No matter what we do to stop it from happening, digital images have a way of becoming noisy or losing quality. It happens whenever you shoot at a high ISO speed. It happens when you sharpen too much. It even happens every time you save an image as a JPEG. With so much noise, what is a photographer to do? Thankfully, you can use Photoshop Elements to remove some of it. The solution isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly can help.
The first thing you’ll want to do is open up the image you want to fix. If you’re opening up a JPEG image, remember to save the final image at the highest possible quality setting (that’s 12). Anything less, and this entire effort will have been a waste. Sure, you’ll fix some of the noise, but you’ll also end up introducing a different type of noise – compression noise – back into the image.
Here’s the starter image I picked:
This is a good image to start with because it doesn’t have any of the compression noise from saving a JPEG over and over again at lower quality. The noise in this image comes from using a very high ISO speed, something known to introduce a lot of noise. There’s a tradeoff in using high ISO speeds. You get brighter images, but you sacrifice some quality.
Here’s a section of the image blown up.
Can you see how rough the image is? If it were taken at a lower ISO speed, the gradient between the colors would be a lot smoother. The little speckles throughout the image make it noisy. That’s what we’re trying to get rid of.
Using the reduce noise filter
With your image already opened in Photoshop, you can start using the reduce noise filter. You can find it by going to filters –> noise –> reduce noise.
Now this window will pop up:
This is where you can take control of the effect. You’ll notice there’s a slider for strength, detail preservation, and color noise. There’s also a handy check to get rid any JPEG compression noise.
The big tradeoff
You can never get something for free. There’s a tradeoff whenever you attempt to reduce noise in an image. In this case, the tradeoff is detail. You could easily remove all of the noise in the image by sliding the strength up to 10, but you’d get something like this:
Not bad at all from an art perspective, but it isn’t really a photo anymore. It’s more like a watercolor painting. Although the noise is gone, so is most of the detail.
The balance you need to strike is a balance between noise and detail. The more you reduce the noise in an image, the more you also reduce the detail. You have to ask yourself how much grain you’re willing to live with. This isn’t about creating watercolor paintings. It’s about making photos you enjoy.
Some photographers don’t even bother with the preserve quality slider. They figure it only serves to dampen the strength of the effect. Why not just reduce the strength? Adobe likes to put these sorts of features into their filters to give you the feeling that you really can preserve the detail of your image while reducing the noise (an oxymoron). If you set the strength and preserve details sliders to 10, the effect does nothing.
The reduce color noise option
Photoshop also allows you to reduce the color noise in your images by using the slider. Color noise tends to happen when you’re shooting with a lower end point-and-shoot camera, or you’re using a very wide aperture. The image above doesn’t have any color noise, but here’s a nice example of one that does.
This is an out-of-focus area of a larger image. Color noise (or Chromatic Aberration) tends to happen in the out-of-focus regions of any photo. Notice how the edge between the child and the light has a sort of blue tinge to it. That’s chromatic aberration. The edge should be completely white. By sliding the “reduce color noise” slider to the right, you can get rid of this blue color cast.
Here’s the original image:
Reducing JPEG Noise
Lastly, there’s a little check box to help you reduce some of the compression noise you may have gotten from constantly saving and re-saving your image as a JPEG. Only check this option if you know you’ve got noise from JPEG compression. If you don’t know much about the history of your image, it’s best to leave this one unchecked. You still have to deal with the tradeoff between noise and detail here.
Accept a little noise
No filter in the world can transform an overly noisy image into a detailed masterpiece of technical perfection. You can use the reduce noise filter to make some minor improvements, but it’s senseless to expect a whole lot more than that. Noise in images is a fact of life. For some, it’s even an artistic effect. You can do your best, but you ultimately have to live with it.