little gritty granules that pop up all over a photo when you've bumped that ISO up. It normally occurs in low-light situations because photographers are trying to maximize the light sensitivity of their image sensor in order to attain certain aperture and shutter speed settings. By boosting the ISO up high you can keep the shutter speed fast which means sharper images when shooting moving subjects or when capturing shots handheld.

Alternatively, it could be so that you can maintain a narrower aperture if there's less light available, as you may want to maintain a specific depth of field to keep slices of your subject in focus, this is especially important on longer focal lengths as the perceived compression of the shot reduces the depth of field dramatically as you reach the telephoto range.

High ISOs can keep shutter speeds faster and apertures narrower for handheld shooting in low light or to achieve a longer depth of field. Modern cameras are well-equipped with noise reduction technology to help keep interference to a minimum, or at least uniform across the frame

The rule of thumb is to keep ISO as low as possible to avoid the noise interference. That's because a lower ISO gives less noise and reportedly a better dynamic range/clarity in the shot. However, the technology in modern digital cameras is so sophisticated that high ISO noise is much less of a problem. There are noise-handling algorithms built into the camera's processing that aim to specifically reduce high ISO noise and help to keep it uniform and minimal across the entire frame.

This improved ISO noise handling comes in handy when image editing in Lightroom for example, because removing noise that is uniform across the image is much easier than editing a shot with patches of noise (such as in the shadowy parts of a frame). With a swift de-noise filter you can turn down the volume of noise across the entire frame, maintaining detail in the scene at the same rate, rather than removing it harshly from one area and hugely affecting the details in a spot that doesn't have a noise complaint.

Let me show you what I mean, below is a shot taken on a seven-year-old Nikon D750. One is taken at ISO 4,500 and the other ISO 12,800.

Notice much of a difference? No, me neither. And this noise-handling technology is seven years old. Processing power and in-built firmware processing have advanced massively since then so you can happily shoot ISO in its thousands if not tens of thousands without issue.

That said, it's all about balance. Keeping an eye on your exposure triangle and trying your best to balance all three settings is crucial to minimizing ISO noise and should be your first port of call to avoid noise in the first place. But even then, image editing software is incredibly useful for removing a lot of this interference if you do suffer from it. All I'm going to do is import the photo into Lightroom Classic, head to the detail panel, and up the Luminance slider slightly while adding in a little from the Detail slider to preserve details in the face.

"Does this really make a difference?" I hear you say. Well, look at a super close crop of the image, we're able to preserve the details in the eyes, nose, hair, and rest of the face whilst also reducing the noise in the shadowy areas on the right of the image. Bear in mind this is ISO 4,500 and we can edit shots to look like it was shot at a much lower ISO.

Lastly, I should say this: who cares if there's noise in it? Does it really matter? Some of the most famous and influential photographs in the world have plenty of noise. Have a look at Jeff Widener's "Tank Man" or "Alan Kurdi" by Nilüfer Demir, neither of those shots are completely pristine as you might expect from, say, a commercial studio shooting fashion, but it doesn't matter. It's about the photographic content, the subject matter, and how you want to portray your scene.

Of course, it completely depends on what the intended outcome is. If you need a photo that is crisp, clear, and technically perfect then perhaps shooting at high ISOs won't help you. Timing is another important factor when it comes to shooting with high ISOs or not. If you have all day, or several days to set up a shoot, light it, style it, meter the light, test shots, and more, then you might be able to afford a lower ISO. However, shooting something live, off-the-cuff, or documentary style you might find that isn't possible. There's also the expected quality from the viewer that matters. Live music, concert, and gig photography - all known to be taken in low light situations and so the viewer assumes that it might be noisy, gritty, punched with textures, and so on.

If you're a photographer who's worried about high ISO noise, or photo noise in general, there's a few tricks you can do to stabilize yourself so you don't end up worrying unnecessarily. Go through this checklist:

  • Can you see your subject clearly?
  • Is your subject/scene sharp where you intend it to be?
  • Does the noise in the photo obscure details which you deem important in the photograph?
  • Zoom out to a thumbnail, is the noise still noticeable?
  • Compare it to similar professional images online — is the noise much worse?
  • Can you do anything to correct it in image editing?
  • Make the noise worse in an image editing software, look at it for a while, then remove it, are you now happier with it?

Hopefully, with that checklist complete you can focus more on the subject and the scene rather than the technical grit that comes with ISO noise. It should give you the opportunity to lay off yourself if there's some ISO noise in your shots, give yourself a break, and keep shooting.

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29 Comments

Ed Sanford's picture

Nice article...

Kent LaPorte's picture

One of the better articles written on fstoppers in awhile. Okay, okay. That was a little passive aggressive; let me start again....

I learned a lot from your article. Great job.

Robert Guild's picture

Thanks for another informative article. I really appreciate these, in contrast to others who just link to someone else’s YT video. Keep up the great work!

Leon Kolenda's picture

You mention using In-Camera Noise reduction. I have read that most Camera setup videos pretty much say turn In-Camera NR off, and that it's better to do it in Post? Should it be done in ACR? should it be done in an Image editing program that can use many of the NR Plugins, Then you have to consider how it effect's Color, as well as sharpness,

Is NR the last thing you do in Post?

Robert Nurse's picture

Some cameras allow you to configure internal NR only for exposures lasting longer than a set amount. I have mine disabled. But, if enabled, it can be set to apply to exposures of one second or more.

Tom Reichner's picture

Can you really use in-camera noise reduction when shooting RAW? I thought that was a jpeg only thing. Maybe I was wrong about that.

Naruto Uzumaki's picture

The in-camera noise reduction applies to jpegs, but on even the highest end ILC cameras, the noise reduction looks horrible. The reason is that cameras tend to only use simple noise reduction algorithms that can be done quickly with very little computation, as on a battery powered device, every CPU cycle counts in saving power.

This is why the jpegs with noise reduction out of camera always have that bar looking noise reduction pattern that looks worse than just leaving the noise in.

Charles Haacker's picture

--- "Lastly, I should say this: who cares if there's noise in it? Does it really matter?"

When we shot film I was standardized on 400-speed. I loved Tri-X. When 400 wasn't fast enough we might push it and use additives, special "soups" to gain the speed but also at the expense of shadow detail and "golf-ball grain." In those thrilling days of yesteryear, there was nothing to be done; it couldn't be mitigated, but one of my mentors remarked that "People shouldn't be getting their noses on the print anyway." ---what today we call "pixel-peeping."

I love to shoot by the "available dark" with half-frame MILCs. I will boost ISO to 12,800 if necessary. I will tolerate some noise, and at stratospheric ISOs it absolutely shows up, especially in the shadows. Most of the time I can easily mitigate it in Lightroom, but I will not try to cut it to the point that the picture looks like a watercolor. As Jason also writes, "There's also the expected quality from the viewer that matters. Live music, concert, and gig photography - all known to be taken in low light situations and so the viewer assumes that it might be noisy, gritty, punched with textures, and so on.

You shouldn't get your nose on the picture anyway.

Ed Sanford's picture

Nice post

Tom Reichner's picture

There are people who care - really care - about whether there is noise in the photos. For one, the Art Directors and Photo Editors who decide which photos to use for the publications they work for. People in these positions are usually very persnickety about image quality, especially from a technical standpoint.

Other people who care about noise are the people who review submissions to stock agencies. Anyone who makes a fair part of their livelihood from stock photo sales is quite familiar with the stringent, demanding review process, which is often quite difficult to pass. The reviewers examine all images at 100% views and pixel peep to make sure that the image will stand up to the highest scrutiny. It doesn't matter how interesting or compelling the content of the photo is; if the image isn't darn near perfect from a technical standpoint, then it will be rejected and the photographer submitting the image won't be able to make a dime off of it.

We must remember that we are not doing this photography thing to make ourselves happy. We are not shooting to meet our own standards. We need to make a livelihood from this, so we have to shoot to meet other people's standards. And if we are shooting for publication and/or for stock, those standards are often very demanding.

Charles Haacker's picture

Tom, I cannot disagree. I was harking back to the late 60s when I trained with 4x5" press cameras. Large format, at least larger than "miniature" 35mm was our main workaround for the grain problem. But when we worked in 35mm in low light, often pushing, the grain was what made up the picture, something to be put up with as the price of getting the picture at all. I keep rereading my post and think I may not have made myself clear.

I submit to Shutterstock and know exactly what they will and won't accept. I rarely get rejected because I shoot and "print" to their rigid specs. I do my initial processing in Lightroom and can use any number of noise-reducing techniques in both LR and Photoshop. I bless digital for what it lets us do in these modern times. I only meant to say that often I think that noise becomes obsessive. There are so many amazing ways (Topaz DeNoise for example) to mitigate it that it needn't be an issue, but I also don't want to compromise sharpness (I am a sharp freak). Too much global noise reduction can turn a sharp picture into mush. And there is the plain fact that I no longer work for a living. 🤔

Tom Reichner's picture

I applaud the author, Jason, for a solid article.

I have been the first to criticize him for writing articles that are clickbait - things that are so off-base that I think he just writes things to get people to click ... things he doesn't even believe himself.

But in this case I think that everything he says in this article is pretty much solid points that are well-reasoned. Thanks for that, Jason.

Naruto Uzumaki's picture

It all depends on the purpose of the image. For example, some popular and influential images did have a lot of noise, especially some of the old war photos. The area where some tend to get sidetracked, is linking it to noise. They were not good because of the noise, they were good because of the moment captured. In that case there was no focus on art. Images like someone being burned by napalm, is not artistic, furthermore, the composition was likely not what the photographer would have wanted given more time (though that is kinda expected when the photographer is also running from an attack), but the moment captured was deeply influential, where such images can change the course of wars by showing the externalities of it.

The noise simply represents a limitation of the technology, but it should still be avoided where possible. For example, suppose you have a wedding and the hall is well lit, how would you feel if it turns out that the photographer left the camera set to ISO 25600 the entire time, thus you ending up with shots where someone is posing for a portrait but the shutter speed is at 1/4000s or higher, while looking like Swiss cheese?

Using an unnecessarily high ISO, is like someone driving on the highway with their car still in first gear and the engine at 8000 RPM, it may still work but it is not a good experience for the passengers in the vehicle, and not good for anyone in earshot of the vehicle.

While there are times you cannot avoid noise, the key to managing it, is knowing how to selectively manage it. For example, Detail frequency and inter-tonal detail suffers with increased ISO, and at certain levels, details above a certain frequency, simply disappear. But since images have a subjective and perceptual nature to them, noise can become a benefit (though not if you are shooting jpeg). For example, selective noise reduction can allow you to target the most unpleasant aspects of the noise, but leave some noise untouched that is of a similar frequency/ texture to the detail that is below the SNR of the image signal and thus totally lost. If done right, then if not pixel peeping, that noise/ grain can look almost like fine details that the camera failed to capture.

Overall, it is always a balance that you are striking. and if your focus is weighed more towards subject detail, you will naturally focus on having the lowest possible ISO for the subject and environment. You will not use an overly low ISO that would force you to use a slower shutter speed that will introduce motion blue which will destroy more detail than even a 1 million ISO would destroy, but you will not use an overly high shutter speed so that you can capture an image of a sleeping baby at 1/8000s.

Matt PZ's picture

I am not an expert so happy to be corrected - but isn't the slider image a complete mislead? The noise won't be an issue if there is light a plenty as there is heare and you just upo the ISO and adjust the other parameters to expose correctly - if you did that same example by upping the ISO and closing the curtains rather than adjusting the other settings wouldn't you see loads more noise????

Naruto Uzumaki's picture

The lighting does make it easier to hide the noise, since much of the image is midtones and highlights, with very few deep shadows and other content that will be close to the noise floor.

In true low light situations where you need high ISO, you are often dealing with much more content being close to the noise floor, and thus more visible noise.

Many people seem upset about my post, (likely freaking out on the first word they disagree with and ignore the rest of the message), but the overall point I am making is one of accepting noise but still maintaining a goal to keep it as low as possible without sacrificing other aspects of the image. e.g., with a slow enough shutter speed, you can shoot in almost any lighting condition at ISO 100 or lower, but most of the images might end up unusable because a ISO 100 image in low light may look really clean of electronic noise, but it will have little to no usable detail due to the camera shake and subject movement. While this is the case, it does not mean you need to jump to another extreme and use an overly high ISO for the situation because you can live with the noise.
While the article makes many good points, it seems more fitting for someone sharing images on sites like Instagram and others that scale the images down to the point where they become useless, often 1 megapixel or lower res and not at full res. In which case, even 12800 will look good, as the downscaling algorithms will effectively make much of that noise invisible.

But for the rest who don't take the stance of "I can't upload my images at more than 4 pixels across because someone might steal it", the noise levels plays a large role in the overall image capture process, and that factor should not be diminished.

Tom Reichner's picture

I do not understand why

Charles Haacker and

Robert Edwardes

gave a thumbs down to your first comment. I suspect that they didn't read the whole comment thoughtfully and carefully, and just jumped to a simple, albeit erroneous, conclusion about your intent.

I think it is boorish to give a thumbs down if one hasn't taken the time to carefully read and understand a comment first.

EDIT: It looks like the downvotes were not intentional, and were generated without the knowledge of the aforementioned users. My apologies to Charles and Robert for accusing them of boorish behavior that they did not commit.

Charles Haacker's picture

Tom, please see my explanation below. I plead not guilty. I had not even seen Naruto's excellent post until this morning. I think it was a bot glitch. I wondered if I had accidentally downvoted instead of upvoted, but I couldn't have---I had not seen it until now.

Tom Reichner's picture

I can see how that could happen. Fstoppers software is rather "glitchy" and "clunky" for me in many respects, so I can see how unintentionally generated downvotes would happen.

Charles Haacker's picture

SORRY! I do not believe that I downvoted your piece, Naruto! I don't know how that got there! I hadn't even seen or read your post until this morning when I discover to my horror that I allegedly downvoted it! I read it, I agree completely, I enjoyed it for being an excellently written and thought-out piece, and I wonder if my "downvote" was a bot trying to sow discord. I upvoted it (hopefully the downvote is gone) and here is my apology, but it wasn't me!

Dave Edward Newton's picture

Simply put, it all depends on the final purpose of the image whether noise matters or not!

Michael Shepherd's picture

I bought a Nikon D-850 a couple of years ago, and it has a crazy high ISO capability. I hardly ever shoot anything less than ISO 400 (unless I'm doing a time exposure) and it really has helped shooting at that higher number when capturing birds in flight, stopping action, etc. If it does look noisy, I just run the file through my Topaz AI software to diminish the roughness before I send the image to print or post it anywhere. Modern sensors do a phenomenal job on noise handling at higher ISO.

David Mackenzie's picture

Are you seriously using these dramatic photojournalist’s images to explain why noise is OK? Clearly here content is everything. That can’t be said for what most people shoot and “publish.”

Tom Reichner's picture

This particular author is well known for producing "clickbait", with articles that are not based on reason or logic. It's just his m.o.

It doesn't surprise me in the least that he uses these kinds of photos to make his point, despite the fact that these photos are not representative of the kind of work that the Fstoppers readership is trying to produce.

This author will keep putting out poorly reasoned clickbait, and some readers will continue to be shocked and offended that his articles don't make any sense.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

What the hell is wrong with you? Just 2 days prior (scroll up), you were complementing the author:

https://fstoppers.com/comment/688362

Tom Reichner's picture

Jason makes some good, sensible points in this article, and I praised him for doing so, especially because he usually writes really bad clickbait stuff and I appreciate that he didn't do that this time.
He also uses some really poor example photos to 'support' this article, and I wanted to acknowledge that.
People should be complimented for anything good they do, and criticized for anything bad they do.
Most people do both good and bad things, and hence they should be both complimented and criticized.

Tom Reichner's picture

I think you meant "complimenting", not "complementing".

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I think your wright. :D

Christian Fiore's picture

LR/ACR/Adobe NR is limited. Just because it looks better than the noisy original doesn't mean you haven't lost a TON of detail in the process. DXO proves this with their DeepPRIME NR, which not only cleans the image of noise, but also restores detail, especially in color. Here's a sample: 100%, A7 III, ISO 6400, +1.5EV added in post, NR and sharpening in DXO, exported as DNG to ACR to edit:

Christian Fiore's picture

LR in comparison, same exact settings, except sharpening and NR edited to look as close to DXO's result as possible. You'll notice a HUGE drop in color fidelity, and the image still looks chunky despite the large amount of NR added. The man's face looks like it's made up of a single color, instead of DXO's result showing the small nuances in color and tone. Even the white hairs on his face have the skin and dark hair colors bleeding into them.