Photoshop Friday! Noise Reduction!

Hi there! Welcome to another (on time!) edition of Photoshop Friday!  

Today’s topic is noise reduction. I know. A lot of us wish that we could have Noise Reduction in real life. Unfortunately, short of suggesting earplugs, there isn’t much I can do to help you there.

But I can help you get the noise out of your images. :D 

Photoshop’s default noise reduction tools have left a lot to be desired. And as of CS3, they have made a few updates, but I still prefer to go the plug-in route with this. I’ve been using this particular plug-in for several years with great results. It’s my favorite noise-reduction software, and I think you’ll like it too! :D

The software is called Neat Image, and it’s available for a FREE fully functional demo here for Windows, and demo here for Mac. I’ll be using the free version in this tutorial, so grab it and follow along! :D

Just for incentive, here’s the before-and-after shot that I’ll be using in my example:


Editing the Image: Adjusting Lighting and Color Correcting


First, open your image in Photoshop and make the edits you’d like to it. Often when we brighten up a photo, we also bring up the noise levels (noise lurks in shadows), so you’ll want this image to be in more or less its final state before we switch over to Neat Image.

Here’s my original image. It’s pretty dark, and already fairly noisy (it was taken in low light). But this is a precious picture to me (Rowen in the hospital on the day she got the tubes out of her nose)

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1. First I’ll open my Levels dialog box. Ctrl-l or Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Levels (PSE) or Image > Adjustments > Levels (CS3).

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2. I can see from the Levels dialog box that my photo is quite dark. The Levels dialog box shows a map of all the tones in your image, from dark on the left, to light on the right. When there is no black mountain on the right, it means that my image is underexposed. I have two options for fixing it:

  • I can move the white slider under the mountain toward the left until it just begins to meet the right edge of the mountain. This works to adjust the lighting in ANY image, but be careful not to blow out the highlights by overdoing that white slider. :) (you can also move the black slider toward the right to increase the contrast in your image)
  • (PREFERRED:) If my photo has an area in it that should be white, I can color correct AND correct lighting all in one step. Select the white eyedropper on the right side of the Levels dialog box, and click on an area of your image that SHOULD be white. Photoshop adjusts all the other tones in your image around this selection. This is known as “setting the white point” in an image.

After setting the white point with the eyedropper (I clicked on an area of the blanket in the lower right), you can see the difference here:

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The only downside to this is that by improving the lighting in the image, I’ve dramatically increased the levels of noise as well. Basically brought all the little pixellated grains out of the shadows and into broad daylight, and portions of the image that should be smooth appear rough. Here’s this image zoomed in:

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Cleaning Up Noise with NeatImage 

And here is where Neat Image can come to the rescue! You can use the Neat Image plug-in on the demo mode if your image is smaller than 1024x1024 pixels (mine isn’t).  Neat Image offers a Home+ edition for $50.00 that will work straight out of Photoshop. Since we’re just testing out the demo, we’ll have to save this image and open it in the standalone application. (this is what I’ve always done anyway).

So we open our noisy image in Neat Image.

1. Launch the Neat Image standalone application.

2. Click on the Open Input Image button, navigate to your edited image, and click Open.

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3. Click the Device Noise Profile tab at the top.

4. Click and drag over your image to highlight an area that should be smooth. This works best on faces or smooth backgrounds.

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5. With your selection active, click the  Auto Profile button. If your selection is too small, you’ll need to re-draw it.

6. Click the Noise Filter Settings tab.

7. Click the Preview button. This creates a square preview window that allows you to see the image edited with the default settings. You can zoom in on the image with your mouse’s scroll wheel or move the selection area around to see whether the settings are good for you.

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8.  The only thing I normally change here is to make sure in a color image that the Noise Reduction area for the Chrominance (color) channels is set to 100% - this takes out all the strange colored pixels that cause the most trouble in noisy color images. And then I add back in some sharpness using the Luminance (light) sharpness slider in the bottom.

NOTE: Keep in mind here that in general, sharpness and noise reduction are related to each other, and so when you increase sharpness, you increase noise as well, and when you increase the level of noise reduction, you generally lose a certain amount of sharpness. The real trick is balancing out the noise reduction without losing TOO much sharpness.

9. When you’re happy with the preview, click on the Output Image tab, and click Apply. Neat Image will grind for a few seconds (or longer) and then show you your completed image in the preview window.

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10. Click the Save Image button to save your newly noise-reduced image! Yay! :D

Here’s the before and after for my particular photo, using a fresh download of NeatImage:


 A few other things:

  • You can purchase the Home+ version to get rid of the limitations such as not being able to save in anything but a high quality .jpg and having to come out to the standalone application to use it (I totally recommend the HUGE time savings of being able to use the plug-in in the Filter menu, plus the ability to perform the noise reduction on individual layers, rather than the whole image)
  • Neat Image also comes with downloadable profiles JUST for your camera - different cameras make different noise patterns, and downloading the profile for your specific camera will help NeatImage clean up your photos a bit better.

I hope you enjoy your demo of Neat Image, I’ve been using it with lots of success for a few years now, and couldn’t be happier! It’s the best noise reduction tool on market right now, in my opinion, and can really help to rescue some of those precious photos that might otherwise be unusable.

Have a super, Phabulous Photoshop Phriday and a great weekend!