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Tips On Using Grain / Noise In Photos

Higher ISOs and noise aren't always something we should shy away from. Find out why here.

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Usually an image that's noisy isn't something a photographer strives for, however there are some subjects that can work quite well with a little bit of noise/grain. For this reason, we are going against the grain (bad pun we know) to show how higher ISOs aren't always a bad thing and how you can further enhance your shots in Photoshop to give them that old, film grain feel.

Photo by Peter Bargh.

Why keep shots with noise?

If you've used a higher ISO by mistake or were using a camera that doesn't cope so well at higher ISOs and you can't remove the noise from the shot, instead of discarding it, try and make a feature out of it. Grain/noise can add interest and feeling, making portraits more gritty and it gives landscapes a more moody feel, particularly when converted to black and white. Do remember though digital noise isn't the same as grain you get in film and chances you'll have to tweak your digital images slightly to make them more appealing. Another point worth mentioning is that a lot of cameras do now cope quite well at higher ISOs, producing less noise as a result. However, you can shoot images at lower ISOs and add grain to your images in whatever editing software you use.

Choose Black & White

As Robin Whalley from Lens Craft has previously mentioned on ePHOTOzine, it's black & white film that has the most interesting and appealing grain structure so to produce digital images which emulate the gritty, noisy look for the film more accurately, convert your shots in photo editing software or shoot in black & white. Do remember though if you shoot black & white JPEGs you won't have any colour shots as a result. Working in black & white also makes the coloured pixels that create the noise less distracting.

Adding Grain

We are adding noise to a landscape shot in Photoshop so if you're a Paintshop Pro User, take a look at this previous article on creating a grainy mono using Corel's Paint Shop Pro X3.

Black And White Whitby

Black & White
Open your image up in Photoshop and if it's not already black & white, convert it. There are various ways you can do this but one of the easiest is by going to Image>Adjustment>Black&White.

New Layer
Create a new layer by clicking on the new layer icon or by going to Layer>New Layer (Shift+Cntrl+N on a PC) and rename it 'grain'. Go to Edit>Fill and select 50% Gray from the 'Use' drop down menu. Click OK and your new layer will now be coloured gray.

Create a new layer and fill it with gray

Add Noise
With the 'grain' layer selected, go to Filter>Noise>Add Noise. Make sure the 'Monochrome' option is checked and 'Gaussian' will give us a much more realistic looking grain. To add / remove grain, move the amount slider to the left or right. You don't want to overpower the shot with noise but at the same time you don't want it to look like no noise is there. Have a look how 15% looks then increase the amount if you need to.

Add Noise

Soften The Grain

At the moment, the grain's a little bit too harsh so go to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur and pick a radius that softens the grain slightly then hit OK. You'll have noticed by now that we can't see our original image so go up to the Layer Blending options at the top of the Layers Palette and change the mode from 'Normal' to 'Overlay'. If the effect is a little strong, lower the opacity of the layer. We reduced ours to around 35% but the amount will change from photo to photo.

Gaussian Blur

Remove Some Grain

Finally, as film grain doesn't usually cover the whole image, feel free to use the erase tool to remove a little of the grain from lighter parts of the shot.

Whitby with grain

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