Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark: Embrace The Noise!

Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark: Embrace The Noise! - John Duder is making a lot of noise about... well, noise actually! Read on to find out why sometimes it's a good thing.

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Creative


Quality, Or Atmosphere?

We devote a lot of time and effort to getting rid of digital noise and improving sharpness – but let me suggest an alternative approach. It’s one I’ve been following since around 1970…

Back then, the baseline for sensitivity was 25 ASA for colour slides, and a heady 125 ASA for black & white film (ASA was the same number as ISO is now). Fast film was 400 ASA and there were occasional superfast emulsions, like Kodak Royal-X Pan at 1250, which were grainy!

Very fast film was obviously the order of the day for low light work and I duly used it in smoky folk clubs, as did many, many others.

 

Exa 500 and Zeiss Pancolar 50mm f/2 on Tri-X in 1971/2.

Exa 500 and Zeiss Pancolar 50mm f/2 on Tri-X in 1971/2

 

Somehow, the golfball grain became associated with moody atmospheric pictures. Professionals like the late Chris Joyce and David Bailey embraced the technique, and I’ve been using it on and off ever since.

 

Accentuate The Positive

Everybody knows what you lose with noise – it suppresses detail and becomes a part of the image, whether you want it or not.

Consider the suppression of detail. In a portrait of a girl, you would normally work rather hard to process out spots and pores and the extent to which some people take this leads to a robotic, plastic look in some pictures. To be honest, I sometimes wonder if it’s a girl, or a product shot of the latest robot to emerge from an Artificial Intelligence programme. But where there’s a texture to the medium itself, these things disappear, and there’s nothing to worry about. So it’s rather flattering for some subjects. 

 

Art model Flo X makes a speciality of stark, gritty images with an emphasis on the textural quality of skin. Here, a little digital noise at 16,000 ISO gives a softer look.

Art model Flo X makes a speciality of stark, gritty images with an emphasis on the textural quality of skin. Here, a little digital noise at 16,000 ISO gives a softer look.

 

Grain plays a trick on the eyes, as well. We look for something to focus on - that’s one of the reasons why we pursue sharp lenses and high-resolution sensors. So, if there’s well-defined grain in the image, the viewer is less likely to notice a little bit of unsharpness in the image itself. 

 

Joceline Brooke-Hamilton in soft natural light at home. Contax RTS and 85mm f/1.4 Planar. Does the grain help distract attention from a touch of camera shake and imperfect focus?
Joceline Brooke-Hamilton in soft natural light at home. Contax RTS and 85mm f/1.4 Planar. Does the grain help distract attention from a touch of camera shake and imperfect focus?

 

Both of the above considerations are more or less technical - but put together, they lead to another and more artistic question. Every time that we do something to our images that makes them less literal, less precise, it distances the image from the literal reality and that means that you are on the way to abstraction, or to (perhaps) conveying less information about the subject itself and more about how you feel about it. Rather than being the plans that you use to construct a new garden, it’s a visual poem describing how it feels to be at the seaside off-season.

 

Llandudno pier, Alpha 7 II and 85mm f/1.8 Lensbaby at full aperture, processed with Nik Efex.

 

My view is that once you start to remove some of the literalness of an image, you may want to experiment more. This is fun in itself: and along the way, you may find that you develop a style, a way of seeing and representing the world – and a way of revealing a hidden beauty to others. My personal journey has included the use of some distinctly old and imperfect 35mm camera lenses and what is now a whole nursery of Lensbaby optics. 

 

Taken with a Leica IIIa and 50mm f/2 Summar at full aperture, on Ilford Delta 3200 film.

Taken with a Leica IIIa and 50mm f/2 Summar at full aperture, on Ilford Delta 3200 film.

 

Digital Photography 

The problems with digital files are, in many ways, worse than with film. Not only is the image speckled (and the amount of noise that some cameras give is truly offensive), but a phenomenon called ‘banding’ can occur. It is what it sounds like – the picture suffers from stripes across the image which are unrelated to the image itself.

 

Comedy night… Alpha 900, 3200 ISO, and some banding is visible in the plain dark areas of the background.

Comedy night… Alpha 900, 3200 ISO, and some banding is visible in the plain dark areas of the background.

 

There’s a plus: The first DSLR I owned had a maximum ISO of 400, and this was unusable. It didn’t so much suffer from noise as coloured blotches all over the image. (Interestingly, on getting the camera out and shooting a frame or two, the quality is far better – maybe the result of converting in Adobe Camera Raw rather than the Sigma software from 2004?).

 

Low quality at 400 ISO in 2004… Though the Sigma SD-9 gave really nice results at 100 ISO.
Low quality at 400 ISO in 2004… Though the Sigma SD-9 gave really nice results at 100 ISO.

 

Fortunately, things have advanced; by 2007, I had a camera that reached ISO6400 with semi-decent quality and my latest camera, an Alpha 7r II, reaches ISO104,600. The dynamic range is reduced, the noise is obtrusive – but the image is there. For a news picture, or an unrepeatable family event, it works – see the images right at the end of the article!

Now, I won’t pretend to understand the technicalities fully, but the basic issue is that sensors are made with fixed sensitivity and raising the ISO means that there’s a digital amplification process going on when you shoot, and the more the amplification, the more the interference. Apart from the exception of TV crime programmes, you can’t have quality that isn’t there in the first place!

 

Living With The Enemy

In the Sixties and Seventies, a spin-off from pop culture was a desire to add patterns to pictures. Paterson even produced sets of texture negatives which you could sandwich with your negative in the enlarger, adding brickwork, gravel, a target pattern or grain to the picture. I have a set, and some of the negatives have never been used: and it’s one part of darkroom work where I am completely convinced that digital is simpler!

In other words, adding a texture was and is a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Myself, I like simplicity: why add a step – adding texture – when you can take the picture with the texture already there? I know that the strict answer is ‘because you can control everything precisely’, but my view of the world includes both taking the occasional risk, and being prepared to exert control before the event, with confidence that what I set up will work out the way I plan it. So I am entirely happy to use high ISO and fast film to get grain…

 

RTS, 85mm Planar, T-Max P3200.

RTS, 85mm Planar, T-Max P3200.

 

Choices…

When you shoot digitally, you can alter the ISO setting in between pictures which means you can choose to shoot at high ISOs at any time. The extended shutter speeds of most cameras – typically to 1/4000 on every camera, 1/8000 on pro-am gear, and higher still with some electronic shutters – mean that you can use high ISO settings in bright sun if you want to do so. However, you will necessarily use smaller apertures as well as fast shutter speeds, and that may restrict your creative choices.

Additionally, it has to be said that digital noise is less attractive than film grain – and the reduced dynamic range means that you may have problems with losing detail in either highlights or shadows. 

 

Alpha 900 at 6400 ISO, no noise reduction.

Alpha 900 at 6400 ISO, no noise reduction.

 

The 'control freak' approach to quality would always suggest taking the most perfect image possible and adding noise later if you want to. That way, you have the option of a perfect, low noise, high-quality version, and complete control of how much noise there is. If this is the only route for you, I wish you luck and happiness but for most people, it’s the result that counts, and going the long way round is a nuisance. 

 

Alpha 900 at 100 ISO, 50% noise added in Photoshop.

Alpha 900 at 100 ISO, 50% noise added in Photoshop.

 

Nik Efex & Digital Filters

I have developed a theory that once one starts down the route of moving a little bit away from reality and into the realm of creativity – that is, creating a picture, rather than just finding it – you may want to go further, and not just when shooting. There are a variety of filters for smartphone pictures that add, more-or-less, random processing. While I don’t an element of chance, I like a bit of predictability, and to work with a screen and a mouse.

I was introduced to Nik Efex and at first, I used it for simple conversions from colour to monochrome, and a tiny bit of sharpening. But then, I discovered (as in ‘started to use’) some of the filters that emulate various darkroom looks, with borders and so on. With these, you can add grain in varying degrees, so there’s no need to rush out and buy fast film. 

So, a viable route to a grainy result is simply to shoot a smashingly high-quality image on digital and then destroy the sharpness and detail with Nik, or another package.

 

Alpha 7r II and Sony 85mm FE lens, with noise added using Nik Efex. Taken at the Black Country Living Museum.

Alpha 7r II and Sony 85mm FE lens, with noise added using Nik Efex. Taken at the Black Country Living Museum.

 

Special Circumstances

There are times when the choice is simply between sharpness and noise. For example, when you are on holiday, with one lens and no tripod, and the evening light is lovely. Does it matter what the club judges say? Push things to the limit, because you have no choice.

But, doing it the old school way is still fun! And, if the shot isn’t repeatable, better noisy than blurred.

In the end, it’s partly about pushing yourself beyond recording the world. It’s a journey that embraces the very best technical results that you can achieve, and also shows you that it is sometimes good to just roll the dice. While I would recommend the repeatable, controllable and predictable approach of adding noise later, it can be enormously liberating to do it the old school way, with a film camera and fast film! 

 

frame, full bore: Alpha 7r II at 104,000 ISO, full frame.

frame, full bore: Alpha 7r II at 104,000 ISO, full frame.

 

Detail from previous frame: the noise may be ugly, but 1/8000 @ f/6.3 under a tree canopy on a dull day… This is ‘black cat in coal cellar’ territory!

Detail from the previous frame: the noise may be ugly, but 1/8000 @ f/6.3 under a tree canopy on a dull day… This is ‘black cat in coal cellar’ territory!

 

Joceline, Paige Antonia and Flo X all model professionally, and can be found on Purpleport and other popular model-photographer networking websites.

 

About Author: John Duder 

John Duder celebrated fifty years since developing his first film last Christmas – on Christmas Day 1967, the only present that mattered was a developing tank and chemicals, so that he was able to develop a negative film in the morning, and process a film for black-and-white slides in the afternoon. He doesn’t remember Christmas dinner – but he was only 14 at the time.

A way of saving money developed, so to speak, into a lifelong obsession.

John still has and uses a darkroom, and specialises in black-and-white images, portraits, and nudes. He’s been a member of ePHOTOzine since 2003 and joined the Critique Team a few years ago.

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Comments


dudler Plus
15 738 1411 England
6 Jun 2018 5:58PM
And I still find, somehow, that grain looks better in a darkroom print than it ever does on a scan...

If anyone has suggestions on how to convey the tight crispness of a really good grain pattern on a print, please let me know!

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