Welcome! Precious few of my clients and even less of the general enthusiast photographer can afford a $7000-00** Full Frame FX or APS-H D-SLR with High ISO Low Noise capabilities… but a piece of software that can reduce and even eliminate noise for USD $80-00? That’s far more attractive an option! You can now also use Topaz Labs as a stand alone product with the new PhotoFX Lab.
As a special offer to new users, Topaz Labs are offering a 30% savings on DeNoise until October 12, 2012. Just enter coupon code “NoiseFree” CLICK HERE TO GET YOUR COPY
I travel throughout Africa hosting Wildlife Photo Workshops and in-house DSLR Workshops. One of the questions I’m often asked is how does one keep images noise free, especially when one can’t really control the light, such as one would in a studio environment?
Naturally you can’t take your studio lights with you into the Kruger National Park or the Masai Mara… Often you are not allowed to take a flash and snoot on the vehicle; the game rangers simply don’t allow that as it blinds your subject and puts it at momentary risk of it’s predators… You can’t afford Pro Glass to get faster results in lower light.
Enter the digital darkroom and Topaz Labs!
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Before Topaz Labs DeNoise – African Spoonbill – D90 ISO 800
After Topaz Labs DeNoise – African Spoonbill – D90 ISO 800
ISO 2200 Before Topaz Labs DeNoise
ISO 2200 After Topaz Labs DeNoise
(Scroll down to the Tutorial if you just wish to read that)
I’ve been planning on writing a tutorial on my wildlife image digital work flow when I got an email from Ashley over at Topaz Labs asking for just that
I obliged, but I think I bit off more than I can chew… Writing decent tutorials that are both interesting and educational but not overbearing works of science is no joke!
Before I used a ‘plug-in’ to assist me I battled to control the noise in camera; expensive faster lenses, better stability, allowing lower ISO’s but higher shutter speeds. I researched various DeNoise applications, tested trial versions and eventually settled on the Topaz Labs Suite mostly due it’s excellent results plus the very creative and useful additional bundle of professional editing products. I bought the complete bundle and received no encouragement or incentive from Topaz Labs to do so. The bundle was more expensive than just one noise reduction utility but they all work hand in hand. I now demo and promote it’s use when asked by my clients. To quote “Topaz DeNoise 5 is the only software of its kind that is able to recover crisp detail while simultaneously removing up to four stops of noise with the utmost quality.” I’ve found this to be true especially when shooting gigs at night. Whilst my personal technique is not to push ISO at night and shoot in Manual mode, there are times when you need more s/s to capture a very lively performance or front man. Topaz Labs will come to your rescue.
In early 2009, after 28+ years of 35mm SLR film photography I started photographing (‘experimenting’ is a better word) with a new Nikon D80 D-SLR. I had zero experience with D-SLR digital, only point and shoot digital as I had owned very early versions of no name and branded digital models from a Sony Mavica (1999) up to a Canon Powershot 5Mp (2006). Digital quality was getting better as time went by and the D80 at 10Mp with a’ large’ APS-C sensor (larger than pocket digital cameras) 1.5x crop factor with the older film lenses, had reached a kind of a buy now pinnacle (2008/9). Little did I know that the Digital Darkroom would be as necessary for Post Production if not more so than the Film Darkroom and that a lot of time would be spent behind a screen…I also didn’t believe that PP was necessary! Even though I shot, developed, PP and printed my own images in the early 80′s in a real dark room.
I honestly thought that despite the convenience factor and plugging into a computer, things would be technically the same right? After all light is still light and the old film lenses that worked on the F801 worked on the D80. Over the next four years and with the vast resources of the internet I soon got snowed with information. Much of it conflicting and useless I might add, when it came to real world results. Everyone had an opinion. I drooled over a D3 flyer. Up till that point printing images on 4×6″ or A4 seemed fine, results were good, hell even better than the old soup the local film shop used to run my negatives and paper through! Even up to A5 I had some great print results. It was when I ventured into online competitions and publication that I soon realised that those tiny little sensors needed some help. When viewed on monitors at 100%, my birds or wild animal (where lens technique, low ISO and often wide open is the norm), images were suffering from noise and sharpness when shot in the golden hour (pushed ISO), the most active time for (African) wildlife. Especially BiF or Bird in Flight where noise shows up drastically in the sky and background.
You thought you could push that D-SLR now to 1600 or 3200 ISO right? Hell even 128,000! I would now get the shot that eluded me with 400 ASA film? Well sure, but you, as I, started learning about hot pixels, noise and grain! What? Grain? In digital? Seriously? It took a while to understand the reasons why and due that I still advocate low ISO and better technique, such as lens stability to shoot at lower shutter speeds and naturally a huge chunk of glass at f/2.8 or f/4 if you can afford it. But most of us can’t and we are stuck with ‘kit’ or lower range slow lenses albeit with this wonderful VR, OS, IS, VC stabilised glass…
Some of my early ISO 1600 shots were so noisy they could not be enlarged. The D80 gets noisy at ISO 400. At 1600 it’s really noticeable and after 5 years of use it has developed some blue and red hot pixels at high ISO. Yes they can be cloned, yes you can run in camera noise reduction but for BiF NR at time of shot is a bit limiting. Thankfully I didn’t bin those early images. The D90 is better at ISO 800 as is the D7000 at ISO 1600. Every sensor incarnation of the DX format (APS-C) has improved but noise is still there albeit at one notch higher ISO. You are about to see the magic of Topaz Labs in the Digital Darkroom…
Don’t for one minute think that you can rescue a poorly photographed, composed, exposed image. You still have to do the basics right. In lectures and workshops, I’m a strong advocate of the basics. Technique. Anticipation. Posture. Panning. Support. Quality Fast Glass if you can afford it.
OK so let’s look at my work-flow and how I achieve noise free crisp images. For every image work-flow is generally the same but there may be slight tweaks to some of the very efficient and easy settings found in various sliders around the Topaz Labs interface. Don’t be bewildered. Often the pre-sets are ample to do what you want. Occasionally however you may want to tweak a colour, sharpen up an eye, dodge or clone, improve contrast whilst applying DeNoise and this can all be done whilst in the application/plug-in. I will not go into the ease of installation, the versions, the “unpacking” of the product as it where. This is all common knowledge and if not, ample support and videos abound on their website.
Post processing takes time. You need a fast desktop/laptop with as much RAM as you can afford. The number crunching that has to be processed is quite CPU intensive. I’ve run TL on a 2006 laptop with 4Gb ram and a Celeron 2.2Ghz but whilst that PC is a tad sluggish, it’s usable. I’m only PP one or two images, not an entire batch.
You should be shooting in RAW. It’s an absolute must. Your camera manufacturer has developed software and algorithms and ways of editing your data directly as created off the sensor. RAW file formats are extremely popular in digital photography work-flows because they offer photographic professionals greater creative control. Most importantly you do not alter the underlying digital data when editing. It is a non destructive edit. By shooting JPG you have already lost some of the digital data captured as it is a compressed (zipped) file format and then when you edit you further alter the data, sometimes irreversibly. Preparation is the key and if you can limit noise by better technique pre the digital darkroom then this is the way to go until you can afford a noise ‘free’ full frame sensor camera or the next generation sensor. For many of us there may be no time or we have limited funds. Shoot as low an ISO as you can, support your gear with a bean bag, mono or tri-pod. A car roof, a fence post, car window frame and a jumper/t-shirt.
Firstly look at your image in your RAW editor. For the sake of this Tutorial I am using the s/w that came with my camera. A RAW editor called Nikon view Nx2. (Now at ver 2.5). You could use ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) but for now I still recommend using your manufacturers app.
Please Note: If you have a small LCD monitor on your desk, smaller than 1440px, when clicking on the images to enlarge, please do a second magnifying glass + click to expand to 1440px on the long side or all the images will look fuzzy/OOF.
The NX2 screen shot below shows all the images meta data, notably ISO-800 where noise creeps in on the D90, especially with the sky in picture.
View NX2 – Original Image – MetaData – ISO-800
I now zoom to between 200 and 400% depending on the subject. I chose this image because it was a ‘from the hip’ shot with flaws and the bird fills about 1/4 the size of the frame, an excellent candidate for Noise Reduction because when you crop in, you magnify flaws, yours and the sensors! Naturally at this point photographically I’d advise to get closer to your subject, use a bigger zoom or prime lens, buy a 36Mp FX/APS-H DSLR (as if!), get a 500mm f/4 etc. Yes I know you can’t aim it as easily as my 100-300mm f/4 that I used here Point being is that few of us can afford a prime lens so many of our shots will need some form of DI (Digital Intervention, not Divine Intervention – Note: I lay claim to that saying ).
Now look at the camera settings you shot the image with. If you made any errors, like I did with the White Balance, correct them, in RAW. I shot the previous nights start trail with Sodium Vapour WB to give my night shot a hint of extra blue and a deeper black and failed to reset in-camera the next morning! It was winter and I was standing in the middle of a dry dam. I was frozen to the bone and just wanted to get back to the lodge! Needless to say my 1st flight shot was one of the best the entire day. Had I shot in JPG I’d have had no end of trouble correcting the Hue.
Correct mistakes such as WB in RAW
In one second I had adjusted the image back to Direct Sunlight WB. Thanks to RAW!
Corrected WB: Sodium Vapour to Direct Sunlight
Now look at making subtle improvements to the image using the other sliders. Colour, shadows, highlights, contrast, sharpness etc. All of these tools are also available in camera and the digital age allows you greater control and freedom to craft your images as you saw them, visualised them or want them to look. Because I shoot wildlife I prefer a natural crisp sharp look without smashing saturation and colours.
View NX2 – The Unedited Image barring WB.
Every time you alter settings, look at the increase in noise in the blue area and, whilst less obvious it is becoming more prevalent in the birds feathers. As you edit, you enhance the noise in the image. (more…)