Noise Reduction Software Comparison-Updated
Who can benefit?
Noise reduction software is essential no matter what camera you’re shooting. It’s especially helpful for those of us who’ve ditched the full-frame monsters of the past and adopted the smaller, lighter, more mobile Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras. Even though smaller sensor cameras benefit most from quality noise reduction tools, even the larger full-frame cameras can benefit as well. Having the ability to shoot in poor lighting conditions opens up the doors for opportunities we didn’t have before digital capture and the software tools that have followed.
How does noise occur and why more noise with MFT?
For those not familiar with MFT category of cameras, they’re cameras that use a smaller sensor to capture the photo. It’s well known that typically the smaller the sensor, the more noise is produced. Noise becomes a problem as you increase the ISO, and this is the case with MFT or full-frame cameras.
Increasing the ISO is necessary when shooting in low light situations such as early morning or late evening. Noise is similar to what we used to call grain in the days of film. That grain can destroy an image. In general, I don’t like to shoot my Lumix or Olympus MFT cameras at an ISO setting higher than 1600-3200. But with the new DxO PhotoLab 5, I’m feeling comfortable shooting much higher.
The noise police, software to the rescue
Almost all software has some kind of noise reduction tool. Many apply noise reduction to the image the minute the photo is added to the software. I’ve seen this firsthand with the many different pieces of software I regularly use. My favorite Digital Asset Management tool is Mylio, and though I could not run my business without Mylio, its forte is not noise reduction. Mylio does have a remedial noise reduction tool, but it’s barely usable on images with ISO higher than 1600.
When checking for noise it’s often best to look at your photo at 100% as I’ve done in the photo below. This dramatically increases your ability to see the noise. One thing to keep in mind when looking for noise is that when an image is printed, noise is typically never as bad as it looks on the computer screen at 100%.
You’ll notice in this image that the lines of the building are very soft. And the sky has chunks of blotchy color. That blotchy color is noise. The lines of the building are softer since noise reduction tools try to remove noise by smearing the dots of noise together. This can work fine in situations where there is no detail, but if you have any detail it destroys the image. The best noise reduction software tries to do its best at getting rid of the chunks of noise but still retain details.
Comparing noise reduction tools
Lightroom is the number one editing tool on the market for keeping track of and tweaking your pictures. It does a lot of things well but noise reduction is not as good as some other programs. I’ll admit there are sliders in the Lightroom noise tool that’ I’m not completely familiar with. But ease of use is also part of this review for each of the tools I’m hghlighting. In Lightroom I had to do some adjusting of the Luminance slider in the noise reduction box to get something close to DxO PhotoLab Deep Prime.
DxO PhotoLab 5
This software is my main RAW processing software. It was recently updated to PhotoLab 5, and it does a fabulous job overall. But one thing it does particularly well is reduce noise. DxO PhotoLab has three different settings, High Quality, Prime, and DeepPrime. The High Quality is no better really than Lightroom. The Prime is better, and the DeepPrime is what I typically use. Prime and DeepPrime take longer to process with DeepPrime using AI technology to reduce noise. It takes a bit longer but the results are worth it.
One thing to keep in mind about DeepPrime is that it does not show up in the main preview. The quality of the DeepPrime noise reduction is only visible in the small window on the far right side above the tool adjustments. The reason for showing a small sample is that the processing power needed to remove noise from the entire image would slow things down dramatically. So seeing a small sample is the best way to give you an idea without bogging down your computer. You can move the selection box to any part of the frame you want to see as an example.
DxO PhotoLab 4
Below is the same photo processed using DxO PhotoLab 4 DeepPrime. You can see a major difference in the the sharp details of the tower against the sky. Although I was hesitant about upgrading, I’m thrilled to report it’s a very worthy upgrade for the Deep Prime alone.
Even Photo Mechanic has noise reduction added when you open you pictures. I was actually surprised to see this since I’m unaware of any tool in PM to reduce noise separately. Apparently they just build a noise reduction tool directly into the import process. Keep in mind that Photo Mechinc is really a simplified image viewer. You can do some changes but very few.
Its strength is looking at your images quickly and efficiently, and this is the program virtually all professional sports and news photographer use. I can understand why they would build some noise reduction capabilities into the software. News and sports shooters need the pictures quickly and if the camera’s file is relatively noise-free, a little noise reduction on import may be all that’s needed.
This program is another one being touted as the gold standard in its ability to correct noise. Based on the comparisons I’ve made here, with the same picture, I just don’t see it. DxO PhotoLab DeepPrime seems to give me dramically better results. The comparison in the image below is the original on the left and a chunk of the processed image on the right. Both at 100%.
I added the On1 NoNoise to this mix after a reader pointed out I missed it. And they were right. So I’m fixing that oversight and have performed the same tests with On1 as I did with the other programs. And I have to say that I missed a REALLY good tool for noise reduction. On1 is probably the best of the bunch. I had always kind of ignored On1 products as I did Topaz for many years but it just goes to show you have to keep testing new software as it’s released.
My last piece of software is Luminar AI. Once again I originally skipped this tool since I had never seen great results when using it. Luminar AI in general is fantastic but its noise tool has never been impressive. Since I’m trying to be more inclusive I decided to give it another try. And… once again I found Luminar AI to be really far behind all the others for removing noise. Admittedly part of the problem may be my lack of knowledge on how to use it. Luminar AI does have sliders that you can adjust. But I’m not familiar with the ins and outs of customizing noise removal. All I know is the other programs make it extremely easy. This issue is a bit strange since Luminar AI is exceptionally easy with everything else it offers. If anybody has suggestions on what I might be doing wrong that would improve what I’m seeing with Luminar, please add your thoughts to the comments below.
All of these programs provide decent noise reduction capabilities except Luminar AI. Before adding On1 NoNoise to the mix I was convinced DXO PhotoLab beat them all. But… I think there’s a new champion with On1 NoNoise. The only issue with all these programs is you have to have access to all of them (i.e need to buy) in order to get the best tools for the job. For instance, I absolutely love Luminar for its Enhance AI tool that balances highlights and shadows with the simple drag of a slider. It’s super fast and efficient. I can do the same with DXO but it takes a bit more time. DXO also keeps most of my tasks all under one roof so to speak. Jumping between several programs to get the best possible results is a pain. Thankfully, I don’t process lots of images. Mylio handles 80% of my image tweaking for my Blog, Facebook, or other Social Media. However, if I’m preparing an image for printed publication or large prints, I then start working with some of the other tools I’ve showcased above.
Good software is just one more reason why it’s possible to shoot the smaller sensor Micro Four Thirds cameras. Keep in mind that the amazing pictures we see coming from our cell phones are not due to the large sensors they capture pictures with. A cell phone’s amazing quality is due specifically to phenomenal software that cleans the images up and presents astonishing results in the finished product. These advancements in software will continue to allow me to shoot the smaller, lighter, more mobile cameras.