Tag Archives: noise

Blue Angels at Oceana (And High ISO)

I have only been to the Oceana show once.  I headed down there with my friends Ben and Simon.  We weren’t terribly lucky with the weather.  There was flying during the show but things were overcast and deteriorated as the show went on.  The finale of the show was, naturally for a big Navy base, the Blue Angels.  I was shooting with a 1D Mk IIN in those days and that was a camera that was not happy at high ISO settings.

The problem was, the light was not good and the ISO needed to be cranked up a bit.  Amusingly, if you were shooting today, the ISO levels would not be anything that caused concern.  Current cameras can shoot at ISO levels without any noise levels that would have been unthinkable back then.  However, I did learn something very important with this shoot.  The shot above is one that I got as one of the solo jets got airborne.  I used it as a test for processing.

I processed two versions of the image, one with a lot of noise reduction dialed in and one with everything zeroed out.  I think combined them in one Photoshop image and used a layer mask to show one version in one half of the image and the other for the second half.  When I viewed the final image on the screen, the noise in one half was awfully apparent.  It was a clear problem.  However, I then printed the image.  When I did so, things were very different.  If you looked closely, you could see a little difference.  However, when you looked from normal viewing distances, there was no obvious difference between the two.

My takeaway from this is that viewing images on screens has really affected our approach to images.  We get very fixated on the finest detail while the image as a whole is something we forget.  We print less and less these days and the screen is a harsh tool for viewing.

How Low Can You Go?

The high ISO capabilities of modern cameras are a constant source of discussion whenever a new camera comes out.  It was quite funny to see everyone get so excited about the multi-million ISO range on the Nikon D5 when it was announced, only to see that the high ranges were nothing more than moose with a bit of an image overlaid on them.  Not a big surprise but still funny to see how much everyone was going nuts about it before the reality set in.

Consequently, I was interested to see what the new bodies I bought were really capable of.  I have already posted a little about some of the shots I took as the light faded at SFO.  I was shooting with a tripod and a gimbal mount to make things easier but I was also working within the ISO range of the camera.  I went with auto ISO and exposure compensation while shooting in aperture priory and wide open to get what I could.  However, I really wanted to see what was possible so I changed to manual mode, exposure compensation and auto ISO to see what could be done.  Auto ISO is not going to use the extended ranges of ISO.

AE7I2701.jpgAE7I2701jpeg.jpgI don’t know about the Nikon cameras but the Canon cameras tend to have three extended range ISO settings at the high end.  There is the highest ISO setting that it recognizes and then there are H1, H2 and H3.  They don’t name them with the actual ISO settings but you know what they are based on what you see on the camera.  The manufacturer does not label them as normal ISO settings because they do not stand behind them as a capability.  There is a good reason for that.  They are just like the highest Nikon settings.  Useful if you have no option but not very good otherwise.

The same was true with my older bodies.  They had a very high ISO range that was not great but it would do in a pinch.  At the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta I shot an Aero Commander in the pitch black that flew over and I saw stuff in the shot I couldn’t see with the naked eye.  This is with a camera that is ancient by modern standards.  I expected a bit more with the latest generation.  Certainly, there is more to be achieved with what we have now. However, post processing becomes a part of the story.

My first experience with these shots was in Lightroom.  The shots did not look good at all.  However, there was a clue in all of this.  The first view in Lightroom is based on the JPEG that is baked into the raw file.  It looked okay until it was rendering by Adobe at which point it looked a lot worse.  This piqued my interest.  Sure enough, at the extended ISO ranges, the shots looked pretty awful.  Lots of purple backgrounds.  These were not going to be any good.  However, the initial preview had looked good., is this a case of Lightroom not being able to render the shots well?  I figured I should try going to the source.

AE7I2747.jpgAE7I2747jpeg.jpgAt various ISAP symposiums, the Canon guys have talked about how their software is the one that you should use since only Canon know how to decode their shots properly.  They have the recipe for the secret sauce.  Since Digital Photo Professional (DPP), Canon’s own software for decoding raw files, is so terrible to use, I never bother with it.  The raw processing in Lightroom (and ACR since they are the same) is so much easier to use normally and works really well. DPP is just awful in comparison.  However, we are now dealing with the extremes of capabilities of the camera.  The embedded previews seemed better so maybe it is possible that DPP will be able to do a better job.

You can now be the judge.  Here are some pairs of shots.  They are the same shot in each case.  The first is processed in Adobe Lightroom and the second is processed in DPP.  I think it is clear that DPP is better able to work with the raw files when it comes to extreme ISO settings.  The shots certainly have a more normal look to them.  The Lightroom shots look really messed up by comparison.  It doesn’t mean I will be using the extended ISO ranges on a regular basis.  Jumping to DPP for processing is not helpful on a regular basis.  However, if the need arises, I know that I can push the camera a lot further and use DPP to get something that is okay if not great.  This could be handy at some point.

High ISO Raw File Size

On my previous camera bodies I had occasionally shot at very high ISO settings as a result of the lack of light.  I had not paid a huge amount of attention to any secondary effects of doing so.  My current cameras had a work out in some very low light when I decided to test them in some rather unfriendly conditions.  When I was at home, I was running some disc backups and I found I could not get the normal number of files onto a single disc.  A quick bit of investigation and I could see why.  The high ISO shots had a significant increase in file size.  As I understand it, RAW files, while containing all of the data from the sensor, do have an amount of compression applied.  I imagine that the noise inherent in high ISO shots means that the compression is less effective as there is so much variation across pixels.  As an example, a shot at ISO 320 will average at about 22Mb.  The shots at ISO 51,200 are coming in at over 30Mb.  At ISO 204,000, the files can hit 40Mb. That is quite an increase!  Something to keep in mind when planning to shoot in very low light conditions.

Playing with Noise Reduction

One of the biggest developments that there has been in digital imaging in recent years has been the improvement of performance in low light.  A few years ago, it was hard to get a decent image at above ISO400 and much post processing work was required to try and make the images workable.  Plug-ins for noise reduction were very popular.  However, the camera manufacturers have been very aggressive in developing chips and processors that allow shooting at ISO levels that would have been unthinkable a while back.  You hear of cameras being perfectly acceptable at ISO6400 and above.

My cameras are not the newest on the market but there are certainly not slouches in low light.  However, I have never been terribly happy with the performance at high ISO settings with the image breaking up a bit when viewed up close.  This is where I have to admit that I can be a complete idiot sometimes.

I shoot RAW all of the time and then process the images in Lightroom.  I have created some presets of development settings that I apply each time I import an image and which then acts as the starting point for any additional editing.  This is where my problem lies and why it has taken me so long to realize it I can’t imagine.  Anyway, enough of the self-flagellation and on with the topic.

The problem lies in the Detail section of the Develop module.  This is where sharpening and noise reduction are applied.  I have some basic settings I start with here and, when I was importing shots taken at high ISO settings, I was not changing them.  I would play with the noise reduction but things still didn’t look right.  The problem was, of course, the sharpening.  The basic setting I had entered was sharpening far too much for the ISO setting and was causing some odd breakup of the image.  I finally realized this one morning while lying in bed – I have no idea why I was thinking of this but it suddenly came to me.

I got up and opened some high ISO images and went to the detail area.  I zeroed out the sharpening and the noise reduction.  Everything looked awful.  Then I brought back the noise reduction and things suddenly started looking a lot better.  When I was happy with the noise, it was time to bring back some sharpening.  Things were a little soft after the noise was taken out so the sharpening brought back a bit of punch to the image.  A tweak on the amount and opening up the radius a bit made things look good.  Then a more aggressive level of masking of the sharpening and suddenly the image was looking way better than before.

When I was happy with things, I saved a new preset that was just sharpening and noise reduction and labeled it as High ISO Detail.  Now I can apply it to any images that need it and be in a far better starting position for further processing.  Each image will require its own approach if I am going to make more effort on post processing but I will now be starting from a far cleaner place.  The samples above are comparison of approximately 100% crops with my original settings and the revised approach.  Hopefully you can see the difference.  It might be annoying to realize you have been missing something for so long but at least I finally worked it out!

When Does Noise Matter?

I will freely admit I am as much of a gearhead as the next photographer.  New toys always catch my attention and then it is a matter of time before the battle is won between my sensible side or my not very sensible side as to whether I am going to get something.  The price of said item may well have an influence on which side wins that battle.

One thing that is a popular discussion for the pixel peepers is noise.  Having started off with a Canon EOS10D when I first went digital and worked through a number of bodies since – none of which have left my ownership I must confess – I have seen some steady improvement in noise reduction capabilities although not always with as much benefit to the final image as I might have liked but I digress.

A while back I was shooting at the Oceana air show with two of my buddies, Ben and Simon.  We had trekked down from DC for the show and were greeted by less than ideal weather.  The cloud base was solid and low and a bunch of displays didn’t take place.  Some did though and we still had a good day.  Given the heavy cloud, though, we were struggling for light.  I was shooting mainly with the MkIIN and was up at ISO 800 for a lot of the time.

The MkIIN is well into the noisy range at 800 and I knew that was the case but there was little option.  A while after this show, Lightroom 3 came out and it had a lot of noise reduction built in that wasn’t in the previous version.  I took a look at some of the Oceana shots to see how much better they might look.  There was a noticeable improvement and I was happy.

Why am I discussing this now, over a year later?  I was mulling over this topic for some reason, probably related to another acquisition decision, and I wondered how the printed version was affected by this noise.  There are plenty of things that I fret over in an image when looking at it on screen, usually zoomed in far too close, that really don’t become apparent at all when printing.  Is noise one of those things that looks better on paper?

I picked one of the shots from that day to experiment with.  The shot in question is this one of one of the Blue Angels taking off.  Since there was the treeline behind, the gray sky was not an issue and the burner plumes show up nicely given how dark it is so I like the shot.  Now to check it out on a print.

One of the nice features of Lightroom is the ability to mess with the print layouts.  I made a couple of virtual copies of the image and one one of them did my best to optimize the noise reduction and on the other switched it off for the most part.  On screen, it did not look great.  I then set up a page in the print module with two cells right next to each other and put the left side of one image in the left cell and the right side of the other in the right cell.  It looks like a full aircraft if I get the positioning just right.

First I printed it on an 8.5×11 sheet.  If I look closely, I can see the divide.  It actually shows more in the background than on the aircraft.  It is visible but it isn’t as noticeable as you might expect.  This had got my interest!  What about the size of the print.  I repeated the layout on some Super B (13×19) paper of the same type and printed it again.

As you might expect, this time is is a little more noticeable – hey, it’s twice the size!  However, even now, while it isn’t great, it really isn’t that bad.  We are talking about turning the NR almost off.

So, what do I conclude from this?  Well, technology is going to always get better, both in camera and on the computer processing it and I am still going to be a sucker for a new piece of kit.  However, while there is a noticeable noise difference on screen, the print is really a lot more forgiving.  Maybe I should relax about it a lot more and just enjoy the shooting, even when the light is limited.