The Image Noise Reduction Challenge: We Compare the Best Noise Reduction Software for Photographers

The Image Noise Reduction Challenge: We Compare the Best Noise Reduction Software for Photographers

My biggest post-processing challenge in photography is image noise. Unlike studio photographers who can precisely control every aspect of lighting, I've been photographing most of my campaigns handheld in natural light for more than 15 years. 

I'm a travel photographer shooting regional lifestyle photography for different agencies all around the world. Because of how I shoot and travel, including the desire to be less conspicuous for my own safety, working with strobes generally isn't appropriate for me. My primary light source is the sun in the golden hour, and my style is very breezy, natural, and spontaneous, which means I sometimes shoot at higher ISOs.

Why Shoot With High ISO?

Simply stated, higher ISOs dial up the sensitivity of your image sensor. When the right combination of aperture and shutter speed isn't enough to achieve a proper exposure, bumping up your ISO to handle low-light conditions is a given. 

The purists will argue: Why not add some artificial light to the mix, instead? Higher ISOs degrade the quality of your photo. 

But controlled lighting is not always an option. Flash photography is often banned or unfeasible in certain environments. Can you imagine popping off a flash during a sacred wedding ceremony or climbing a tree in the wilderness to set up a nice rim light for a perched eagle?

Many wildlife photographers, wedding photographers, photojournalists, and lifestyle photographers can relate: when your job is to capture — rather than create — authentic moments, there will often be some trade-offs to achieve the shot.

The Problem With Higher ISOs: Image Noise

Shooting in low light with higher ISOs will introduce noise in the resulting image. Intentionally applied grain, like what you get from nostalgic old-school film, can be a beautiful aesthetic choice.

But unwanted noise can be quite extreme, and the detail in your photos will suffer. Some high-end cameras certainly handle noise better than prosumer models, but every high-ISO photo could be improved upon with the help of noise reduction tools in post-production.

Discovering the Best Noise Reduction Software

A few years ago I started a side project photographing musicians in Madrid. The shots were very casual — at night, in the city center, discovering locations on the fly, making use of ancient architecture, and using whatever ambient light was bouncing around the streets.

Shooting artistic portraits helped stretch my creativity beyond the commercial photography I shoot in the day, and since the photos were designated for low-res Instagram posts, I was able to focus more on the mood and feeling rather than precision output.

Then, the career of a jazz singer I regularly photograph took off, and suddenly, the work I had produced was being printed onto full-size posters and shown on Spanish TV. Awesome! But that meant reprocessing some of those low-light high-ISO portraits to a cleaner commercial standard suitable for high-resolution display.

This is what image noise looks like at 6400 ISO

This is what image noise looks like at ISO 6,400

As a lifelong Adobe fan, I've had limited experience with other photo apps and plugins. Between Photoshop and Lightroom, what more could you need?

Unfortunately, I learned Lightroom doesn't quite cut it when you're working with heavy noise. My goal was to achieve a silky-smooth background (which required pushing the Luminance slider way up) without losing texture in the details. Here was the result in Lightroom working with my ISO 6,400 portrait, which needed to be prepped for a large-format print:

Lightroom effectively turned this ISO 6400 portrait into a watercolor painting.

Lightroom effectively turned this ISO 6,400 portrait into a watercolor painting.

I needed something more powerful than Lightroom. A photographer friend recommended DeNoise AI by Topaz Labs to solve my noise issue, and I gave it a try. I only needed a light touch of the noise reduction and sharpening sliders before the noise was fully corrected. As you can see, the DeNoise AI results were quite good:

Even at ISO 6400, Topaz DeNoise AI was able to achieve a smooth, noiseless background while retaining excellent textures.

Even at ISO 6,400, Topaz DeNoise AI was able to achieve a smooth, noiseless background while retaining excellent textures.

The noise reduction output with DeNoise AI was exactly what I was looking for: a smooth, noise-free background without obliterating skin and hair texture. Here's a comparison alongside the Lightroom output and the original noisy image:

I used the minimum-strength noise reduction required to smooth the background in this photo. In Lightroom, the skin and hair texture was destroyed. In DeNoise AI, the details are perfectly retained.

I used the minimum-strength noise reduction required to smooth the background in this photo. In Lightroom, the skin and hair texture were destroyed. In DeNoise AI, the details are perfectly retained.

Further testing with DeNoise AI showed that it continues to outperform Lightroom's noise reduction even with less extreme noise issues. This tight crop of an ISO 1,250 photo looks sharper and more defined after running it through DeNoise — note the skin texture, the sharp hairs of the mustache, and defined lip.

Even at less extreme ISOs, Topaz DeNoise AI outperforms Lightroom with its AI-powered technology

Even at less extreme ISOs, Topaz DeNoise AI outperforms Lightroom with its AI-powered technology.

I was so impressed with these results that I looked no further. DeNoise has been my go-to noise reduction application since discovering it last year.

I reached out to the CEO of Topaz Labs last summer to chat more about the technology and ended up partnering with them to supply ongoing images and feedback for all of their AI-powered photo editing applications. When they recently asked me to check out their latest beta of DeNoise, I decided it was high time to take a deep look at other popular noise reduction solutions. Do other applications offer better noise reduction, more intuitive editing options, or a better workflow? Let's find out. On to the challenge!

The Image Noise Reduction Challenge

For this challenge, I'm going to work with a terrible photo — a handheld indoor snapshot taken at ISO 6,400 from a Canon 6D. I chose to use my family's rescued parrot for this example so we could test noise reduction possibilities on the most challenging elements: eyes and feathers with a heavy blanket of thick color noise.

I'll share my results below, but you're welcome to see for yourself. For testing purposes, you can download and work with my cropped TIFF file, a cropped JPG, or the original CR2 raw file. All of the applications reviewed below offer free trials, so you can try them all out and see which works best for you.

Test Image: ISO 6,400

I'll attempt to get the best results from each application under the following guidelines:

  • Increase noise reduction strength until noise is substantially removed from the background
  • Sharpen, if available, without introducing artifacts
Noise Reduction Challenge Image - 1/1600 sec at f4.0, ISO 6400, 85mm

Noise Reduction Challenge Image: 1/1,600 sec at f/4.0, ISO 6,400, 85mm

 

Adobe Lightroom

Website: Adobe Lightroom 
Price: $9.99/mo USD
Pros: Robust industry-standard raw photo editor
Cons: Noise reduction can soften details at higher ISO, software is only available by monthly subscription

Lightroom is my default raw image editor, and it's served me well for many years. While generally, the noise handling does just fine, I've found that increasing noise reduction to accommodate heavier noise muddles up the image.

Adobe Lightroom Interface

Adobe Lightroom Interface

Working with the raw CR2 file with some minor exposure adjustments, I had to pump up the Luminance slider quite high to smooth out the noise, and the result was a more buttery texture in the foreground. Sharpening was limited before artifacts became too extreme. Here's the final output: 

Adobe Lightroom Noise Reduction Output

Adobe Lightroom Noise Reduction Output

Topaz DeNoise AI

Website: Topaz Labs DeNoise AI
Price: $79.99 USD
Pros: Cutting-edge AI-powered software with exceptional noise reduction, easy-to-use interface
Cons: Resource-intensive application can run slow on less-equipped computers

DeNoise AI can be launched as a plugin or a standalone application. I loaded up a TIFF from Lightroom and made my adjustments.

Topaz Labs DeNoise AI Interface

Topaz Labs DeNoise AI Interface

I only needed about 30% power on the noise reduction slider before the background was clean. I was able to ramp up the Sharpening slider to 100 without any artifacts to help bring in detail from the feathers. Using the Recover Original Detail slider, I brought back some of the texture. As always, I was impressed with DeNoise AI. The results are sharp and clean. Take a look:

Topaz Labs DeNoise AI Noise Reduction Output

Topaz Labs DeNoise AI Noise Reduction Output

DxO PhotoLab 3

Website: DxO PhotoLab 3
Price: $129 USD
Pros: Feature-rich raw photo editor
Cons: Prime noise reduction tool is difficult to visualize, making precision output a challenge to achieve

DxO can also handle raw files, so I launched the original CR2 file and got to work. 

DxO Interface

DxO Interface


Working with DxO is a little tricky. I adjusted the curves since the original raw file was quite dark and used their PRIME mode for the best noise reduction algorithm they offer. In the screenshot above, these were my final adjustments just before export. As you can see, the full-screen preview doesn't reflect my final output below — the noise reduction effects are displayed in that tiny thumbnail to the right. It was difficult to fully gauge my adjustments. I used a touch of Lens Sharpness and Unsharp Mask, and the final output came out better than Lightroom, but on closer inspection, you'll see some strange artifacts around the perimeter of the bird and an overall blockiness:
DxO Noise Reduction Output

DxO Noise Reduction Output

Neat Image

Website: Neat Image
Price: From $39.90 USD
Pros: Noise reduction tool with detailed adjustments for refining output
Cons: Low-quality output for higher ISO photos, nNo support for raw files

Neat Image is a standalone app, and while it doesn't work with raw files, I was able to launch a TIFF. 

Neat Image Interface

Neat Image Interface


Once you set up your profile and switch into Advanced mode, you'll find Neat Image has a wide variety of noise reduction tools. Dialing down any of the Frequencies sliders reintroduced noise, so I kept them ramped up to 100%. I tweaked the Sharpening levels to try to improve the thickness of the detail, but this is the best output I could get:
Neat Image Noise Reduction Output

Neat Image Noise Reduction Output

Dfine 2

Website: Dfine 2
Price: $149 USD (Included in Nik Collection 3 plugin suite)
Pros: Minimal plugin for quick and easy noise reduction
Cons: Poor-quality results with high-ISO photos, limited options to refine output

Dfine 2 can be launched from Lightroom as a plugin, so I imported a TIFF.

Dfine 2 Interface

Dfine 2 Interface

The options here were surprisingly limited (no sharpening tools), and the output quite poor. The entire image looks like it's underwater. I had hoped that the output would be better than the preview. Nope. Dfine 2 couldn't maintain any detail with its noise reduction tools:

Dfine 2 Noise Reduction Output

Dfine 2 Noise Reduction Output

Capture One

Website: Phase One Capture One
Price: $349 USD or $24/mo
Pros: Powerful industry-leading raw photo editor
Cons: Noise reduction capability is not as powerful as other features

Capture One by Phase One is what professional photographers use as the most common alternative to Lightroom. I work with a big team of commercial photographers in South Africa, and they all swear by Capture One for its raw handling and superior color output. I loaded up a raw file and gave it a shot.

Capture One Interface

Capture One Interface

Capture One's noise reduction tools are similar to Lightroom's, but the results fell flat. The details across the image were muddy and the noise wasn't entirely removed. From what know of Capture One's user demographic, I suspect Phase One hasn't felt the need to advance their development into noise reduction. Why would they need to when their users are typically meticulous studio photographers shooting at native ISO? Here's the output:

Capture One Noise Reduction Output

Capture One Noise Reduction Output

Conclusion

We had a wide variety of results with the noise reduction challenge. I'd love for our audience to decide the winner! You'll see our targeted problem areas in our original photo to compare the output across all these applications:

Final Image Noise Reduction Software Comparison

Final Image Noise Reduction Software Comparison

What do you think? Do you have a preferred noise reduction application? Do you use a different noise reduction technique we should explore? Let us know in the comments.

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58 Comments

Marc Vidal's picture

Definitely DeNoise AI first, and DxO PhotoLab good second.
All the other options lose way too much details.

I personally did the same comparison on a set of very noisy pictures with Lightroom, Define2 and DxO PhotoLab. The PRIME mod of DxO PhotoLab was in a whole other league. There was no comparison.
Now it seems Topaz DeNoise AI is another serious one!

Joe Svelnys's picture

I use DeNoise AI and like it. Just have to be careful as it tends to over-sharpen if you use the automatic settings; so just nudge that slider down a little (or a lot). It's also updated fairly regularly, which is nice; the recently added "Low Light Mode" also comes in handy. Just watch for magenta/teal halos and fringing on trees when adjusting the sharpening slider and all is good.

Native ISO shots are the best of course, but software like this is nice when you have to push that ISO higher (for various reasons).

Oberoth Pegasus's picture

Can you batch mode this process now? I tried DeNoise and a load of other things from Topaz products a while ago and they were really good but a lot of them didn't have a batch mode or you could tell it to apply this setting to a load of photos and export.

Joe Svelnys's picture

I just double checked to make sure, I have both DeNoise and Sharpen, both support Batch.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I think Denoise is the winner. Capture One being very close.

I am a bit surprised Capture One was that good. Granted, it was years and years ago since I used their NR. It was pretty useless. It didn't really do anything.

Michael Dougherty's picture

I have tried DeNoise AI and it works great for images you are going to print. After opening up an image processed in DeNoise AI, I don't seem to be able to save the file (from Photoshop) as a JPG for use on the web. To me, this is a serious flaw.

Phill Luckhurst's picture

It works fine in Photoshop for me, always has. Once the image is processed all the normal PS tools work fine. I usually use save for web rather than export as it provides better support for exif.

Andres Mayr's picture

I cannot agree with this comparison... using Lightroom with the following settings delivered a much better result (and that starting from the low res jpeg from the article, not even form the raw file)

SHARPENING
Amount 90
Radius 1,5
Detail 50
Masking 34

NOISE REDUCTION
Luminance 80
Detail 50
Contrast 10
Color 60
Detail 50
Smooothnes 48

That´s it. Bye.

www.instagram.com/andres_mayr

Troy Straub's picture

Nice work! Completely agree. The only one of these programs I've used is Lightroom and I'm far from an expert on it, but even I could have gotten much better results than what they used here. Leaving Lightroom at the default would have looked better than their processing.

Ken Monahan's picture

Lightroom, a trick I picked up As follows: move the “preset” sharpening to zero on the sharpening tool slider if it is there.Remove the noise first, then go to the main controls to adjust shadows highlights contrast, then clarity, vibrance and saturation if needed which will usually “sharpen” the image finally Use sharpen tool if still needed. With that work flow you are not sharpening the noise.

User Colin's picture

Agree. Before trying to reduce noise, best to tame Lightroom's sharpening. Otherwise, Lightroom sharpens your noisy background and you have to fight it back into submission. Hold down Alt and adjust the Mask slider till the blurred background is black and then you won't be fighting against oversharpened background blur. Often a value of 50 or 60 is needed.

Generally the Lightroom sliders are designed to be used from top to bottom. So fix your sharpening first then consider how much noise reduction you need. Plus Lightroom allows you to paint noise reduction with the brush, so you could paint the blurred background (perhaps with automask) and both reduce the net sharpening to 0 and if needed add more noise reduction.

Spy Black's picture

Nice job! Yes, judicious use of controls in LR can yield useful results. Different images need different settings tho, and that's where using an app like DeNoise is handy. I do a one-two punch with a mild NR in LR, then I hit it with DeNoise. The combo works best with lower res images, but can work well with higher res stuff.

J. W.'s picture

For most photos that go to print, the one with no noise or very minimal color noise reduction will look best. On a computer screen viewed at 100%, the Topaz will look best. I stopped caring about noise a few years ago after doing some 16x20 prints taken at 6400 ISO. The prints looked amazing from a D700 camera, a camera that has long been surpassed.

Andres Mayr's picture

Agree. Pixelpeeping is so 2011...

Matt M's picture

Everything except Denoise AI looks awful. Lightroom and C1 is fine if you don't overdo it. DxO at first glance okay, then you realize it screwed up the sharpening, and there's artifacts everywhere. I'd rather have 6400 iso than dxo.

Nick Rains's picture

Unless you are in the habit of posting 100% crops on a website, noise is vastly less important than many people think. It tends to disappear during the printing process (as per JW's post) and it's amazing what you can actually get away with. The Topaz app certainly seems very good for the pixel peepers but with proper LR settings (not like the example given) it's possible to get close. And the time saved staying in the LR system is worth a lot.

J Shetley's picture

I agree with these conclusions. Denoise AI is really incredible.

M Clark's picture

None of this mentions the Nik collection's DFINE 2. I just ran it through on the automatic setting. It doesn't even attempt to make it as smooth as some of the other examples in the article, but I think it does a pretty good job.

Graham Lovis's picture

Yes she did. Tested it and it didn’t do well.

M Clark's picture

Ah, I didn't realize. Though I do see she cranked all controls as far as possible. DFINE is intended to automatically or through chosen areas to recognize the amount and kind of noise for reduction. You can't just shove all the controls to the right.

I wonder what the Topaz result would look like if all the controls were pushed as hard as possible. This is my 100% crop. Not buttery smooth but with the automatic profile applied not really bad at all.

Spy Black's picture

It's a one-time fee, and you get to keep using it.

Spy Black's picture

...except that it's not.

Spy Black's picture

I meant the slider in LR. The LR slider can't come close to this.

Spy Black's picture

It's designed to run off your GPU, seems like a programing scapegoat with a lot of software today. Does work decently if you have a decent card.

Yes the uneven NR is because the software is trying to deduct what it should reduce and what to leave alone. It doesn't always figure it out. I sometimes make two or thee variations and comp them together. Extra work for sure, but the end result cannot as of yet be replicated elsewhere.

If you're image is destined for web the software works much more effectively on lower res images. I suspect in a couple of years this will be better figured out for full res images.

Spy Black's picture

I agree there's no AI going on here, but used judiciously, it can yield excellent results. It's unfortunately a hit and miss affair, but it's not a bad tool to have in the toolbox when you need a variant on noise reduction. As I said, I have decent results using a 1-2 punch with the LR NR tool.

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