The above images were shot with a Nikon D80 (almost 11 years old now) with ISO’s of 1000 and 1250…..from an 11 year old camera. I highly doubt anyone reading this has an 11 year old camera they are using. Feel free to save those images and check the exif data for the settings. Looking at them now, I can see there is some noise reduction going on, so I must have done something to them, but they are from 2012…and I surely can’t remember. Either way, still not too shabby for an 11 year old camera.
Let’s discuss ISO. ISO for those who don’t know….(hey that rhymed)….is how sensitive to light your camera sensor is. This higher the ISO, the more sensitive….but with a drawback: noise. We all know what that is, it’s often referred to as “grain” or you hear about a “grainy” image. For a lot of people, noise can “wreck” a photo. I’m here to tell you “no, no it won’t”. A great photo is a great photo regardless of how much noise is present. Don’t believe me? Go look at some of the sports photos that were shot on film or even on some of the first generation DSLR cameras. Noise has always and will always be in our images. Back in the film days, they referred to it as “film grain”. This is because it was the individual grains of metallic silver that was being developed that created the effect. Much like todays sensors, the lower the “ASA” (ASA is the film equivalent of ISO) of the film, the smaller the grain size, the cleaner the image. But, it required a longer exposure required to get the image. Same thing with ISO in our modern day cameras. The lower the ISO, the longer the exposure needs to be in order to capture the image. This is why we increase our ISO, because we want very short exposures to capture motion.
Gyms are poorly lit…from a camera’s point of view. We have to figure out how to work with what we have. We still want to shoot the lowest ISO we can because it gives us the best quality images, but we don’t want to sacrifice our shutter speed for it. With fast action, shutter speed can be everything.
Personally, I am more concerned about shutter speed than I am noise. A blurry photo is a blurry photo regardless of how much noise is present. Great photos are great photos period. Stop worrying about noise. You need to learn to live with noise, especially at high school events, especially if you have an entry level/ mid-level equipment. There is not a noiseless camera on the market. Noise is always there, just in varying degrees, but there are ways to mitigate it.
Before we really start, I want to mention something that I learned later on in my photographic life that I wish I would have known sooner. When you zoom into a photo and it says it’s at 100%, that’s the equivalent of printing that image around 6-8 feet wide and looking at it from the same distance. How many times do you walk up to a wall mural and look at it from a foot to two feet away? Probably not often, if ever. If you want a good representation of what your image would look like at a normal viewing distance, zoom to 100%, get up and walk four feet away and look at it. You will see that the noise almost disappears like magic! We didn’t even have to use any software to do it. It’s just because we changed our viewing distance to better reflect how we would actually see it if we hung it on a wall as opposed to seeing it from our chair. Ever notice on your computer screen the smaller the image, the better it looks? Same principal. I have seen billboards that were shot on “Pro” 12 megapixel cameras. Today’s entry level cameras are coming with 24 megapixels standard and are going up from there. 36 and 48 are probably going to become the new “norm” pretty quickly.
Billboards are huge, but because we see them from so far away, we don’t notice those tiny imperfections we would on the computer screen. A little caveat: When you start cropping your images, noise becomes much more visible. If find you’re doing a lot of cropping to get in close, you may want to start considering a longer lens. The techniques listed below might help a little…but really, if you’re cropping all the time, you’re being limited by your gear, and it might be time to upgrade.
My advice with viewing photos: look at them at a 50% zoom (or a 1:2 ratio in Lightroom). If it looks good there, don’t worry about them and move on.
So what do I do about noise? Well it all depends. There are varying opinions on the subject, but for me I’ve limited myself to 3 options:
Do nothing – Live with it
Over expose the image 1/3rd – 2/3rds of a stop (I bet there are some people throwing eyebrows up right now…I’ll explain, I promise)
Use software to reduce it (to a point)
Do Nothing – Learn to Live With It –
While many purists would say this is what you should do, it’s your decision. For me it’s based on the image and what I am trying to accomplish. Sometimes I use noise reduction software, sometimes not, it’s a personal call. Just know its ok to live with noise in your image and “Do Nothing”. There are many times I have “Done Nothing” and been just fine. By do nothing, I also mean disabling Noise Reduction in camera as well. Noise reduction in camera can be detrimental to small details. In RAW using the right processes, you can still pull those details out while still reducing noise.
Overexpose (assuming you shoot RAW) –
So this is controversial to some, but it makes perfect sense to me. Noise lives in the dark. If you notice where the bulk of the noticeable noise is, it’s in your shadows/blacks. Try it. Take a picture underexposed and see how much noise is there. Now take the same image 1/3rd – 2/3rds overexposed. Take your image into your editing software and adjust your exposure back down that 1/3rd or 2/3rd stop, the noise seems to melt away into those shadows. Resulting in a cleaner image. Adjusting your black levels and highlight levels can further minimize visible noise. Yes, we need to post process the images, but we only want the best of the best right? If you’re shooting RAW, you need to process the images anyway, or they look flat and washed out.
Now, this method is a little more gear restricted while shooting indoors. Just know if you have a lens that is F/4.5-5.6, F/3.5-5.6, or f/4.5-6.3 you’re going to have to increase ISO farther to maintain a fast enough shutter speed (more on this in Part 2). And by doing so, you are introducing more noise into your photo.
Using Software to Reduce Noise –
Again, this is controversial for some. The truth is, any noise reduction technique is going to blur your image to reduce the noise. This can lead to images looking soft or muddy, especially if over used. Sometimes I use it, sometimes I don’t. Again, that decision is made based on what I am doing.
Say I underexposed a great shot. I edit it back to where the exposure is correct. Darn, now I have made the noise even more noticeable. This would be an instance where I would use noise reduction software. But, how I would use it would be to try and reduce the noise down to the level it was prior to me editing the photo. I would not try and reduce it to 0. If I reduce the noise to 0, it can and it will create a look that feels “cartoonish”, or just plain old icky. A lot of details are going to be lost. I’m ok losing some detail to get the noise back down as close to the original as possible, because, If I tweaked the image that much there is a pretty good possibility that I might see it in print. Want a better idea of what your image will look like noise wise in print? Try out the technique below.
This little experiment will cost you a little over $3.50, but very well may save you thousands of dollars on a new camera body that you could put into getting a better lens. Take a photo at say ISO 6400 and look at it on your computer screen at 100%. Yep, it’s grainy, you can see the noise, heck you can probably see it at 50% depending on your camera. Anyway, go to Walmart and print out a 4x6, 5x7, and 8x10 of that image. How much noise do you see? Open up your image on your computer and zoom out on the same photo to around the same size as your prints. Let me know how much noise you see…I bet the answer is none. I know because I’ve done it. If your cheap and don’t want to print photos, cut 3 sheets of paper one 4”x6”, one 5”x7”, and one 8”x10”. Hold each sheet of paper over the image and zoom out until the image on the screen is about the same size of the paper. This would be similar to printing those sizes. I picked those sizes because they are the most commonly printed sizes. This of course can be done with larger sizes, but it gives you an idea.
Now I know some people will think I am crazy and say that test isn’t even remotely accurate, because most photos are printed at 300dpi and your monitor is only around 96dpi, so there’s all this missing information on your screen you won’t see until you print. Again, I say, print out that 8x10. If you’re that broke and can’t, I’ll give you the $3.00 to get it at Walmart. Hold it up to the screen, zoom your image out and take a peek.
This post is geared towards home users, moms and dads, and the like. This is not for “The Pros” or for printing stuff like advertisements. This is for mom and dad to hang a nice shot of their kid on the wall.
In the end, it’s really not worth pixel-peeping (looking at every image at 100% zoom looking for flaws), because you are going to drive yourself nuts. Do what you can with what you have. Accept the limitations of your gear and find a way to work with them.
Thanks for hanging in there, good luck! See you in Part 2.