The 'megapixel' race for digital cameras is resulting in cameras with higher and higher resolution sensors, with manufacturers trying to 'keep up with the Jones' by releasing yet another camera with a tiny sensor packed to the gills with millions of pixels.
This is not a good thing. Small sensors and high pixel density result in noise. This can be seen as coloured speckles on the resulting image. The image noise increases as the ISO setting is increased. Many of today's cameras (DSLR's excepted) are incapable of producing noiseless images above the base ISO setting.
Manufacturers try to reduce noise with in-camera noise reduction, but this is often applied with a 'bull in a china shop' approach; the result of which is a less noisy image, but with much of the detail smeared out.
Image manipulation software packages, such as Photoshop, have noise removal filters. Here, the user has more control over the noise reduction process, but again, the filtering results in smearing of detail.
For users who have to use high ISO settings, but want noise free images without loss of detail, there is another alternative. There are dedicated noise removal packages on the market such as Noise Ninja, Neatimage, and the one I use, Noiseware. These packages are designed to remove as much noise as possible, with the minimum effect on detail and are far superior to the camera's settings and to those in the likes of Photoshop.
Noiseware is available as a 'plug-in' for Photoshop, for both Windows and Mac computers. There is also a standalone edition, which is free (being a cheapskate, this is the version I use).
Noiseware can be used in two ways; automatic processing, or by modifying the default settings to 'fine-tune' the noise removal process.
Automatic processing, simply involves loading the image into Noiseware (or Photoshop if the plug-in is used). The software builds a profile of the image and its noise, which takes a few seconds. Once this is completed, the 'Go' button is pressed. The software processes the image then removes the noise. This will take around 10 - 30 seconds (dependant on image size and computer speed).
The processed image is then shown on the screen. To check what the image looked like before processing, the mouse button is pressed and held. In this way, the two images can be compared directly.
Does it work? Well, yes it works brilliantly! I use Noiseware on many of my wildlife photos; I have to use ISO800 on my DSLR which generates some noise. It always removes every trace of noise with no sign of loss of detail.
For the purpose of this review, I took some ISO1600 images, deliberately underexposed by one stop to get images as noisy as possible. The images showed a significant amount of coloured speckles across the whole picture, particularly in dim areas.
Processing them with Noiseware, however, gave fantastic results. The ISO1600 images were processed to remove all of the noise. There was no evidence of loss of detail when looking at the picture on the screen. Zooming in to the pixel level showed a tiny, almost unnoticeable softening of the image, indicating some loss of detail, but it was so slight that I had to look for it.
It's no exaggeration to say that Noiseware made the ISO1600 images as 'clean' as those of my default ISO setting of 400, an amazing achievement.
For noise reduction with slightly more user involvement, the button showing 'default' is pressed. This brings up a menu of alternative noise removal settings. These include 'landscape', 'night scene', 'portrait, as well as stronger and weaker settings. A film grain effect can also be added.
For more advanced users, the level of control over the noise filter is incredible. There are individual sliders for adjusting noise in four frequency groups, as well as sliders for suppression of luminance and colour noise.
The image can also be sharpened, which is often worthwhile, as noise reduction can result in a slight softening of the image. I prefer to use the unsharp mask tool in Photoshop, however.
Once the image has been processed, it must be saved. Noiseware will not allow the user to save over the original file; 'save as' must be used to save a copy. This is a precaution to prevent the original image from being overwritten.
Noiseware is then, a superb piece of software. It is easy to use (just click 'go') for the beginner, but can be fine tuned to an incredible degree by the advanced user, and the final result is amazing. For best results, the camera's internal noise reduction setting should be turned off or minimised.
Anyone who finds themselves wanting to remove noise from their digital images without heavy handed smearing would be well to look at Noiseware. If you don't mind using an extra piece of software to process for noise, get the free edition. If you want to process in Photoshop, get the plug-in.
The software is manufactured by Imagenomic (www.imagenomic.com).