High ISO noise reduction

Don’t be scared of high ISOs!

Your camera’s sensor, your lens’s image stabiliser and the latest photo-editing software technology may surprise you with what they can do together.

When you’re on vacation or on a once-in-a-lifetime trip or just strolling through warm city streets at night, you’re going to want to capture the sights with your camera but you don’t want break the mood by wrestling with a tripod, making your family wait and looking like a hopeless tourist.

So my advice is to crank the ISO up as high as you need to in order to capture shake-free handheld pictures and just shoot away.

But what about noise? This was taken at a a shutter speed of 1/10sec at ISO 6400, and it’s sharp, contrasty and saturated and pretty much noise free. The noise-free part is down to software, but the rest is down to the camera – but it wasn’t an expensive, professional, large-sensor model. In fact it was a modest Nikon D5600 beginner DSLR with the standard 18-55mm kit lens.

The fact is that cameras and their sensors have got very, very good. Each new generation is a little better than the one before, advancing in such small subtle steps that we can’t say exactly when the change happened, but the difference compared to cameras of ten or even five years ago is remarkable.

The fact that you can get this kind of image quality from an APS-C camera at ISO 6400 is just amazing.

When it comes down to it, the fact that it’s sharp at a shutter speed of 1/10sec is pretty remarkable too, and that’s down to the lens’s image stabiliser. They’re built into most lenses now, and if you want to find out just how good they are, try shooting for a while with the stabiliser switched off.

High-ISO noise reduction: camera JPEG vs DxO vs DxO PRIME

The third factor in this shot, however, is the software. I made three versions of this image and you can see the results in the comparisons below at different levels of magnification. I’ve uploaded full-size screenshots which you can see by clicking on the images.

  1. The first version is the JPEG processed and saved by the camera.
  2. The second is the RAW version, processed using the default noise reduction in DxO PhotoLab
  3. The third has been rendered using PhotoLab’s PRIME noise reduction

High ISO noise reduction

High ISO noise reduction

High ISO noise reduction

The differences are quite remarkable. The camera JPEG looks OK from a distance, but up close the noise and loss of clarity is obvious, and there’s some colour smearing in areas of even tone too.

The standard DxO PhotoLab rendition is much better. There’s less noise and the detail is crisper and more natural-looking.

The DxO PRIME rendition is quite remarkable. This is a processor-intensive mode that takes longer to preview on-screen (it can only render a small section in a window) and longer to output, but it is amazingly smooth. It can’t restore all of the fine detail and textures you’d expect at lower ISO settings, but that’s because the sensor loses the ability to capture this subtle information at high ISO settings. The outcome is nevertheless really impressive.

This isn’t meant to read like an advert for DxO PhotoLab, and I dare say there are plenty of other noise reduction tools out there that could do something similar – though matching this result would be a pretty tall order.

But to get back to my original point, when camera sensors are this good, image stabilisers this effective, and software so good at noise reduction, you shouldn’t be scared to bump up the ISO.

6 thoughts on “Don’t be scared of high ISOs!

  1. Quite impressive what DxO Prime can do. But I am still douptful. I would never go up to ISO 6400 neither with my D750 nor the D3300. With the latter I recently took some pictures of my son inside of HMS Belfast at ISO 800. Terrible noise in RAW, acceptable after noise reduction in CNX-D. I will try out DxO Photolab as I always liked U-Point technology in CNX 2 and NIk Collection. If DxO Photolab renders colours with the same accuracy als CNX-D, Photolab might become my dreamed of Capture NX 3!

  2. Since you’re shooting with a Nikon 5600 (whose sensor has excellent Dynamic Range and which adds very little noise itself) – and you’re shooting RAW – and you’re using DxO OpticsPro/PhotoLab then there’s another option too;

    You can happily expose for the highlights (eg. for the lights in your example image) – which, if you’re using Auto ISO, will most likely result in camera-selection of a much lower ISO (or, you could set a specific ISO – probably even ISO=100 will be fine with the Nikon).

    The resulting JPG will most likely look quite dark (the unprocessed RAW too) – but “brightening” the RAW in OpticsPro/PhotoLab will result in excellent image quality – even more so if you apply PRIME Noise Reduction during the export to JPG.

    1. That sounds like an interesting technical exercise, though I would be worried about losing deep shadow detail and I might not want to make adjustments like those repeatedly if I was just capturing ‘grab’ shots. In this instance the auto ISO would have gone above ISO 6400 if I’d allowed it, not below – I was already shooting with the lens wide open and at a shutter speed lower than the Auto ISO mode would select.

  3. I love DXO prime denoising.
    However for portraits, Capture One gives less noise reduction, but more natural looking for portraits. For all other styles of photos DXO is “simply the best” as Tina Turner would sing

  4. Rod,
    Your review of DXO Prime is the most honest and best illustrated noiseware review that I’ve encountered to date. I appreciate that you mention: “The other is that high ISO shots don’t just suffer from noise – they will also have an underlying loss of detail that the PRIME process can’t fix, and eliminating noise can often make this more obvious,” as this is something many end users aren’t aware of, and it can result in their disappointment with many noise reduction programs.
    I’ve used Topaz DeNoise 6 to date and have run the same image through Prime for the sake of comparison. DeNoise 6 has a lot more control over noise, if one takes the time to learn how to use the many different sliders, and the image magnification in DeNoise 6 allows for more critical evaluation of the actual noise reduction effects. I’m not seeing a significant difference between Prime and DeNoise 6, but that could be due to my extended experience with DeNoise 6 and lack of experience with Prime. The one thing I have seen in reviews of DeNoise 6 is that most if not all reviewers use the canned settings as opposed to adjusting luminance and chroma noise levels (along with the many other adjustments). This is tantamount to testing a sports car with a five speed gearbox in first gear and making a judgement basted on that alone.
    My biggest objection is that one has to buy an expensive DXO program in order to use just the Prime noise reduction. And while there are reasons for this, a stand alone Prime would make it more affordable and “possibly” bring more photographers onboard DXO’s Photo Lab.
    Nevertheless, you’ve done an outstanding review and I thank you for your due diligence.

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