How to reduce noise in Photoshop

There are two common scenarios where noise creeps into our photos. One is when shooting at high ISO, typically indoors or at night. The other is when we try to lighten and extract detail from the shadows. In both cases, the problem is a lack of light and the solution is to either gather more light when shooting or use noise reduction during post-processing. In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to reduce noise in post with Adobe’s solutions.

There is a lot of debate about which software does the best job of reducing noise. There are many great options, and some of them can outdo Adobe in some  scenarios. But I still prefer using Lightroom or ACR (Adobe Camera RAW in Photoshop) most of the time for a few reasons. First, while I’ve seen some results that are better, the ones I’ve tested are only slightly better (sometimes worse) and not very compelling in my opinion. I typically find that LR / ACR provide results that are good enough (indistinguishable from other options in 40×60″ print sizes I use most). Second, the Adobe tools are generally much simpler to learn and use than other options (which sometimes have dozens of confusing sliders). Third, it is typically much faster to adjust a few sliders when you’re already working in LR or ACR. And fourth, there is some convenience in being able to adjust the settings in a RAW Smart Object (though you can apply many 3rd party filters to a Smart Object as well).

Lightroom / ACR offer several tools that can affect and control noise in the “details” tab. These tools fall into a few bucks including sharpening (the first 4 sliders), luminance noise reduction (the next 3 sliders), and color noise reduction (the last 3 sliders). While this tutorial briefly covers sharpening (because it affects noise), you should definitely check out my tutorial on deconvolution sharpening to learn how to make the most of sharpening. Also, while this tutorial is demonstrated using ACR (Adobe Camera RAW) in Photoshop, the sliders work exactly the same in Lightroom.

Sharpening

Sharpening is very important to set correctly, as sharpening adds noise and therefore has a strong impact on noise reduction. (You may <alt/option>-click any of these sliders while sliding for an enhanced grayscale visualization).

  • Amount: Controls the overall amount of sharpening, per the next three sliders.
  • Radius: Controls the size of the sharpening effect.
  • Detail: Controls the sharpening algorithm used (unsharp mask when set to 0, deconvolution when set to 100, and a blend of the two in between).
  • Masking: Creates an invisible mask that limits sharpening to areas of detail when set to a value greater than 0. This is intended to help avoid sharpening noise, but tends to create strange artifacts/transitions. This is usually best left at 0.
  • Recommended workflow: Set radius to its minimum (0.5) and detail to its maximum (100) for deconvolution sharpening. Set masking to its minimum (0), as this slider tends to produce artifacts when used. Then adjust amount to whatever final value looks best (when viewed at 100% or closer).

 

Luminance Noise Reduction

These sliders are the critical tools for noise reduction and where you should pay the most attention. (You may <alt/option>-click any of these sliders while sliding to visualize in black and white).

  • Luminance: Controls the overall amount of luminance noise reduction, per the next two sliders.
  • Luminance Detail: This is like “masking” for sharpness. It controls the pixels that should NOT get noise reduction.  Slide to the left to get maximum reduction, and slide to the right to preserve fine details (such as secondary stars, or the edges of the brightest stars).
  • Luminance Contrast: This helps restore contrast lost to noise reduction, such as the softer gas clouds in the night sky. Try increas
  • Recommended workflow: Adjust sharpening first per the above workflow (or temporarily set to zero if the image is extremely noisy). Then, set luminance temporarily to a high value so that you may more easily visualize while tweaking detail and then contrast (in that order). Once you’ve optimized detail/contrast, adjust luminance to whatever final value looks best (when viewed at 100% or closer).

 

Color Noise Reduction

These sliders can be important in certain niche scenarios, but are generally fine at defaults. If you want to keep things simple, you can generally ignore these.

  • Color: This controls the overall amount of color noise reduction, per the next two sliders. Most cameras have a “Bayer filter” to capture color and need some color noise reduction, so decreasing below the default 25% is generally a bad idea. Increasing towards 50 may be helpful in some high ISO images, though very high amounts tend to remove too much color at edges.
  • Color Detail: This is also like “masking”. It controls the pixels that should NOT get color noise reduction. Slide to the left to get maximum reduction, and slide to the right to preserve color at edges. The default 50 is generally very good. Try sliding to lower values if you want to eliminate color on edges (such as around stars). You should avoid high values, as this is prone to showing color noise (anything over 70 is typically a risk). So 25-50 is generally a good range.
  • Color Smoothness: This helps smooth color over larger areas of the image. Very low numbers can improve color glow around small objects, but can also result in local blotchiness. Larger numbers can create more uniform color, but may also dull finer details. The default 50 is generally great, but you might want to experiment.
  • Recommended workflow: Adjust sharpening and luminance noise reduction first per the above workflows. Then, set color temporarily to a high value so that you may more easily visualize while tweaking detail and then smoothness (in that order). Once you’ve optimized detail/smoothness, adjust color to whatever final value looks best (when viewed at 100% or closer).

 

How to further improve noise reduction

While this tutorial covers global noise reduction in a single RAW, there are some tricks you can use to push the results even further for high ISO shots of the night sky, including:

You can use the workflow shown above with either of these techniques to help get the best overall results.

Which camera gear do you really need?

A lot of new photographers ask me which camera gear they should buy. It’s a great question, and I always tell people to invest in photography travel and education before gear. I can’t think of a trip or a class I regret, but every time I get on Craiglist to sell something, I’m reminded of money I could have better spent on skills and experiences.

I’m going through reverse GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). After years of clinging onto unnecessary purchases like Steve Martin in “The Jerk”, I’ve finally made a serious dent in slimming down my camera gear. 

Let’s face it, probably every landscape photographer reading this is a gear junkie. Almost all of us either buy lots of equipment or lusts for it. There are of course exceptions, but I haven’t met too many.

I’ve certainly been in this camp for years. There are many reasons I’ve bought so much stuff over the years:

  • I did a little bit of everything. I’ve shot 50 or so weddings, dozens of family photos, studio portraits, products, macro, sports, cityscape, and landscape. Some of these much more than others, but there are truly unique demands in each of these categories. This is a somewhat legitimate excuse for many purchases, but I probably could have approached things in a much simpler way. I could have rented some studio lights that I bought, used extension tubes instead of a dedicated macro lens, and so on.
  • I didn’t know what I need. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you can’t easily try different gear. I’d do a bunch of reading and research of course, but you can find someone willing to recommend just about anything you can buy. So while they might be great for figuring which 50mm lens is the best, very few of them really help you decide whether you should be buying any 50mm lens. That’s why I try to include my rationale and perspective on my gear page. What’s great for me might have no value for you.
  • It was exciting. I’m a techy guy and I love figuring things out. I should have spent the time better figuring out the things I already had.
  • I wanted the best possible images and thought more specialized gear would help. To a degree, this is true. But every extra thing you buy is one more thing to master, and that can hold you back.
  • I wasn’t making hard choices. You can’t carry everything, so end up making more trade-offs for weight or specific functionality as you get more and more lenses. Having a few zoom lenses that can all accept the same 77mm ND filters has helped me get more great shots at the right focal length. And a lighter bag has encouraged me to explore and shoot more.

 

After a while, the clutter left from those poor choices started making the problem more and more obvious. So I decided to take stock of what I really use.

I bring the following gear on nearly all my trips:

  • Nikon D850
  • Nikon 16-35mm f/4 (I can’t remember the last time I left this at home; I particularly love how easy it is to shoot wide angle images with ND filters)
  • Sigma Art 14mm f/1.8 (amazing for night skies and wide angle; I will leave this when I need to pack light)
  • Nikon 80-400mm (great for abstracts and other long lens shots; I will leave this when I need to pack light)
  • Really Right Stuff TVC-33 or TVC-24 tripod with BH-40 or Arca-Swiss Cube head and L-bracket for the camera
  • Breakthrough ND filters (especially the 6-stop)

 

That left a lot of other gear gathering dust. Almost all of it is great stuff. But great gear doesn’t necessarily mean great for me. So I’ve sold equipment like:

  • Sony a7Rii mirrorless camera and related lenses. All in, it’s a great camera and I would recommend it to anyone who wants mirrorless. But my experience kept pushing me back to my D850. The weight savings wasn’t as substantial as I’d hoped and I never got comfortable with the ergonomics and menu system. I struggled to get shots nearly as quickly as I can with my Nikon. I’m sure I could have improved quite a bit if I threw myself into it fully, but that’s part of the problem with too much gear. It doesn’t matter how great it is when you don’t give yourself enough time to master it.
  • Nikon 105mm macro lens. I haven’t shot macros in years and I still have extension tubes I can use if needed.
  • Nikon 16mm Fisheye lens. After correcting the image for distortion, the field of view is similar to my 14mm. I find panos work fine most of the time. And the old-school focusing mechanism on this lens is very jumpy in the cold of winter.
  • Nikon 35mm f/2. This lens is beautifully sharp, small, and cheap. But the focus also jumps like crazy in the cold, and f/2 isn’t as wide as I’d like for night shots at this focal length.
  • Nikon 24-70mm. The older version of this lens wasn’t as sharp as I want, the new one won’t take my 77mm filters, and I rarely need mid-range focal lengths.
  • Studio and portable lighting gear. I haven’t had a good reason to keep so many soft boxes and strobes for years.
  • And so many little gizmos I can’t even remember them. Cheap filters, extra camera bags,

I’m very lucky to have had the opportunity to make all these fun purchases, but I think I would have been better off investing in education or saving the money. And my life is simpler without the clutter.

 

So, what should you buy?

I don’t have a simple answer – I really can’t tell you what you should buy. Even if you want to shoot the same subjects as me, your needs will be different. You may already have lenses from another camera brand, a different budget, a number of other factors that would lead you down a different path. And my advice is fairly limited. I don’t review gear I haven’t personally used for some time. It takes a long time to see all the pros and cons of new equipment and learn how to use it in the best possible way.

What I can share is more general advice that I’ve learned from my experience:

  • Invest in yourself first. A professional photographer with an iPhone and a plane ticket is probably going to make more compelling photos than the average person shooting with a top of the line camera. The gear is a very small part of the art of photography. It matters, but rarely as much as your skill and the subject you are shooting. Prioritize classes, workshops, and travel where possible. If budget is a limitation, just go shooting with the best photographers you can find (I second shot weddings for years to learn the ropes and it was an incredible education).
  • Do not buy anything you won’t use in the next 30 days. When you get new gear, make sure you try serious shooting with it right away. If it doesn’t make a compelling difference, return it. If you make an impulse buy to take advantage of a sale, make sure you get out and try your new purchase right away. I could have saved a good chunk of change over the years by confronting the reality of a bad purchase immediately. This rule also forces you to think about whether you really “need” it.
  • When it matters, don’t be cheap. If you can get the good enough performance and reliability from a cheaper brand, save the money. But if the quality matters, it’s better to buy the right product first rather than after wasting money on something that won’t meet your needs. I’ve spent a lot of money replacing cheap tripods and filters over the years in particular.
  • If you aren’t using it, sell it. It’s painful to sell something for less than you paid. But the loss already occurred the moment you made a bad purchase, not when you finally admit it.

 

What do you think? What’s your advice for other photographers?

I screwed up

When I use gear that I think may be helpful for other photographers, I like to review it. I’ve always thought I’d been very thoughtful by trying to convey that information in a way that was unbiased and clear for my readers so that they could make informed decisions. If I’ve endorsed a product and subsequently had some significant experience with it that I think others would want to know, I’ve felt responsible to update my readers to keep them informed and allow them to make their decisions with all the relevant information I have. But this week I screwed up.

Last year I wrote an article about the 2018 MacBook Pro. It is a great laptop for photographers and I recommended it. Then I ran into a series of issues where I could not get the computer to boot and provided updates on this blog as I progressed through repairs (which turned out to be unnecessary). The final resolution was that there was no issue with the Apple computer hardware or software. The screen brightness was stuck at pure black due to my use and third party (not Apple) software I installed. I ultimately just needed to type my password as a workaround to login blind in order to restore the screen brightness.

I made the mistake of assuming that if my computer’s screen was black and could not be adjusted before logging in, that must be how this computer operates in general. I was excited to have some resolution and posted an update before trying to replicate the issue on other computers. Shortly after, I was able to confirm that the issue is not repeatable on other computers and I posted an update.

I never intended for my story to be shared with people to whom I hadn’t been recommending this computer. It was something I updated on a year-old blog post and shared with my followers. Unfortunately, my update was picked up and shared in the media and the story that has been shared is incorrect. I have contacted the authors of articles which I am aware of to clarify the story, however, I can only control is what I share.

 

So here’s the full story as simply as I can put it:

  • The issues with my computer are isolated to my machine only and were created by 3rd-party software I have installed. Neither the laptop hardware nor Apple software  have the issues related to brightness controls as I had previously believed.
  • I did not think to let Apple tech support know about some things I had done with my computer that wouldn’t commonly done by other users and are related to the screen or boot process, including the installation of third-party software that may have deep interactions with the control of the screen.
  • The installation of third-party software made it impossible for Apple Geniuses and tech support to diagnose the problem. When the issue could not be diagnosed, Apple made good faith efforts to repair my computer by replacing hardware at their expense under warranty. These repairs were now clearly not necessary.  Apple does not support third party software and cannot be expected to have been able to identify this issue.  I cannot overstate how impressed I’ve been with every Apple Genius with whom I’ve interacted, and so it’s important to me to stress that this issue was no fault of anyone at Apple but, rather, of my own.
  • The 2018 MacBook Pro is an excellent computer. It’s very fast and is a critical tool in my photography business. I stand by my recommendation of it for other photographers, as I have continuously since I bought it.

 

I hope others may learn from my experience. I think the following are good lessons I’ve learned here:

  • When troubleshooting issues, pay special attention to anything you do which may be unique. Think very hard. I didn’t think about the fact that I turned the screen off because it was something I had done typically days before I ended up restarting and running into issues. Most importantly, though, I failed to recognize that third party software could be to blame for issues that Apple, understandably, could not fix.
  • It is important to challenge assumptions which seem obvious to you. I thought that if the computer keys and screen are completely black, it was not responding. Then a Genius challenged my assumption that the back light would automatically turn on during boot and proved me wrong by simply pointing a flashlight at the screen.
  • Be very careful what you assume. I assumed when my computer did something, others with the same hardware and operating system would do the same. I did not consider that I may have done something to alter the way the machine boots up.

 

When and How to Use Texture vs Clarity in Lightroom / ACR

Adobe just added the first new slider to Lightroom and Adobe Camera RAW in years, the “texture” slider. It’s an incredible new tool for enhancing small details and apparent sharpness in your images, with minimal halos or other drawbacks. In this tutorial, you’ll see an in-depth overview of what it can do for your photos and how it compares to the clarity slider.

If you’d like to experiment a bit further with the test pattern used in this tutorial, you can download it here.

 

Texture

This tool does a pretty good job of doing what you would expect: enhancing or diminishing texture (since you can make positive or negative adjustments). When you slide right to increase texture, it can be great for enhancing small details like grains of sand, leaves on trees, or the edges of windows on buildings. When you slide it to the left to decrease texture, it can be used diminish the same sorts of textures when they are distracting. It could be used to diminish unwanted textures on smooth surfaces like a metal building. And it appears to be a great tool for smoothing skin when used this way (professional retouchers should continue using more complicated techniques in Photoshop for the ultimate results, but this is an awesome new way to smooth skin quickly right inside Lightroom and I’m sure will be greatly appreciated by many wedding and family photographers who shoot a large number of images).
The texture slider works by increasing contrast of relatively small-sized (relatively high-frequency) details. But unlike sharpening, it avoids sharpening the edges of larger subjects or noise. This helps avoid creating halos and minimizes unwanted noise (both are still possible, just much less problematic). And unlike clarity, it does not wash out bright colors.
Tips to get the most out of the texture slider:
  • It works best when applied locally with an adjustment brush in LR or a layer mask in Photoshop. If noise is a concern, check the details when using around smooth subjects like flat water or blue sky.
  • Try using 20 luminance noise reduction if you need to offset any unwanted noise created by the texture slider.
  • It also adds a bit of saturation, so you may wish to use -5 to -10 saturation or use it on a separate layer set to luminosity blend mode if you prefer more neutral color treatment in the image.
  • Just like deconvolution sharpening, it is best applied on the original file before enlarging or shrinking it to avoid unwanted artifacts. There are some minor differences in the results when texture is applied at the RAW stage vs later, so you may wish to do this on the RAW file (though the differences are pretty small and I wouldn’t worry about this much).
  • If you are using negative texture for skin smoothing, be sure to zoom in and check the details. It does a pretty good job of not softening hair, eye lashes and eyes – but it does have some softening effect that you need to avoid through local use of the tool.

 

Clarity

Clarity is one of the most used (and over-used) tools in Lightroom, yet also one of the least understood. It has the effect of increasing larger details than those affected by texture, which means that it is still very complimentary to the new texture slider. One does not replace the other. It helps to understand the tool a bit to know how they interact.

You may have heard that it works by “increasing midtone contrast”. While that is true, there is much more to it. It has a large effect on edge sharpness, which often causes unwanted halos such as when darker foreground elements like trees and buildings touch a bright sky. It tends to wash out bright colors quite a bit in the small details. It can push the shadows strongly towards black. And it can increase noise in smooth areas under many  conditions.

With all those potential issues, you ask why not just use the texture slider instead. They work on different sized details in the image, so clarity can enhance many details that texture may leave alone. And because clarity is different, sometimes it works better on the same areas that can be targeted with the texture slider. I recommend using both, and playing a bit to find the best combination of the two.

Tips to get the most out of the clarity slider:
  • Like texture, it works best when applied locally with an adjustment brush in LR or a layer mask in Photoshop. It is best to avoid using it on smooth subjects like flat water or blue sky, where the result is mostly the addition of noise. And be very careful around high contrast edges, where halos may occur.
  • Try using 20 luminance noise reduction if you need to offset any unwanted noise created by the clarity slider.
  • Try adding +20 to +50 shadows to offset dark shadows created by clarity.
  • If you see bright colors getting washed out, luminosity blend mode and saturation adjustments won’t help. Instead, try applying clarity on the RAW data rather than via the Camera RAW Filter, as this is less of an issue when working on the RAW data. Check out my tutorial on common misconceptions about RAW Smart Objects if you have any questions about the difference between working on RAW data and working with the RAW filter.
  • Check the details thoroughly around hard edges like trees and buildings to look for bright white halos. Because the appearance of this artifact can vary quite a bit, you should check the entire high contrast edge. You may find one set of buildings is fine, and then the next show halos.

 

Sharpening, Texture, and Clarity: Putting it all together

Sharpening, Texture, and Clarity are all designed to give your images enhanced detail. None is necessarily better than the others, they all play different and important roles. I recommend using LR/ACR for capture sharpening (see my deconvolution sharpening tutorial), and Photoshop for other forms of creative or output sharpening. If you are using that approach, then deconvolution sharpening should be used first to help offset sharpness lost during capture. Once you have done that, you may then apply texture and clarity. Because texture has fewer downsides, I would try applying that first and then adjust clarity as needed. Then you may finally make some small tweaks to any of these sliders if desired to optimize the results.

When you should use BlendIf instead of luminosity masks

One of the most powerful, but overlooked, tools in Photoshop is “BlendIf”. While luminosity masks offer dramatically more capability than BlendIf, it is still an incredibly useful tool in certain situations.

BlendIf offers a couple of substantial benefits:

  • It adds nothing to your file size. Zero. By comparison, a single luminosity mask increases the file size by roughly 1/3rd the size of the original image (because a luminosity mask is essentially a grayscale copy of the image). Using BlendIfs where you can reduces disk space, helps avoid the 4GB TIF file size limit, and lets you save images much faster (because they are smaller).
  • It creates a dynamic mask. If you ever make significant changes to your underlying layers (such as cloning out dust spots or some other distraction), you will likely need to update or replace your luminosity mask as well. BlendIf is constantly updated, which can save you a lot of work when you update underlying layers.

So when should you use BlendIf? Anytime it produces the same or good enough results. For the situations where BlendIf is as good as luminosity masks, it is well worth taking advantage of the benefits above. Of course, luminosity masks are much more capable in general, so the key is knowing when BlendIf is “good enough”.

Here are some previous tutorials I’ve created that show great uses for BlendIf:

If you have Lumenzia, be sure to see the BlendIf section in the written manual (in the ZIP download). In the CC panel, you can also click “?” and then the “Preview” dropdown to learn more about the BlendIf masks (be sure to see the “Technical Tutorial” for a very detailed overview of how it works).

 

Of course, these are just a few examples. You might consider using BlendIf for other uses like:

  • Dodging and burning specific tonal ranges (this is built into Lumenzia, just select the desired tonal range when you click “Dodge”).
  • Contrast enhancements for specific tonal ranges (this is also built into Lumenzia, just create the orange preview layers for the target tones, click “Contrast” and choose the option to convert to a BlendIf).
  • Applying noise reduction just to shadows. (In Lumenzia, use a D or D2 BlendIf).
  • Applying sharpening only to midtones or highlights (In Lumenzia, try a zone BlendIf or L).

 


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