Lightroom noise reduction and why you need it

If you never thought you’d need to pay attention to the Lightroom noise reduction settings, you might need to think again. Like a lot of photographers I shoot RAW files on the assumption I’m going to get better image quality by processing the images myself rather than leaving it to the in-camera JPEG processing. That’s fine in theory, but if you’re in the habit of shooting both JPEG and RAW files at the same time, it won’t take you too long to figure out that it can take a little work to get the RAW files even as good as the JPEGs, never mind better.

Some RAW converters do a great job, straight out of the box, like Capture One Pro and DxO Optics Pro, but the world’s favourite RAW converter, Adobe Camera Raw/Lightroom (they use the same processing engine) does not.

Adobe Camera Raw/Lightroom’s default conversions are low in contrast and saturation and just plain noisy. I’ve always been bothered by the extra ‘granularity’ of RAW files in Lightroom, but what really brought it home to me was comparing the RAW and JPEG versions of a batch of after-dark shots I took using the new Canon EOS 800D. This example is in Lightroom Classic CC but the outcome is the same in Lightroom CC.

Read more: Lightroom CC vs Lightroom Classic CC

Lightroom noise reduction

Lightroom noise reduction

The in-camera JPEGs (right) look OK, considering the high ISO setting, but the Lightroom RAW conversion (left) is noisy almost beyond belief. Personally, I don’t think Adobe has the best RAW processing/demosaicing engine anyway, but I thought it was also worth checking the the noise reduction settings, since I’m pretty sure the Canon’s internal JPEGs use a hefty dose of it.

Lightroom noise reduction

Sure enough, a check of Lightroom’s Detail tab shows that by default it applies no noise reduction at all. The Color noise value is set to 25, but colour noise is not the problem – it’s Luminance noise that’s the issue, and that’s set to zero.

Lightroom noise reduction

So with a little experimentation I found that the Luminance noise reduction value has to be hiked up to 65 to yield roughly the same noise levels as the in-camera JPEG.

Lightroom noise reduction

Here’s a side-by-side comparison to show how close they are now. Depending on whether you’re a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty kind of person, this either shows that (a) Lightroom needs a hefty dose of noise reduction to match in-camera JPEGs or (b) it switches off Luminance noise reduction by default so that you can choose how much you want to apply.

I think (b) is the most likely, and it also makes the most sense for quality-conscious photographers. Luminance noise reduction smooths out fine details and can give images an artificial ‘watercolour’ look if it’s taken too far.

The takeaway from this, though, is that Lightroom does not apply Luminance noise reduction until you tell it to – and if you overlook it, you are likely to get images which are a good deal noisier than you were expecting.

This is especially true with small-sensor cameras. My favourite travel camera is a Fujifilm X30 with a 2/3-inch sensor. The JPEGs from the camera are nice and smooth, but the default RAW conversions are disappointingly ‘granular’. The solution? A dab of Luminance noise reduction in Lightroom – a value of around 25 is a good compromise for this camera – and this is almost what the camera is doing internally when it’s processing its JPEGs.

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