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Noise Reduction Software – Is it worth the money?

Noise Reduction Software – Is it worth the money?

Before & After Noise Reduction

A friend recently sent me a RAW image taken on a very old Lumix digital camera with a 1/1.7″ sensor. The image was a really tricky one, very under exposed and while it was only shot at ISO 400, combined with the small sensor this created quite a messy, noisy image. What this did though was to formulate the idea in my head of writing a short article on how to improve a difficult, noisy image using some of the noise reduction tools I had available to me to clean up this image. These are basically On1 2022 NoNoise, Nik Dfine (the old stand alone verion not the newer DxO version) and Affinity Denoise. However I eventually decided just to keep this article short and sweet by focusing on one of my images and just looking at the new kid on the block which is On1 2022 NoNoise Ai.

Why bother about noise? Well, the vast majority of photographers will tell you that noise is ugly and that therefore you should do everything possible to remove it. For this reason trying to control noise in-camera, and if this fails, later in post, becomes hugely important. This is in sharp contrast (excuse the pun) to grain which can add enormous character to photos giving them an ageless filmic look which can be very attractive, even in a digital image. The two are therefore very different but beware, overdone digital grain can be equally distracting so it needs to be used with care.

Getting back to the main theme of this article, as a start point I needed a suitable image to work with. Racking my brain I recalled an image from a night shoot a couple of years back which was taken on a Lumix GX-80 and exposed at ISO 25,600. It was of revellers coming out of the theatre here in Torquay after The Rocky Horror Show. Regrettably, the RAW in question was inadvertantly deleted a year or so ago but I was able to locate a jpeg, which at just 2400px wide offered even more of a challange than the RAW would have done as NoNoise is really designed to process large RAW files not small jpegs. Anyway, as you can image the jpeg was full of really horrible noise so presented a stiff test to On1 NoNoise Ai.

Now for those that don’t know On1 NoNoise, this application is a core feature found in the latest release of On1 PhotoRAW 2022. It’s embedded in the development functionality although since it is usually the first process to be applied, it’s somewhat strange that On1 have chosen to embed it towards the end of the development tools. That being said, it’s perhaps also worth noting that there is now a stand-alone / plug-in version available which works with Photoshop, Capture One, Affinity Photo and others although unlike previous On1 releases, you now have to buy the plug-ins seperately, either individually or as a plug-in bundle. That’s good news for say Lightroom / Photoshop users who only want the plug-ins but not so good if you are an exisitng On1 customer or looking to buy On1 PhotoRAW 2022 as a new customer. Personally I have some strong thoughts on the way On1 have treated their existing client base but rather than bloat this article, feel free to visit http://thecreativecamera.co.uk/groups/bonjour/ to learn what they are!

Now, with regards to the results I obtained, in all fairness to On1 2022 NoNoise Ai did a pretty good job – see the split image above which is a before and after of the image I was working on. Here the noise in the original was completely removed using just the base (default) settings in the NoNoise panel. As I didn’t want to phaff around with this image, I just wanted to get a good comparison, I only really adjusted the white balance after the application of NoNoise simply to make the image look a little more realistic. I did this simply by picking on something white in the image, in this case the mans shirt,and applying a colour shift to it. You could also use Curves if you prefer or the colour settings available in the Effects section. This adjustment reduced the greenish tinge between the original and the processed image. Whether it’s worth working on the image any more than this is debatable as it’s such a low resolution but it does make a great image for comparison purposes.

In Summary

So, what are my thoughts on the results? Well, this is an image that isn’t going to stand a lot of close inspection. Had I started with the RAW, I think the results would have been much much better. If you do a deep dive into the image you’ll see that yes, the noise is really well controlled but at the expense of any real details in the faces. They look very plastic close up although that is as much a result of what I started with as what NoNoise was able to achieve so please don’t go away thinking that this is not a good result. As I mentioned, I made no effort to fine tune the image using either the sharpening or details sliders that are available. Stand back and look at the image from a distance though and it looks pretty good, especially given its history.

UPDATE

Although I initially decided not to do comparisons with other software I did throw the original jpeg into my FREE version of Nik Dfine2 to see what it could achieve. Now bear in mind that this version of Nik has received no updates since it was acquired by DxO in late 2017 so you are looking at the results here from what is now classed as old, defunct technology. Make you’re own mind up as to how far digital noise reduction has come in the past few years or so.

Processed using the unsupported, non DxO version of NIK Dfine2

Something else I noticed about On1 NoNoise, this was on a completely different photo, was that where the software was confused by shadows, in this case rain on the window, it caused some difficulty with the colours and tones behind it. This is best explained by showing you a before and after – see below. I’m not sure if this is a one off or it can be modified in some way but it does show some limitations with the technology.

Original on the left / with NoNoise applied on the right. Notice the degradation in skin tones in the NoNoise image.

Adding a Sky with On1 PhotoRAW 2021

Adding a Sky with On1 PhotoRAW 2021

Living here in the UK means that often that the lovely landscape you saw through the viewfinder when you hit the shutter button isn’t quite what your camera captured. All too often our UK sky’s come out grey and bland unless you purposely expose for the sky. Fear not as nearly every mainstream photo editor available today can compensate for this problem meaning that you can still create that enigmatic look you saw in your mind when you took your photo. One such editor I tend to lean a lot towards is On1 PhotoRAW 2021. This comprehensive editing tool has pretty much everythig that you might need to fine tune your image through to completely changing how it looks.

Now, I have written about On1 PhotoRAW 2021 in this blog several times. It’s my go-to editor of the moment and I pretty much use it for 90% of all my editing. If things get tough then I’ll turn to Affinity Photo but for the most part, I try to do everything using On1. In this post I am going to be talking about and showing you how I create a vintage B&W image with a replaced sky using primarily On1 PhotoRAW 2021 plus some final styling using Nik Efex 2012 (FREE edition). Finally, I’ll show you how I use Nik Dfine2 (which is part of the Nik Efex tookbox) to remove some of the noise in the image to make the final result a little more pleasing to the eye.

Firstly let me just say that in this type of editing process I tend towards using RAW images rather than jpegs. This is because I want to tease out every bit of dynamic range from the image and RAW lets me do this much better that starting with a jpeg. The other thing I quite often do is to photograph sky’s – sad I know but useful – primarily because I prefer to use my own sky’s rather than somebody elses. Now that doesn’t mean I won’t use a sky from another source, just that it is so easy to build up a library of sky’s when you are out and about. So, lets take a look at the two images I am starting with. The first is the building itself, this is from a visit to South Wales in 2019, and the second is a sky I took in early 2020. Normally, I would be keen to try to ensure that the colour profile, light and sun position in the two images were similar but here, as I know I was going to create a B&W composition, I decided that this wasn’t as important to me because the final image would be B&W. I also felt that I could sort out some of the descrepencies during processing if I needed to. If I was working with colour then believe me, I would take a whole lot more care of selecting two images that play well together.

Having decided on my plan of action, and with a vision as to what the end result was going to look like, the first job was to isolate (mask out) the sky in the image of the building (first image above) so that the sky will flow into that space when added as a 2nd layer. To do this I created a luminosity mask simply by clicking on the masking icon on the layer. This open up a dialog box with various options including Lumen. If you click on this it will seperate dark areas from light areas (you can modify this using the various sliders) which given the the sky is basically grey works well. To view the resuting mask simply click View. In my case there were a lot of pinpricks of light (for some unknown reason) that I wanted to remove so using a textured brush (kindly provided in On1) I simply ran all over the black parts of the image taking out anything that I felt shouldn’t be there. This sounds like it takes a lof of time but in truth, it took about 5 or 6 minutes to clean up the image which is nothing in the grand scheme of things. Here’s what the Luminosity mask I initially created looks like so you can see what I am talking about. After refinement it was basically a high constrast black and white mask. Because the sky is applied to the dark parts of this image remember that we do need to invert this mask before we can use it. Again, this is very simply done by hitting INVERT in the mask panel of the layer. You can see this panel in the image below.

The next step is to add the sky as a 2nd layer and for this to work, this layer must be below the base layer (the masked building). When you do this you will see something like the image below. Here, the clouds are now showing through the masked out area creating the basis for our final image. Of course at this point you can simple work on either layer refining the look you want for your image. For example, with the sky layer highlighted you can add some warmth, emphasise the highlights in the clouds, or darken the shadows. With the base image (building) highlighted you can add any manner of effects or change the base characteristics of the image e.g. exposure, contrast, structure etc. Since I wanted to create a B&W image using Nik Silver Efex in the style of a vintage camera I only did some basic modifications to the sky and base layers here. Nik Silver Efex has some excellent tools for image composition so I thought I’d use these in preference. One thing I did do was to highlight the base layer (building) and to run the refine brush (chisel tool) around the edge of the building to try to better blend in the mask along the building profile. This can take some time to perfect but again, for the sake of this tutorial, I didn’t spend as much time as I normally would.

Once all of the refinements you want to do are to your satisfaction you need to merge the layers and export the composite image to your file space. You do this by simply right mouse clicking on the base layer and choosing MERGE. Once you have this composite exported image at your disposal you can use any other editors you may have to complete your desired look. I simply loaded the image above into Nik Silver Efex and using the various “looks on the left of the page” I selected the one I most liked for this particular image. This was Push Process (N+3.0). Before exporting this styled look I wanted to make some local refinements to the image, in particular to the low brick wall and grassy area in the foreground. To do this I simply used control points which can be dragged and dropped on to the image where you want / need to make local adjustments. You can just make out the control point on the grassy area in the image below. There are another three control points, one on the foreground wall, and one each on the two bright window areas. Once happy with the look and styling I was aiming for, I exported the image to my file space. However, it’s not quite all over as this type of editing process can inject a huge amount of noise into spaces such as the sky so my final action was to use Nik Dfine2 to take out some of this noise without unduly compromsing the overall look and feel I wanted to achieve for my image.

Now, there are lots of de-noise applications around, some with very high price tags but one of the benifits of Nik Efex 2012 (FREE edition) is that it it includes Dfine2 which is a natty noise refinement application. Dfine2 is very simple to use, and quite often you don’t need to change any settings. Here’s what the interface looks like.

To use Nik Dfine2 you simply drag and drop your jpeg image, in this case from the output of Nik Silver Efex, and this opens up the very simple panel you see above. Here you can see that I have zoomed in on the sky (red box) and the program has automatically applied contrast and colour noise reduction to the image. If I was working on a colour image I would typically choose to use control points, dropping these on various parts of the image to better control colour noise across the image. In this case though I think you’ll agree that Dfine2 has done a pretty good job of reducing the noise in the clouds, and in fact, across the whole of the image, without any involvement from me. Whatever you choose to do in Dfine2, once you are happy simply hit SAVE to overwrite the image you loaded.

So, here’s the final image from the above process. You might love or hate it, opinions often vary with regards to photography but I hope at least that you found the process and journey helpful and of interest. If you have a comment or suggestions, why not leave it in the comments area below. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Take care.