What Is Noise In Photography And How To Deal With It

Have you ever noticed a little something in your photo that kind of looks like the static of an old TV? Odds are, at some point you’ve probably seen this happen in your photos and wondered what the heck was going on. Whether you’ve been running into these problems or just heard the word ‘noise’ and didn’t quite understand it, this article is here to help. Digital noise is a natural part of photography and there are many ways to reduce it in your photos. Here you’ll learn what causes noise, how to reduce it, and tips to deal with it after the fact if need be.

What Is Digital Noise In Photography?

Noise-in-photography-high-iso

Digital noise, also known as grain, is this sort of static that covers your images. Similar to the static of an old TV, noise creates a visual distortion of your image. Typically you’ll find noise in your photos when shooting in low light situations. Primarily when you’re using a high ISO or significantly boosting your shadows in post is when noise will start to overrun your images.

Noise can be a bit frustrating to have in your photos for a variety of reasons. For starters, it reduces the overall quality. When there is a lot of digital noise, it can make edges look less sharp while making the smaller details harder to notice in your photo. Although noise can be hard to completely avoid, it’s important to learn how to mitigate it. After all, the less noise that’s in your photo, the better quality image you’ll have.

What Causes Digital Noise

To make things simple, digital noise is caused by three main things:

  1. High ISO
  2. The Size Of Your Sensor
  3. The Exposure Of Your Photo

low-light-photography-causing-digital-noise

In the most basic sense, noise is caused by a high ISO. As you increase your ISO setting, your sensor becomes more sensitive to any incoming light. This in turn brightens the overall exposure of your photo. The trouble is, the higher the sensitivity, the more distortion (aka noise) starts to become visible. That’s why it’s common to see noise in low light images. Since you need to increase your ISO setting for the lack of light, you end up with added noise.

With that said, there are also other factors at play that can affect how much noise ends up in your images. The second contributing factor is sensor size. With a smaller sensor, there’s less space to process the same amount of light. The added strain on smaller sensors will lead to increased noise levels even at lowers ISOs. That’s why full-frame cameras will perform so much better than a crop sensor in low light. It’s also the same reason why your phone takes pretty low-quality photos at night. A smaller sensor equals less ability to process light which can generate more noise in your photography.

Lastly, noise will always be the most noticeable in the shadows of your image. If you were using a high ISO on a sunny day, you probably wouldn’t notice it. However, if you took a look at the shadows in that image, they would be filled with noise. When there is less light in a particular area of your frame (like shadows) there is more noise. Since there’s less light to override it in your photos, the noise will be far more noticeable. That’s why it’s uncommon to notice it in the highlights, even at extremely high ISOs.

How To Avoid Noise In Your Photos

There are a few ways that you can avoid noise in your photos. The first and most important is using a lower ISO. The lower your ISO setting, the less noise you’ll have to deal with overall. This is the easiest way to reduce digital noise and avoid the problem altogether. The trouble is, sometimes you need to use a high ISO in low light situations. Night photography is a prime example of when using a high ISO is the only option you have. In situations like that, what else can you do to reduce noise in your photos?

digital-noise-in-low-light-photography

Like I mentioned earlier, noise can be caused when there isn’t enough light entering your camera. That’s why it’s most commonly seen in the shadows of your images. Fortunately, you can allow more light into your camera by adjusting your exposure settings. If you find yourself in a low light situation, rather than boosting your ISO, adjust your shutter speed and aperture. Using a slower shutter speed or a wider aperture are both effective ways of increasing your exposure. With a brighter exposure means there’s more light to override the noise that’s dominant in your image.

Learning how to reduce noise in your photos isn’t as complicated as people make it out to be. At the end of the day, it’s impossible to completely get rid of noise, but a brighter exposure will help. Using your shutter speed and aperture to counter the need of a high ISO is a great way to cut down on the noise in your photography.

How To Reduce Noise With Photo Editing

If you have found yourself in a situation where you just couldn’t avoid the noise in-camera, you still have options. In nearly all photo editing programs you’ll find some sort of noise reduction tool. Although this method isn’t the perfect answer, it does help to decrease the severity of the noise in your photos.

Noise-reduction-slider-in-lightroom

In Lightroom within the Detail Panel, you’ll find a slider called ‘Luminance’. This slider works to smooth out the noise in your image and make it less visible. Now the caveat with any noise reduction tool is that it must be used sparingly. If you go too crazy with noise reduction your photo will start to look smoothed and fake looking. Since this tool is essentially smoothing out the noise distortion, it also affects the details of your photo. Experiment with the noise reduction slider and see the effects for yourself. Be wary of the adjustment and don’t do overboard with it! You may run the risk of a completely fake-looking photo.

using noise reduction tool in lightroom

Before Noise Reduction, Raw Photo.

noise-reduction-in-lightroom

After Heavy Noise Reduction. Plastic And Fake Look.

Conclusion

Digital noise is an unavoidable part of photography. Even at the lowest ISOs, there will still be visible noise in some capacity. When you increase your ISO, this noise becomes increasingly more noticeable until it’s just a distracting part of your image. That’s why its important to remember what causes noise in photos so you can better avoid it in the future. Although there are noise reduction tools in editing programs, it’s wise to get it right in-camera for the best result.

If you know someone who struggles to deal with noise in their photography, be sure to share this post with them!

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