How Big Is the Problem With Noise in Digital Photos Really?

How Big Is the Problem With Noise in Digital Photos Really?

I keep on seeing the advertisements about software for reducing noise in digital photos. It gives the idea noise is always a huge problem that needs to be addressed. This is advertising, of course. Or is it indeed an issue that we have to solve with specialized software?.

This is not a rant against the software companies that sell programs specifically for noise reduction. It’s something I became curious about after I read a somewhat older article about limiting the ISO setting to a maximum of ISO 400 to prevent noise. With noise reduction, is the end result better or worse compared to the original? Is it always necessary to perform some sort of aggressive noise reduction to make the images worth showing? I can hardly believe that.

A Bit of History

I started photographing in the early years of the nineties. I used a lot of high ASA film for my concert photography. ISO was called ASA back then. Often, the films I used were limited to 400 ASA (ISO 400), but I exposed these films as 1,600 ASA. In other words, the images were two stops underexposed. It needed a forced development of the film to correct this, resulting in a lot of grain or noise, if you will.

A scan from the negative film. One of the images of a Henry Rollins concert back in 1994, in a dark and obscure venue. I used Ilford HP4 black and white film, exposed at 1,600 ASA.

Photos with a lot of grain were often considered artistic, moody, or on some occasions, special. I don’t say my images could be considered as such, but a lot of photographers used this exposure technique to increase the amount of grain on purpose. But with the age of digital photography, it has suddenly become a big problem.

The grainy structure of film and digital noise are two different things. In the first era of digital photography, the noise was indeed ugly. It was noise at its worst, and there was no similarity with the grainy structure of film whatsoever. But the structure of the noise has become more film-like. It’s more natural than ever, although it does depend on the camera you’re using.

For this Milky Way panorama shot, I used ISO 12,800 on my Canon 5D Mark IV. For website use, the noise isn't visible.

I never worried too much about the ISO setting of my digital camera. If I needed to shoot at ISO 1,600, I did. Of course, there was a limit on how high the ISO could be set without ending up with only noise and no image at all. But the limit has pushed forward ever since.

Back then, my Canon EOS 20D could do ISO 1,600 but not much more. Now, my Canon EOS R5 can do ISO 6,400 with less noise, and even ISO 12,800 is acceptable for me. On top of that, the noise structure feels more natural.

How I Look at My Images

If I look at my photos that are shot with high ISO settings, I do see noise. For some concerts, I used up to ISO 12,800, and that’s also the case for night sky photography. I even tried ISO 32,000 for the Milky Way with my Canon 5D Mark IV with nice results. Although, I must admit, I used stacking to reduce the noise and preserve details.

When viewed at a 100% magnification, the noise levels become apparent. But who looks at an image like that in real life? If I look at an image, I want to view it as a whole from a proper distance. This way, the noise isn’t that visible anymore, even when the image is shot with extremely high-ISO levels.

My 10-year anniversary star trail book, containing a lot of images shot with high ISO settings. Noise wasn't a problem whatsoever.

I printed a book celebrating my 10 years of star trail photography in 2017. Some of the featured images were shot at ISO 6,400. Even though the print size was a nice 30 cm on the longest side, the noise wasn't a problem at all. Of course, if you look at the images inside the book at a very close distance, noise can be seen. But then, it's like looking at an image through a magnifying glass. 

This particular image was shot at ISO 6,400. Although there is some noise when viewed from a few centimeters of distance, a normal way of looking at the book won't make it visible.

My book, Winter at Lofoten, had a lot of night images featuring northern lights taken at high ISO levels. Canon Netherlands printed one of my Perseïds meteor shower images at 30x40 cm with a professional printer. The noise never became obvious, even though the image was at ISO 6,400 on a Canon EOS 5D mark III. But when viewed at 100% on a computer screen, the noise was clearly there.

ISO 6,400 was used for this image. Although it's a high-quality book, normally used for high-end wedding albums, there is no noise visible. The image was shot on a Canon EOS 1DX.

The wedding albums I make for my customers often have photos that are shot at high ISO levels. The images inside the albums do look perfect, and no noise is visible. So, why would I need any additional noise reduction software?

A Bit About Exposure and Processing

Perhaps I need to explain how I treat my images regarding post-processing. I use Lightroom Classic for the most part. First of all, I always try to use exposure to the right (ETTR), even with my night sky photography. This way I can avoid extreme recovery of the shadows and blacks in the images, which often results in an increase of noise. I use a mask for sharpening to avoid the effect on the parts that don’t need sharpening. This also prevents an increase of noise. If necessary, I set the noise reduction in Lightroom Classic to 25 or so, almost never higher. And that’s it.

The Milky Way, shot at ISO 12,800 on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.

A detail of the previous image. There is some luminance noise and color noise present, but it isn't a problem, especially in print or for website use. Perhaps it would be considered a problem when viewed on a screen at 100% magnification.

Is Noise a Taboo?

Yes, I do see noise when I look at some of my photos on my computer monitor, but I know it won’t become obvious in print. If I use an image for social media or on photo-sharing sites, the resolution is reduced to web dimensions. Any noise is lost in the process and won’t be visible anymore.

Do we need noise reduction because we love to scrutinize our images at 100% magnification? Or is it because we are only trying to produce smooth and noiseless images because we believe that’s how it’s supposed to be?

It was dark when I got a change to take an image of this deer. I needed ISO 12,800 on my Canon EOS R5. There is a lot of noise present when viewed at 100% magnification. I wonder how it will look when printed. For website use, it's perfect.

On most occasions, I believe we don’t need noise reduction software at all. For online use, the noise is already invisible because of the downscaling. For prints, it is often lost in the print resolution and through a proper viewing distance. I would advise everyone to be careful when considering using this kind of software.

What do you think about noise reduction? Is it necessary for your photography, and if so, can you explain why? It’s something I would love to understand. I’m looking forward to your comments below.

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9 Comments
michael butler's picture

A very good question and one that needs answering as the industry appears to be tilting towards the use of various plug ins and A.I to further enhance images post processing. For the restoration of older images I can definitely see the benefits but as you mention, modern cameras and editing software have done a great job in reducing noise to more than tolerable levels so, what is really driving this trend?

Alan Fletcher's picture

I would say that the driver of this trend could be one or more of these: "Feautureitis", "Me too", solving a problem (or a need) that does not exists, or money.

It is very common for companies to feel that they have to have more features than their competitors so they can come up on top on a side-to-side comparison to competing software, as well as tout premium or deluxe editions at an extra cost.

Being a software engineer for the last 40 years, I have seen many trends come and go because some of the above reasons.

When buying software I always look into useful (to me) features an ease of use. I do not like to have Great software that is extremely hard to comprehend and use.

Christopher Paulson's picture

Interesting article! And this is a really great reminder to stop myself from unthinkingly getting caught up in these trends.

Three thoughts in response, two "cyincal" (sort of) and one practical:

Cynical: I think a lot of photographers are the only people who really see their work (I know this is my fear!) and they love seeing noiseless, crisp, resolution of our retina-style images. Yes, they put their stuff on Instagram, etc., but they spend much of their own time staring at their very nice screens. (I am talking about myself here as much as anyone else!)

Practical: as a filmmaker trying to develop a photography practice, I am thinking about prints. I hear what you are saying about your print at 30x40cm showing no noticeable noise, but what about larger sizes? When you see an exhibition of a Stan Douglas photo at 1.5m x 4m and see no noise, you know it was either shot at low ISO, on a 50,000 dollar camera, or run through some serious noise reduction software (or all three). Exhibiting at this size, though, happens for very few artists I am guessing.

Third (cynical): the other "driver" in this trend is youtube instruction. The Lightroom and CaptureOne gurus out there preach the gospel of no noise and it sells well.

(I think you could write a similar piece about the need for resolution. Richard Misrach, the famous landscape photographer who shows work at enormous size, also works with an iPhone 7. As he says, it's fine for prints up to a certain size viewed from a certain distance, but not for pixel-peeping And in the film world, there are many people who'd rather work with a 2k Arriflex camera for its color science and dynamic range than with an 8k camera from someone else, because they know better how the eye sees.)

Daniel L Miller's picture

We can add to the discussion whether Noise Reduction software leaves the image better — or worse — than before the fix. The noise/grain may be reduced but depending on the amount of reduction it's fairly easy to see the effects on contrast edges in an image.

Malcolm Wright's picture

100% magnification is an under statement. When 1600x1200 pixel digital images are projected at around 6ft or 2m across for photography judges in competitions the judges claim they can see noise. Those at the back of the room can't.
I think noise may just be a comment to try and justify why a judge likes one piece of art work over another.
One member of the club bought in some national and international prize winning prints, left to him by passed (correct spelling) members going back 50 years. For fun we decided to judge them as a modern judge would. Sadly none of them would have made the first cut in a club competition now. They all contained too many real life distractions, like litter, drain covers, birds, pedestrians and even clouds, that a modern judge would without any sense of irony declare better cloned out.
Noise iappears to be just another term used to declare why a judge doesn't like a particular picture.
One visiting judge pointedly never uses the term photographer or photograph, preferring the terms Author and Image.
If you view a 4k image on a 60 inch monitor from a distance of 2 inches it's all just noise.
Todays judges are also responsible for Bokeh another fad.
So many genres of photography like wildlife, street and landscape are judged to the same standards as studio now it's no longer funny.

Ruud van der Nat's picture

Thanks for the article Nando.
When I shoot concerts, I often end up with a lot of shots at iso 12800 , but like you stated, they are exposed correct and don’t need a lot of shadow raising. I don’t mind the noise in these shots.
I tried some noise reduction software on these shots and preferred the original shots.

Oleg Kibirev's picture

If you have full control over your photos' presentation, sure. But if you share them more broadly, others may want to zoom in to have a better look, or print enlargements. Noise reduction extends the range at which this is fun.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I will never allow this kind of general use over my photos. If someone wants to have a large print, they have to buy one. This way I'll keep full control over my images.

Tom Reichner's picture

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Nando Harmsen wrote:

"What do you think about noise reduction? Is it necessary for your photography, and if so, can you explain why? It’s something I would love to understand. I’m looking forward to your comments below."

I was shooting wildlife with a friend two weeks ago. A particularly majestic Whitetail buck bedded atop the ridge, with deep blue twilight sky behind him. A gorgeous scene, but so little light that the exposure triangle was severely tested.

I used my tripod and refused to go higher than 1600 ISO, because I know exactly what the images would look like if I put the ISO any higher than that.

My friend doesn't like to use her tripod, so she put the ISO up to 12,800 to try to prevent camera motion from causing the buck to be soft.

We both were using the same camera model - the Canon 5D Mark 4.

The next day, my friend said that her images were so grainy that they couldn't be salvaged. No surprise there. A few of my images from that shoot are useable, and for that I am thankful. When the goal of a photograph is to show the fine hair detail as sharply and distinctly as possible, and to be able to print at sizes up to 48" by 32", it is imperative to not have much noise. If there is noticeable noise grain, that prevents the detail of each individual hair from being captured clearly and distinctly.

Nando, you talk about noise being visible on the computer screen, but not visible when the image is printed. I find the opposite to be true. Maybe we see this differently because of the sizes we print at. I pretty much want every photo I take to be able to be printed at huge sizes. The smallest prints I have made for many years now are 36" by 24", and I usually prefer 48" by 32". At these sizes, grain is readily visible. I see grain that I do not see on my 27" 5K monitor. Print an image for a tiny little 10" by 14" page in a book, and of course one will not see the noise grain.

I should note that with wildlife images, it is normal for the viewer to want to see the fine detail of the mammal or bird in the photo. So when printed images are hung at galleries, most viewers walk right up to a huge print and examine it from 2 to 3 feet away, because they want to see the fine hair or feather detail. People may then step back to view the entire image "properly", but only after they have satisfied their eyes with the fine detail in the animal's coat or plumage. As wildlife photographers, we need to accept that this is how people want to view our images, and then shoot and process them accordingly.

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