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How to Effectively Reduce Noise Using Lightroom 3 Noise Reduction


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One of Jodi’s recent posts on the MCP Facebook page was a challenge to photographers on how to handle a tricky lighting situation.  In Jodi’s post, see the thread here, she was at a gymnastic event for her daughter, and she was limited by her maximum lens aperture of f/2.8, and needed to shoot at 1/300-1/500 to freeze motion.

Having been in similar scenarios, I know firsthand what she was up against.  As a wedding photographer I can tell you how tricky it can be shooting in a poorly lit church or reception hall!

Getting a correct exposure boils down to a combination of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, and they all work together.  Change one value by one stop, and you have to compensate by adjusting one of the remaining 2 values by one stop.

In Jodi’s case, she had her shutter speed set to 1/300 and 1/500 depending on the action taking place, and an aperture of f/2.8, and she needed 1 more stop of light. My comment on the post was “Bump your ISO to 12,800 or 25,600 and use Lightroom or Photoshop’s amazing noise reduction in post, and accept the grain as a “cost” of getting the shot.

I know some of you just fainted at the mere thought of shooting at that high ISO, what with all that noise…but I’m going to show you how 5 sliders in Lightroom 3 when used correctly, will help reduce noise in your photo.  There are trade-offs, and I’ll explain those as well.  I’m purposely avoiding a discussion on whether grain is good or bad in a photo; it’s a widely debated topic, which to me boils down to artistic preference on the photographer’s (and client’s) part.  Quite simply, I’m going to write on the basis that you have ISO noise in a photo that you want to reduce, and don’t know where to start.

Where does the noise come from?
When you shoot in low light, your camera’s sensor has to work hard to “see” the scene you are shooting.  When you adjust ISO in a digital camera, you are adjusting the camera’s sensitivity to light by increasing or decreasing the amount of amplification the camera’s processor has to do with the light which was captured when the shutter was open.  The more you have to amplify the “signal”, the more noise you introduce trying to make something from nothing.  The snow you see on a television when you select a channel with no broadcast is the result of amplification of a weak or missing video signal.

Takeaway 1: A small amount of light which gets amplified = noise.
Takeaway 2: If you shoot at high ISO, with lots of light, you won’t see much noise.  Try it!
Takeaway 3: We’re not trying to get rid of the grain, just the noise.  Grain is a byproduct of high ISO, same as in film.

Lucky for us, the cool people at Adobe gave us noise reduction in Lightroom 3 (it’s the same engine as in the newer Camera Raw application for Photoshop CS5, so you can use the same method for Camera Raw).

Let’s check it out.  Shoot a photo at the highest ISO setting your camera allows (you may have to enable ISO expansion in the menus…consult your manual or your favorite search engine).

Open the photo in Lightroom 3.

In the Lightroom 3 Develop Module, you’ll find the Detail section…
dev-nr-arrow How to Effectively Reduce Noise Using Lightroom 3 Noise Reduction Guest Bloggers Lightroom Tutorials Photography Tips

Expand the Detail section (click on the arrow) to reveal our new friends, the Noise Reduction sliders just under the Sharpening section.

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Here’s an overview of the sliders’ functions as explained by Adobe:

Luminance: Reduces luminance noise
Detail: Luminance noise threshold
Contrast: Luminance contrast

Color: Reduces color noise
Detail: Color noise threshold

So let’s see them in “action”. (See what I just did there? Clever, yes?)

Keep in mind, when I mention sliders, I’m only working with the 5 sliders within the Noise Reduction section in Lightroom 3. Let’s look at the photo I’ll work with: (I have not made ANY color corrections to the photo, this is straight out of camera):

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Hubba, hubba! (50mm, f/11, 1/60 sec) (yeah, sorry ladies, but I’m taken…)

I self shot this photo on a Canon 5D Mark II, at 25,600 ISO.  I used this photo because it has:

1)       Skin tones
2)       Darks
3)       Mid tones
4)       Highlights
5)       Me (how can we go wrong?)

Look at the noise best visible on the black cabinet over my left shoulder.  Oy gevalt:
High-ISO-Demo-006 How to Effectively Reduce Noise Using Lightroom 3 Noise Reduction Guest Bloggers Lightroom Tutorials Photography Tips

A 1:1 zoom reveals some ugliness that we are going to remove (not me, the noise):
High-ISO-Demo-006-2 How to Effectively Reduce Noise Using Lightroom 3 Noise Reduction Guest Bloggers Lightroom Tutorials Photography Tips

In the photo above, you can see the spackling of red, green, and blue pixels.  That right there is high-ISO noise.  It’s important to note that the main reason it looks so bad is because I may or may not have cheated (I did), by changing the Color slider value to 0 so you could see the noise better.  Lightroom 3’s default for this slider is 25, which is a good starting point for not seeing color noise.

Press Z to toggle zoom to 1:1 on the photo, & choose a selection where you can see a good mix of lights and darks:
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Start by slowly moving the Color slider until all the color noise is either gone, or at an acceptable level.  In my photo, it looks like the Color slider works at about 20.  Once you decide where the Color slider works best on your photo, move to the Detail slider.

The Detail slider (below the Color slider) is used to see if we can bring back any edge color detail.  This is completely trial and error, & if you push this Detail slider too far, you’ll actually reintroduce noise in the form of artifacting back into the photo.  Personally, I don’t go past 50 on this, but try the slider on your photo: starting at 0, move it slowly, and see if it makes any difference.  If you can’t see any change, leave it at 0.

When you are happy with the reduction of color noise, jump up to the Luminance slider, and start moving this one to the right.  Remember, slow is the key.  This is where your eye comes in to play again.  You have to decide the best balance between loss of noise/grain and loss of detail in your photo.  Once you get to the happy medium, you can move onto the luminance Detail slider.  For my photo, I’m happy with the Luminance slider set to 33.  I pushed it until I just started to lose detail in my skin, and then backed it down a notch.

A word of caution (here’s that tradeoff I was telling you about before): if you push the Luminance slider too far, humans and pets will come out shinier then a certain shall-remain-nameless, plastic, perky, perfectly-proportioned girl’s toy who owns a Corvette, a private jet, & a camper (which really doesn’t fit with the private jet). I’m not sayin’, but I’m just sayin’.

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“I like yer plastic face…” – Luminance gone wild!

Next, start sliding the Detail slider left and right (the default is 50, which is usually good), to see if you can get back more (edge) detail without re-introducing noise.  Once again, there is no formula; it’s your photo, your artistic vision, your slider value.  I’m leaving mine at 50.

Lastly, slide the Noise Reduction Contrast slider to the right to see if you can recover a little more detail.  As its name implies, this slider puts detail back in your photo based on boosting luminance contrast.  It can work really well to reveal details that were softened in the above steps, and in my photo, I’m not afraid to put this slider to 100 to bring back some of the texture to my face.

Voila!  I now have one very usable photograph:
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“Is it hot in here, or is it just me?”

Now that I’m happier with the photo, let me quickly recap my Noise Reduction workflow:

Open photo, and gasp (not really…)
Switch to Develop module.
Open Detail section.
Adjust Color slider to see if anything other than the default of 25 gives me better results
Adjust Detail slider (under color) to see if I can bring back any edge detail based on color
Adjust Luminance slider until the grain is acceptable or until the image starts smoothing, then back it off a tad
Adjust Detail slider (under Luminance) to see if I can bring back any edge detail based on luminance
Adjust Contrast slider to try and bring back some last bits of detail

To be perfectly honest, I rarely, if ever, use the bottom 2 sliders (Color and Detail).  Lightroom 3’s default values are pretty close to what I would select.

Remember, there is NO magic formula, NO right, and NO wrong (well, there IS that creepy Luminance slider plastic-look).  There is only what is pleasing to your client.

As photographers, we see our images differently than our clients do from a technical perspective.  If you capture an emotion, or a moment, and you truly nail it, I’d bet my mortgage that your client won’t even see the noise.

If they do, you now know how to reduce it!


Jason Miles is a Wedding & Lifestyle Photographer in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario, Canada. Check out his website and follow him on Twitter.


No Comments

  1. R. Weaver on July 6, 2011 at 10:13 am

    Great post! Thanks, Jason, for such a clear explanation of what all the different sliders are doing. I learned by trial and error how to use them, and it’s nice to put some words to what I’m doing.

  2. INGRID on July 6, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Thank you! This was a terrific article. I can’t wait to up my ISO this evening & give it a try! :)~ingrid

  3. Jamie on July 6, 2011 at 11:40 am

    AWESOME. And it is hot in here, but the air conditioning is on so we should have that taken care of soon. 😉

  4. Nicole W. on July 6, 2011 at 11:43 am

    Wow! Wonderful article. I’m bookmarking this page. 🙂 Thanks!!!

  5. Ashley on July 7, 2011 at 2:00 am

    This is a very well written post, thank you. I am off to try in ACR- right? I can try it there, it doesn’t have to be Lightroom?

    • Jason Miles on July 7, 2011 at 7:52 am

      Thank you, and yes, it is exactly the same in the newer versions of Adobe Camera Raw!Cheers!

  6. Bernadette on July 7, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Wow thank you. I have been searching and searching for a straight forward, easy to read and understand guide to noise reduction in lightroom to no avail. This is perfect. Thank you.

  7. Shayla on July 7, 2011 at 9:55 am

    Thank you for this! It was so helpful. BTW, saw your website,your work is very beautiful.

  8. Marisa on July 9, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    This is wonderful. I’ve been searching, fruitlessly, for a good explanation of NR in LR. I had resolved to try to decode something from Adobe, but was putting it off. Now I have all my questions answered. Thank you so much!

  9. tricia on July 11, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    This may sound like a strange question, but I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II and my ISO stops at 6500. Am I missing something? I didn’t know it could go above that. Is that a special custom setting?

    • Jason Miles on July 18, 2011 at 10:31 am

      Hi Tricia, what should happen if you don’t have ISO expansion turned on is the ISO range should be from 100 to 6400. Once you turn on ISO expansion via the menu, you should also have an H1 and H2 setting. H1 is 12,800, and H2 is 25,600Hope that helps

  10. Baltimore Wedding Photographer on May 7, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    great. I have been searching google for a good noise removal info and i found it.. thank you!

  11. Anna on July 4, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    great post!I have a question,why would some of my Lightroom3 noise reduction sliders be disabled?

    • Jason Miles on November 27, 2012 at 10:55 am

      Hi Anna, a couple of things to check…The detail and contrast sliders won’t be “available” until you move the luminance slider. Without moving the luminance slider, you are telling Lightroom you don’t need noise reduction.The other thing to check is go to the Settings Menu, select Process, and if it is Process 2003 you convert to Process 2010.Hope that works!

  12. karina lax on September 18, 2012 at 5:51 am

    Hi JasonI really need some help, and it looks like you’re the ideal man for it. My ‘Detail’ section that hold the noise reduction sliders has vanished from Lightroom 3. I have no idea how to find it again (and no idea how it disappeared). Please help! Karina

    • Jason Miles on November 27, 2012 at 10:57 am

      Hi Karina,It probably hasn’t vanished, but it could be minimized, or you might not be in the develop module. Scroll up in the article to see where the sliders should be located.Hope that helps!

  13. Prasanna on November 20, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Thank you very much for the article.A friend of mine advised me to always set ISO to 100 to reduce noise.But i found it very difficult to take indoor handheld photos as it reduces the shutters speed so much.Now I could bump up the ISO and take good indoor photos. 🙂

    • Jason Miles on November 27, 2012 at 10:51 am

      Hi Prasanna,ISO 100 is great, but it’s not practical unless you’re shooting in daylight, or in a studio with lots of light.If you’re shooting still subjects, you could tripod mount your camera and use ISO100 but as soon as you go handheld, it’s a balance between shutter speed to stop the action, aperture for subject isolation or background blur, then ISO for light sensitivity.It’s always a fun juggle.

  14. Donald Chodeva on December 21, 2012 at 10:00 am

    Thanks for a great post. now is truly understand the noise reduction in LR.

  15. Dylan Johnson on January 1, 2013 at 1:56 am

    I typically take it easy on using high iso and instead shot with prime lenses at f1.2 – f1.4 aperture. I’ll be glad to try this out for a little more versatility. Thanks.

  16. Andrea G. on February 20, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Thanks for this! I been struggling with noise reduction in Lightroom. I take a lot of indoor sports shots and to get a decent shutter speed, I have to bump up my ISO.

  17. Neil on April 20, 2013 at 7:27 am

    Jason, this tutorial is outstanding and I’ve found it incredibly useful. Thanks for posting!

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