News and Views from Dave Wilson

Cracking the HDR Noise Problem

by on Mar.26, 2010, under Computer, Photography

I’ve been doing HDR for 3 or 4 years and have spent all that time beating my head off the issue of noise in the Photomatix output. The tone mapping settings I use don’t help any since they accentuate texture and we all know that digital noise is a great example of high frequency texture. Even when I am holding back a bit on the gamma, though, the results are typically somewhat grainier than I would like. Part of the time I convince myself that this is fine and that the noise is adding to the result – grainy black and white pictures are really common and often considered artistic after all – but most of the time I end up in Photoshop mixing in chunks of one or other of the original exposures to try to cover over the splotchy mess that Photomatix turned my clear blue sky into.

During this time, I had read plenty about noise reduction software but hadn’t really bothered looking into it in any great detail since I had seen what Lightroom’s noise reduction did and it wasn’t impressive. If Adobe couldn’t make a huge difference, surely no-one else would be doing a great deal better so why spend $70 or so on yet another plug-in? As it turns out, however, I was hopelessly wrong.

I’ve spent some time this week playing with a couple of noise reduction plug-ins and am, frankly, gobsmacked at what an amazing job both of these products do at reducing image noise but, more importantly, preserving fine detail. Anyone can get rid of noise by blurring an image enough but these tools get rid of the noise AND keep all my nice sharp edges and tiny details crisp and clean. I have no idea how they manage it but it truly is a wonder to behold!

Topaz DeNoise as seen when launched from within Photoshop

Topaz DeNoise as seen when launched from within Photoshop (click for larger image)

The first tool I looked at was Topaz DeNoise. I’ve read a lot about Topaz Adjust and seen a lot of great images which use it, but had not heard quite so much about their noise reduction tool. It turned out to be a good find – clean user interface, pretty easy to use and quite a few presets for common noise reduction scenarios. Using it on some of my worst Photomatix images, it did a respectable job of cleaning up the skies without smearing the detail but it did seem to leave some rather odd low frequency artifacts behind. This may have been due to the fact that I was using it without having read the whole manual, I suppose, but in the time I spent playing with the tool, I didn’t get as good a result as I managed to get with the second package I tried.

The user interface of the Noiseware Pro Photoshop plug-in.

The user interface of the Noiseware Pro Photoshop plug-in. (click for larger image)

Noiseware from Imagenomic is a piece of software that made my jaw drop. It’s ability to remove noise and clean up an image is almost unbelievable. For HDR, where I am typically keen to remove noise from a sky without affecting other areas, it’s ability to remove noise based on particular colours is fantastic but, even without tweaking any of those sliders, I was stunned by how good a job it did of tidying up my images. I’ve included a couple of examples below showing 100% sections of a particularly noisy image (you can see the original here). I wish I had played with this software a lot earlier since I would have saved many hours masking skies in Photoshop had I known it was so impressive.

Detail before using Noiseware (click for larger version)

Detail before using Noiseware (click for larger version)

Details after using Noiseware (click for larger image)

Details after using Noiseware (click for larger image)

If you’ve been using this kind of software for a while, you’re probably laughing at me right now but, if you’re not, take some advice from a guy how has wasted a great deal of time trying to solve this problem and treat yourself to a couple of hours with one of these pieces of software. Both are available as free evaluation downloads. Like me, though, I expect you’ll have your credit card out within 5 minutes.

Edit: I was so impressed with Noiseware Pro that I asked the nice people at Imagenomic if I could offer a discount code. They were nice enough to agree and are offering 15% off the product to readers of this blog. Click here to get to the order form then use code “DaveWilson” when you are checking out to get the discount. Apparently they like my work too since they are also featuring it on their gallery page.

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