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Lightroom 3 Noise Reduction

Modern digital cameras have much less of a problem with noise than models sold even a few years ago. But with a long enough exposure or high enough ISO all cameras will eventually succumb. Here's how to deal with digital noise in Adobe Lightroom.

Up until the late beta releases of version 3, the tools available to deal with noise in Lightroom were limited indeed. Back in the days of Lightroom 2, it used to be necessary to open images in Photoshop to deal with noise reduction. Third party filters such as Noise Ninja and Neat Image used to require Photoshop as a host application to work their magic. A standalone version of Noise Ninja added a Lightroom plug-in to open work on images without Photoshop, but one still needed to spend money to buy the standalone version. There just weren't any other good tools out there to get rid of noise. Thankfully, Lightroom 3 changed all that.

Noise reduction is a complicated problem. How do you tell what is in fact "noise?" One image's noise could well look like another images fine grained detail. Determining what is supposed to be there and what is not isn't a simple thing to at all. Every software filter I know of that is designed to remove noise unavoidably removes some wanted detail as well. And Lightroom is no different.

You'll find Lightroom's controls for Noise Reduction under Detail in the right panel group, directly below the controls for Sharpening. There are five sliders for noise reduction split into two groups, Luminance and Color. By default, the main slider for both Luminance and Color are set to zero which effectively disables the impact of the other sliders so they will appear grayed out. As soon as you raise the level of either main slider, the other controls in that group for noise reduction will kick in and you can adjust them as well. As with sharpening, you can monitor the results of your adjustments both on the main image display area as well as the zoom preview at the top of the Detail panel.

Luminance noise is made up of pixels of varying brightness, but that all more or less have the right color. Color noise has basically the correct brightness, but has varying color or hue. Luminance noise is far more common, but the noise you encounter may have components of both luminance and color to deal with. Let's look at both types in turn.

In addition to the main Luminance slider, there are two others in this group labeled Detail and Contrast that control how luminance noise is processed. Once you raise the value of the Luminance slider itself, you'll find that Detail starts at 50. As a quick and dirty default, that might be good but I'd prefer it if it started at zero and I'd recommend that you set it there before choosing an appropriate value for the Luminance slider itself. Don't worry. You can always come back to Detail later.

As I mentioned, removing noise has the side effect of unavoidably removing some detail as well. The purpose of the Detail slider is to limit that loss by defining a threshold for what truly is noise, and what should be kept as not noise. With the Detail slider pushed all the way down to zero, raise the Luminance slider until the appearance of noise disappears or drops to an acceptable level. You'll want to have the image zoomed in to see the effects clearly. As you increase the Luminance value, you will probably notice a slight softening of image detail as well. To restore it, slowly raise the Detail slider until the noise starts to make itself apparent again. If the image is noisy enough, there's a tradeoff you'll have to make between getting rid of luminance noise and preserving detail. Tweak these two sliders until you are satisfied you have the best result you can get.

Actual image showing area greatly enlarged in samples belowThe third slider for controlling Luminance noise is labeled Contrast. Since luminance noise is defined by varying brightness, excessive noise reduction can result in a slight loss of contrast. You can use this Contrast slider to restore it. Contrast restoration defaults to zero which is fine for most images. Generally, only very noisy photos require so much reduction that you need to worry about Contrast.

After optimizing the sliders that control luminance noise, it's time to turn your attention to Color noise. The controls are similar are similar to those for luminance, but there are only two sliders, the main one, and one for Detail. As with before, Detail defaults to 50, but is disabled until you raise the value of the main Color slider. And as with Luminance, my preference is to set Detail back down to zero before adjusting the main Color slider. This will let you better see what effect each slider actually has. Raise the value of the Color slider until the noise is diminished, then raise Detail to bring back any lost detail. If you raise Detail too far, the rainbow speckles of color noise will become noticeable again. Set it just right and you can optimize the appearance of fine color edges without sacrificing the reduction of color noise.

It's hard to do justice to demonstrating noise reduction when limited to modest sized web jpeg images. What I've done though is to provide zoomed in views of one section of the flower image shown above. You can see a description underneath each image. The images below are zoomed in to 400%, far beyond what you will probably use to work on images, but enough to make the effects of the noise adjustments more visible.

Enlargement showing noise
Enlargement showing noise
After adjusting Luminance. The noise is gone, but so is some of the detail.
After adjusting Luminance. The noise is gone, but so is some of the detail.
Push the Detail slider too far and the noise starts to return
Push the Detail slider too far and the noise starts to return
Final result after adjusting color noise
Final result after adjusting color noise

Third party noise filters such as Noise Ninja may still do a better job in some cases than Lightroom can, but Lightroom may just win out in others. For most images Lightroom 3 is more than up to the job and keeping with a Lightroom only workflow simplifies things greatly.

I would have given anything to have noise reduction software this capable back when I was shooting with a Nikon D100, my first digital SLR. It's ironic that Lightroom has made noise reduction this easy at a time when the need for sophisticated noise reduction has decreased so much, but I'm still glad I can do it when I need to. Thanks Adobe!

Date posted: July 17, 2011


Copyright © 2011 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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More on Sharpening in Adobe Lightroom 3

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