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Noise reduction software Review

Sometimes a fast film speed is necessary and the resultant noise can reduce your picture to a speckly wreck. Here we test various noise reduction programs to see which are the best.

|  Adobe Photoshop CS4 in Other Software
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This article will expand as more products are added to it. Make sure you bookmark this page and keep checking to see when we test new Noise Reduction programs and tools.

Noise is one of the most annoying things about digital photography. The only time it's useful is if you know how to create a gritty image and usually involves converting the image to black & white. There are a number of tools available that will help to remove noise from pictures and this test will try out a few to see which is the best.

Adobe Photoshop CS4
Adobe Lightroom 3

A variety of images from a variety of cameras from compacts to full-frame have been used for the test images. Most cameras produce good images up to ISO200, so this test will start at ISO400 and move up through the scale to ISO12,800 equivalent.

Speed Camera Sensor
ISO400 Ricoh CX2 1/2.3in CCD
ISO800 Samsung WB5000 1/2.33in CCD
ISO1600 Canon EOS 50D APS-C CMOS
ISO3200 Panasonic GF1 FourThirds Live MOS
ISO6400 Sony Alpha A500 APS-C CMOS
ISO12800 Canon EOS 5D MkII Full-frame CMOS

Adobe Photoshop CS4
As the most widely used photo editing tool in the world, Photoshop is so popular that editing images on any editing software is now referred to as “photoshopping”. Originally released in 1990 exclusively on Mackintosh, Photoshop is the flagship product of the Creative Suite (CS) program.

Adobe Photoshop CS4 screengrab
Adobe Photoshop CS4 screengrab.
To reduce noise in Adobe Photoshop CS4, open the image you wish to amend and go to Filter, Noise, Reduce noise. A small window opens with a magnified preview of the image and four sliders. The magnified image can be zoomed in or out if you desire by pressing plus or minus under the preview pane. There are two options for basic or advanced noise reduction. Basic will adjust noise in all three colour channels simultaneously and that's where the four sliders come in. The first adjusts the strength of noise reduction on a scale of one to ten. The second preserves the details of the image which is important for portraits, but maybe not so much for landscapes depending on the shot. The third reduces colour noise using a percentage scale while the fourth and final slider sharpens details. Any noise left in the image will be exacerbated using this slider but can be useful in small amounts to retain some quality of the image. A small tick box allows you to remove JPEG artefacts.

The advanced version adds a tab to the settings which allows you to mess around with the noise on an individual channel basis. It may be that the red channel is getting hit worse, so you can reduce noise in the red channel without affecting the blue or green channels.

Two sliders then allow you to adjust the strength and preserve details. If you have a particular setting, you can set up a filter setting by clicking on the small disk then setting the Settings drop-down bar from default to your own, the amount of noise reduction you put in the filter will be applied to the image.

Adobe Photoshop CS4: Performance
Loading large images into the noise filter will impair the performance of the program so it may be useful to create an Action to correct noise if it's been an issue on your shoot. CS4 removes more and more fine detail from the shot as the slider is moved to the higher settings. It's a sacrifice necessary on high ISO images to get rid of the noise but on an ISO400 image, it's doesn't need anything quite so high. A great feature is the preview window. If you grab the image by holding the left mouse button down, the noise corrections disappear so you get an instant idea of how the differences have taken shape. Using noise reduction in portraits can have an advantage if you're after the shiny look of someone with uber smooth skin because a slight addition of noise reduction gets rid of fine lines and the detail from the eyes can be retrieved using sharpening or can be masked out and pasted over the processed image later.

One area I found CS4 struggled on was with black noise. Those small black spots that scatter mid-range tones that are actually quite useful when used in a black & white image. In these circumstances, I found that playing with the channels in the advanced section proved most fruitful but because of the way it affects the image, it also affects detail when the preserve details slider is set to zero.

Adobe Photoshop CS4 ISO400 test
Adobe Photoshop CS4 ISO400 test.
Adobe Photoshop CS4 ISO3200 test
Adobe Photoshop CS4 ISO3200 test.
Adobe Photoshop CS4 ISO800 test
Adobe Photoshop CS4 ISO800 test.
Adobe Photoshop CS4 ISO6400 test
Adobe Photoshop CS4 ISO6400 test.
Adobe Photoshop CS4 ISO1600 test
Adobe Photoshop CS4 ISO1600 test.
Adobe Photoshop CS4 ISO12800 test
Adobe Photoshop CS4 ISO12800 test.

From ISO3200 I found that I had to use the colour noise reduction slider at 100% for the first time to get rid of the chroma noise in CS4. It works quite well although on images with similar colour in the frame, it got mixed up a bit but on the whole it was quite intelligent. As the noise levels get higher, CS4 finds it more and more difficult to discern between noise and image so detailed starts to drop off. Colour noise removal works well on red noise artefacts but I found it has trouble with green spots that I found on some images. Adjusting the green channel in the advanced setting managed to get rid of that though.

By ISO6400, I had the basic settings at Strength eight, 100% preserve details, 100% colour noise reduction and 50% sharpen details. I also clicked the JPEG artefact removal button. Pushing the Strength up to ten didn't do enough of a job to warrant using it and losing the extra detail, so I kept it at eight. At ISO12800, I had the sliders up to maximum except the sharpen details because that looked terrible. It handled all but the worst colour invasion which was present in shadow areas.

Adobe Photoshop CS4: Verdict
This is the program that I'm most used to using so I found it easy to use and I think the interface is comfortable. There's a lot of scope for making changes such as reducing noise on individual colour channels. I wasn't overly happy with all the results I got but they were acceptable enough.

Adobe Photoshop CS4: Pros
Individual colour channels
Real-time preview window

Adobe Photoshop CS4: Cons
Large file sizes slow the system down

See the full review of Adobe Photoshop CS4 here:

Adobe Photoshop CS4 review

Adobe Photoshop CS4 for Windows costs £619 or £184.99 as an upgrade from Warehouse Express here:

Adobe Photoshop CS4 for Windows £619

Adobe Photoshop CS4 for Windows (Upgrade) £184.99

Adobe photoshop CS4 (Extended) for Windows £949

Adobe Photoshop CS4 for Mac £614

Adobe Photoshop CS4 for Mac (Upgrade) £189.99

Adobe Photoshop CS4 (Extended) for Mac £949

Adobe Lightroom 3
Lightroom is a tagging, filing and editing system from Adobe. The third version is the newest and the idea is for it to offer a faster workflow.

Please note, this test was done in the Beta 2 version of Lightroom 3 and while the final production program is unlikely to alter, there may be some changes that we can't account for.

Adobe Lightroom 3 screengrab
Adobe Lightroom 3 screengrab.
Reducing noise in Lightroom is done by going into the library, selecting the folder you wish to get the images from and then ticking (checking) the images you want to use. Clicking on Import will pull them into the editing area of the program called Develop. To the right of the main window are a series of drop down tabs and the one you need to select is called Detail. The pictures you chose are lined up in a row beneath the main work area and you can click on each one as you'd like to use it.You can also choose a before and after option at the bottom of the main preview window.

A smaller preview of the selected image sits in the top left corner of the window with a small square that illustrates where the main window is located. It can be moved around as needed. In the Detail window, you can also sharpen your images and a smaller preview pane is located here too. There were only three options in the noise reduction panel for Luminance, Colour and Edge Detail in the original Lightroom 3 Beta and Luminance didn't work, but the newer Beta 2 has expanded to include Luminance now and Detail and Contrast has been added. The beauty of the Detail slider is that the Luminance slider will remove a lot of detail which the Detail slider then replaces. Colour corrects the problem of chroma, but not exclusively. It also affects the normal colour of the image so a deal of care must be taken.

Salt & pepper noise is the black & white scattering of pixels that look good on a grainy monochrome photograph and because these are the more favourable type between photographers, they don't get the same priority for reduction as chroma, or colour, noise in camera. The Luminance slider will correct the salt & pepper noise while the Colour slider corrects chroma noise. Luminance is a strong reduction feature so make only minor adjustments.

Adobe Lightroom 3: Performance
The ISO400 image needs little amendments made to it because it's a mid-range setting and it's from a full-frame camera. The options from Lightroom are limited but what they can do is quite good and it certainly works faster than CS4. Still, it's not as expansive as the former so if you want to adjust colour in each channel, you can't use Lightroom for that kind of work. I like the result from ISO400 though and the ISO800 is a picture that suffers from Luminance noise the most. This is where Lightroom excels, I simply had to add a little Luminance correction then drop the Detail if some noise still existed and that action obliterated what was left. An excellent result.

With tricky detailed images, it's finding a balance of removing the artefacts and retaining the detail but the sliders in Lightroom are sensitive enough to cope and I had little problem getting the right mixture.

Adobe Lightroom 3 ISO400 test
Adobe Lightroom 3 ISO400 test.
Adobe Lightroom 3 ISO3200 test
Adobe Lightroom 3 ISO3200 test.
Adobe Lightroom 3 ISO800 test
Adobe Lightroom 3 ISO800 test.
Adobe Lightroom 3 ISO6400 test
Adobe Lightroom 3 ISO6400 test.
Adobe Lightroom 3 ISO1600 test
Adobe Lightroom 3 ISO1600 test.
Adobe Lightroom 3 ISO12800 test
Adobe Lightroom 3 ISO12800 test.

Even Lightroom can't cope with very high ISO and noise is still present regardless of what I try to do to correct it. However this is mainly at full size magnification on a computer screen and looking at the whole picture by fitting it to the frame and they actually look pretty good. It gets rid of a lot of chroma noise and colour artefacts. The images are a lot smoother at this level so try not to photograph anything in fine detail.

Adobe Lightroom 3: Verdict
The noise reduction facility on Lightroom 3 is much better than it's bigger cousin, CS4. I found the sliders were sensitive, yet sympathetic to what I was trying to achieve. The results are rewarding and if I was using Lightroom constantly, I would use it to perform all my noise reduction. I would like to see a batch process for noise reduction and maybe even adding the individual channel feature from CS4 but then there'd be no point in buying the larger version if they did that.

Adobe Lightroom 3: Pros
Easy workflow
Powerful noise reduction

Adobe Lightroom 3: Cons
Would like to see individual channel adjustements, however unlikely

A full review of Adobe Lightroom 3 will be posted on soon. Keep checking the review pages to see the test as it happens.

Lightroom 3 will be available from Warehouse Express shortly. Click the link to see other cool Adobe gear.

Adobe Lightroom 3

GIMP (General Image Manipulation Program) is a free image manipulation software package originally starting off as a college project in 1995, released in 1996. In 1997, it became part of the GNU Project and the acronym was amended to GNU Image Manipulation Program. It was conceived for use with the Linux operating system but has since expanded for use with Mac and Windows.

GIMP 2 screengrab
GIMP 2 screengrab.
GIMP doesn't have a noise reduction filter in the same way that CS4 and Lightroom 3 do, but it has Despeckle and Selective Gaussian Blur filters which should perform roughly the same operation. The Despeckle mode is found in Filters, Enhance, Despeckle. A new window comes up with a small preview window. The box can be made larger, but the preview window is only made bigger to a degree. Despeckle is designed to remove dust and scratches and the moire effect usually found from scanned images but works with Luminance noise as well.

There are three sliders: Radius, Black Level and White Level. The Radius slider changes the pixel width of the action from 3x3 pixels to 41x41 pixels. If you have Adaptive ticked at the top of the window, the Radius slider will be be unnecessary as the Adaptive box adapt the radius according to the image using the histogram. The Black Level slider will remove pixels darker than the value set on the slider. The White Level slider does the same thing as the Black Levels but with pixels whiter than the set value.

The Selective Gaussian Blur filter will apply the blur to pixels that are drastically different to surrounding pixels. This means that a blanket blur isn't performed like we've seen already on Lightroom and CS4.

GIMP 2: Performance
Using the Despeckle filter on large file sizes can be a bit of a nightmare. Because the program has to freeze to catch up with the amount of information it's trying to process. The Despeckle mode does little to change mid-range ISO settings but the Selective Gaussian Blur filter makes changes that are much more noticeable. It has two options for manipulating the image quality: Blur radius and Max. Delta. Adjusting the two in conjunction with each other will give a slight blur to the image to remove noise while keeping the image as sharp as possible. I found that after adding the blur meant that I had to sharpen the image when I'd finished.

The Despeckle filter covers most of the noise issues I had with my test images. From ISO1600, I started using the Selective Gaussian Blur just to smooth out the image a little more. After that a little sharpening helped bring some detail back.

GIMP 2 ISO400 test
GIMP 2 ISO400 test.
GIMP 2 ISO3200 test
GIMP 2 ISO3200 test.
GIMP 2 ISO800 test
GIMP 2 ISO800 test.
GIMP 2 ISO6400 test
GIMP 2 ISO6400 test.
GIMP 2 ISO1600 test
GIMP 2 ISO1600 test.
GIMP 2 ISO12800 test
GIMP 2 ISO12800 test.

Despeckle does nothing to remove chroma noise and neither does the Selective Gaussian Blur tool. There's not actually anything in GIMP for getting rid of colour noise which is a shame. Saying that the Gaussian Blur tool does help to a degree but it merely smudges the colour about, it doesn't actively remove it. Throughout the higher ISO settings, I found myself using both the noise reduction tools that GIMP has as well as the sharpening tool to try and retain detail. I also opted to use the Adaptive tick box on the higher settings because it can control the radius better than I could do. This is because it's very sensitive and moving it the slightest amount ruined the image.

I found that on the very high settings, such as ISO12800, there's very little that the Despeckle and even the blur can do simply because at such a high setting, colour noise is the dominant force and the images. The Selective Gaussian Blur tool is actually quite intelligent. It does retain some detail and doesn't simply perform a blanket blur over the whole image. However, used too strong, it gives a painted effect which is only pleasant on the right types of images.

GIMP 2: Verdict
Considering there's no particular Noise Reduction tool on GIMP, the tools you can use do a decent enough job. It's also difficult to criticise a freeware program. Still, it would be nice to see a dedicated tool on GIMP because while the Despeckle and Selective Gaussian Blur do what they can, they're not without their flaws.

If you use GIMP and need to get rid of some noise effectively, try investing in a dedicated program or something like Lightroom that has a good Noise Reduction filter on it.

GIMP 2: Pros
Free software program

GIMP 2: Cons
No dedicated noise reduction control
Adjustments can be over-sensitive
Occasionally froze to catch up

GIMP is a free software program available for download at

GIMP 2 free download

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JJGEE 15 7.8k 18 England
1 Apr 2010 6:47PM
Bearing in mind the date this was uploaded I wonder if at a later date you could do a "real" software test noise comparison.

Have do admit, I did read the article and open up all the images, but alas I cannot see any difference between the Processed & Unprocessed comparisons Wink
Toonman 13 1.4k 2 England
5 Apr 2010 7:41AM
Thanks team but I can't see the differnce either. It also might have also been better to test real niose reduction software like Noise Ninja etc as they seem vastly superior to image editing programmes.

Thanks anyway
5 Apr 2010 11:14AM
Unfortunately, The GIMP does not have proper noise reduction built in, so you need to install the plugin separately. It's called Wavelet Denoise, you can find it here:

I took the ISO3200 image from here and made a quick denoising on the unprocessed half. You can really see the difference:

Settings used:
Y channel: Threshold: 1.5, softness: 0
Cb channel: Threshold: 3.5, softness: 0
Cr channel: Threshold: 6, softness: 0
MattGrayson 13 622 3 England
6 Apr 2010 10:59AM
Hi thanks, yes I do intend to get the dedicated noise reduction programs too. The top of the page does say in bold lettering that it's an ever expanding article and as we get the programs in, we'll add to it. I hope that helps. Smile

Ps, I'm surprised you couldn't see anything, I could tell the difference on quite a few...
Toonman 13 1.4k 2 England
8 Apr 2010 10:39AM
It could be the beer Matt. Wink

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