Thoughts on Noise Reduction

This article shares some thoughts on noise reduction considerations that many of us face when deciding on our approach in post processing. There certainly has been a lot of buzz lately with new software like Topaz Denoise AI and DxO PhotoLab 4 with its DeepPRIME function, coming to market.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 216 mm, efov 583 mm, f/5.6, 1/125, ISO-3200

The arrival of new technology always garners a lot of attention in the photography market. Many folks are wondering if they should upgrade their software, or move to different programs. Before rushing off and making this type of decision there are some things to consider.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 241 mm, efov 651 mm, f/5.6, 1/80, ISO-3200

The first factor to keep in mind that noise reduction is only aspect of the work we do in post processing. By focusing only on noise reduction we may inadvertently overlook some other important issues. Some of these include our existing work flow, our skill level in post, and additional investments we may need to make with our computer systems in order to run different software programs.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 216 mm, efov 583 mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-3200

For example, before I bought a copy of Topaz Denoise AI I did some research. I discovered that I needed to upgrade my computer system’s video card if I wanted Denoise AI to run efficiently. My investment in a new video card was about 4.5 times more than the actual software cost me.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 234 mm, efov 632 mm, f/5.6, 1/100, ISO-3200, cropped to 4769 pixels on the width

I’ve had a number of readers contact me with questions via email. Many have been wondering about how they could integrate a new program like Topaz Denoise AI into their existing work flow. Some have discovered that it would create a lot more work for them, and may not be worth the effort.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/400, ISO-1600, cropped to 3829 pixels on the width

Also, for whatever reason, the files from our existing camera may ‘like’ the software program we are currently using. In some situations cameras from a brand like Fujifilm may not be compatible with specific software programs.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 121 mm, efov 327 mm, f/6.3, 1/80, ISO-1600

As regular readers know, I’ve been using DxO software for many years. We recently bought an OM-D E-M1 Mark III . This model is not supported by DxO PhotoLab 2… nor will the M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS zoom lens we have on order. So, we needed to upgrade to PhotoLab 4 in order to be able process RAW files from our new camera.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 165 mm, efov 446 mm, f/5.6, 1/160, ISO-1600

This new version of PhotoLab 4 (i.e. Elite) has DeepPRIME noise reduction technology included. Since DxO PRIME noise reduction has worked well for me in the past, I was very interested to see what this new option could do.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/10, ISO-1600

For the past number of weeks I’ve been experimenting with Topaz Denoise AI and DxO PhotoLab to determine how to best integrate these programs into my workflow. It is important to state that I bought PhotoLab 4 to obtain the camera and lens modules we needed, and did not buy it specifically for DeepPRIME noise reduction.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 424 mm, efov 446 mm, f/5.6, 1/60, ISO-3200

Many photographers prefer to use one software program for all of their work in post. Other folks, like me, use a combination of various software in their work flow. One approach isn’t better than another… just different. My approach incorporates noise reduction at the front end of my process with PhotoLab, then uses a second round of noise reduction at the end with Topaz Denoise AI. I found this combination worked better than either of the programs did when used independently of each other.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/100, ISO-1600

After initially working with PhotoLab 4 for a little while I discovered that the default setting in DeepPRIME of 40 was too aggressive, causing too many details to be lost with that noise reduction option. So, I backed it down to 15 as my standard setting and used that for a while. It worked better… but I still wasn’t positive it was going to fit into my work flow the way I wanted.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-1600, cropped to 4802 pixels on the width

I continued experimenting and eventually came to the conclusion that for my specific workflow that it would be best if used DxO PRIME rather than DeepPRIME for general photography. I do use DxO DeepPRME set at 15 for bird images. We need to keep in mind that this may not be the case for other people who use a workflow different than mine.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-1600, cropped to 4418 pixels on the width

Topaz Denoise AI also had some challenges in terms of how to use it effectively. I found that the automatic Enhance Sharpness settings were often a bit too aggressive. Depending on subject matter and the characteristics of individual photographs I found that I needed to significantly reduced the Enhance Sharpness setting. In some cases I had to turn it down completely.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 129 mm, efov 348 mm, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-3200, cropped to 4284 pixels on the width

Working with noise reduction in post can be impacted by a number of different factors. Experimenting with options and settings is often required to define the approach that will best meet our needs. One thing is certain. We need to do more than just pixel peep with sample images in software review articles. Many software companies offer free trial versions which allows us to experiment without investing any money upfront.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 132 mm, efov 356 mm, f/5.6, 1/80, ISO-1600

Once we find the best solution for the work we do, we can fine tune our noise reduction approaches to meet specific situations. In my case using a combination of DxO PhotoLab 4 PRIME or DeepPRIME with Topaz Denoise AI meets my needs quite well. In some ways it is a 1 + 1 = 3 solution.

Technical Note

Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process. Crops are noted where applicable.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/6.3, 1/250, ISO-1600, cropped to 4721 pixels on the width

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