Reducing Noise With Photoshop Elements :: Digital Photo Secrets

Reducing Noise With Photoshop Elements

by David Peterson 2 comments

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:

A beautiful image taken at ISO 3200.
Everything else about it is fine. It’s just very grainy.
Photo By Joni-Pekka Luomala

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:

Some kids playing with a soccer ball. The chromatic aberration occurs on the edges of the white in the out-of-focus regions.
Photo By Flickr User: Soe Lin

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.

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  1. Aldis says:

    If we are talking paid-for software, then there is some more items to mention.

    There are dedicated noise filters. I use one from NeatImage, which will let you try there product for free and even save the image but (guess what?!) only allows saving in jpg with 91% quality.

    Then there is a similar filter from Topaz. No free version, but works on the image - if needed.

    Then - why only Photoshop Elements? PaintShop Pro is now part of the huge Corel family, but it has retained also the good things the old JASC program had. Like - "Edge preserving smooth" filter, which works quite well for general purpose images.

    And, BTW, despite the negative attitude expressed on these pages towards GIMP, also this free graphics editor has a filter reducing 'film grain'. And it really does what it promises to.

    This much from me this time.


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