Crank it up! (Or how I stopped fearing the noise monster)
Nov 27, 2023
Crank it up! (Or how I stopped fearing the noise monster)
My first “real” digital camera was a Canon EOS Digital Rebel. All black, with a vertical battery grip and an impressive 6.3-megapixel sensor, it felt like a tiny miracle. But take that ISO up to 800, and the resulting images were less than miraculous; they were so noisy you’d need earplugs. That was 20 years ago, and while so much has changed in that time, my reluctance to crank up my ISO when the light gets low has been slow to catch up.
Photographing wildlife has forced my hand, largely because so much of my work happens in lower light and my lenses are aimed at faster subjects. My past reluctance to shoot at higher ISOs resulted in more noise-free photographs of very blurry animals than I care to publicly admit. Still, here we are. But I’ve amended my ways, and with the zeal of fresh converts everywhere, I’d like to talk to you about your relationship with noise.
Stop worrying about it. Stop letting it be the thing hanging over your head as punishment for daring to shoot in low light or hope for a slightly higher shutter speed when you need one. I know St. Ansel said there is “nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept,” but that’s because he never saw my hard drives full of fuzzy images of some otherwise very sharp concepts. Those images, all made in fear of cranking my ISO higher than it can tolerate, would force me to use a lower shutter speed than I really needed or a wider aperture than I wanted, and often (this is the worst), I would also kind of underexpose in order to get the highest shutter speed I could and in the hopes of “fixing it in post.” And then I spent great time and effort trying to recover exposure from an underexposed file, and if you want really bad noise, that’s about the best way to do it.
Friends, enough is enough; it’s time to stop being afraid of the noise. If you’ve got a relatively recent camera, it can definitely handle some higher ISOs—and they’re getting better all the time. Add some noise reduction to your workflow, and worrying about noise could be a thing of the past.
Here are four ways to recover from the fear of high ISOs and the noise monster in whose shadows they hide.
Consider Going Full Frame
I don’t think you need a full-frame sensor to be a “real” photographer; I used APS-C sensors for years without any complaints. But generally speaking, as we pack more megapixels into a sensor, we need to use smaller megapixels to do so. A full-frame sensor usually uses bigger pixels that gather more light. More signal, less noise. Usually, a full-frame sensor is a better choice if you’re shooting in lower light and want/need higher ISOs. But you do not need to buy a new camera to slay the noise monster.
Master Your Exposure
If you can really nail your exposure (and by that, I mean you’re making images that need very little exposure adjustments later in Photoshop or Lightroom and you aren’t constantly trying to pull details out of the shadows), then you’ll have less noise to worry about. Noise hides in underexposed areas and comes out when you try to brighten them. Work on mastering your exposure. If you can do it, it’s better to have to darken an image later than to brighten it. Of course, if you had so much light to begin with that you need to darken your image, you should probably use a lower ISO. Underexposing to be able to use a lower ISO usually won’t give you the results you want. Get your exposure right and you’ll have less noise.
Know Your Camera
Want to know how high you can take your ISO? There’s no substitute for shooting it at high ISOs, downloading to your laptop, and looking into the shadows. We hate noise because we can see it and it makes our pictures ugly, right? So crank that ISO up until you start seeing it. Then repeat that, but underexpose your test shots a stop or two in the camera. Pull them into your laptop again and crank the exposure or the shadows slider up a couple of stops. See how much worse the noise is? No? Then you’ve got more room to push that ISO without too much worry. These days, I will shoot up to ISO6400 on my Sony A1 cameras without even thinking about it, and I’ll go to 12,800 now with less fear than I very reluctantly used to go to 800. Know what your camera can do at higher ISOs and you’ll worry less when it’s time to go there.
Use Noise Reduction
Ultimately, this is where I’m going with this article. I’m not saying get lazy with your craft, but I am saying to stop freaking out about noise. Noise reduction software has grown up, and now, with AI working under the hood, we can work at higher ISOs than ever before, knowing there are excellent tools for cleaning up the details if things get noisy. It’s so much easier to focus on nailing my exposure and getting sharp photographs with the shutter speeds I actually need to freeze the action than worrying about how high my ISO is.
Adobe has added AI noise reduction to Lightroom, which means it’s also in ACR, so Photoshop should also have it. Topaz makes software I’ve heard good things about, though the ads they’re running on social make me want to drink gin from the cat bowl. I’ve been very happily using DxO’s PureRaw2 as a Lightroom plug-in that does both my noise reduction and sharpening in one step. DxO’s PureRaw is now up to version 3, and for $129, it’s some of the best money I’ve ever spent on software. Noise-reduction software is nothing short of miraculous now.
If it’s been a while since you considered noise reduction as a serious alternative to freaking out about using high ISOs, it might be time to explore your options. Most software companies let you demo the software for a month before you commit, so you might want to try both the Topaz and the DxO plug-ins and see which one you prefer.
The image below shows the results of new AI Noise Reduction in Lightroom with no sharpening applied. I prefer what DxO PureRaw gives me because it also sharpens. The image was shot a little dark, with an APS-C sensor (Sony a6600) and then exposure pulled up in Lightroom by a full stop and a half.
I honestly don’t think much about ISO anymore (oh! The freedom!). I shoot on Auto-ISO full-time now, allowing the camera to make those choices for me, keeping it low when possible and cranking it up when necessary. I manually choose my shutter speed and aperture and use EV Compensation to dial it all in. But I no longer worry about ISO, which means I can get back to making the images I want to without making the fear-based choices that might otherwise sabotage my work—like underexposing to gain a couple of stops (don’t look at me like that; you’ve done too!) or choosing impossibly slow shutter speeds and crossing my fingers that the critter (a bear, a bird, a four-year-old on a sugar high) doesn’t move.
If you’re nervous about going to higher ISOs because you can’t stand the noise, it’s time to re-evaluate those old fears. And who knows? Adding some noise reduction to your workflow might allow you to go years back into your archives and rescue images you once believed were beyond saving.
For the Love of the Photograph,
About the Author
David duChemin is a world and humanitarian assignment photographer, best-selling author, digital publisher, podcaster, and international workshop leader. Now based on Vancouver Island, Canada, when he’s home, his life is spent chasing compelling images on all seven continents and teaching others to see, photograph, and get the most from this astonishing life. You can see more of David’s work and find his podcast and plenty of resources on his website. Make sure to also follow him on Instagram and Facebook. This article was also published here and shared with permission.
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