How to Reduce Noise for Best Results in Stock Photography

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In this tutorial, we cover how to deal with noise and improve approval rates for your stock photos. Noise is one of the top rejection reasons on stock photography websites. Shutterstock is especially notorious for rejecting images for noise.

In our previous tutorial, we showed how to deal with another common rejection reason of out-of-focus images.

Why Image Noise Occurs?

Image noise is fluctuations of color information recorded by the image sensor. These fluctuations in color deviate from the original true information and interfere with image details. Do you remember copying your portrait photoshoot images, only to find out that the details are blurry and obscured by weird pixels. That is noise.

Noisy image example in low-light situation

There are several reasons for image noise.

1. Incorrect Exposure

A typical reason for noise is incorrect exposure. Photos with incorrect exposure require heavy post-processing. As you will be sliding exposure, shadows and whites sliders to extreme, noise will appear. This is especially true for areas that are too dark.

2. High ISO Setting

A high ISO setting is another typical reason for noise. The ISO setting refers to how sensitive an image sensor becomes to light. Low-light situations typically require high ISO settings. Because very little light hits the image sensor in dark environments, the image will have obscured details to begin with. Moreover, amplifying a sensor’s sensitivity via high ISO setting only exacerbates this problem, producing even more obscured noisy pixels.

All this makes a high ISO setting the photographer’s number one enemy, especially in low-light situations.

3. Other External Interference

There are other external factors that might be at play to create noise. One of them is high ambient temperatures. If an image sensor becomes overheated, noise may become visible even in photos with perfect exposure and a low ISO setting. Also, if you use your camera for an extended period of time, the sensor can become overheated too.

Other rare factors that can create noise include strong radio transmission and cosmic radiation.

How to Mitigate In-Camera Image Noise?

As a photographer, there are several things you can do even before clicking the shutter release button.

1. Correct Exposure

Proper exposure is a must. You can use exposure meters to gauge if a photo has proper exposure. It is even easier with mirrorless cameras since what you see is what you get.

2. Use RAW Format

We always take photos in RAW format. This is the only format that stores the highest dynamic range of colors straight out of the camera. The JPEG format is great as a final product after post-processing an image. But, it stores much lower color information compared to RAW format.

Image FormatBit DepthColor Shades per Pixel
JPEG8 bits per pixel256
RAW14 bits per pixel16,384

RAW format can capture an order of magnitude higher color shades compared to JPEG format. Thus, using the JPEG format to shoot photos is a terrible idea. Recovering details in JPEGs will produce more undesired noise compared to RAW format. So, set your camera to take RAW photos from the get-go.

3. Keep ISO Setting Low

Noise is typical when you take an image with a high ISO setting. How high depends on the image sensor, lens and other software components of the camera. We start noticing noise on our full-frame camera when we go above 400 ISO setting. It is not much, but you can tell. Noise becomes severe with ISO settings above 800, affecting the sharpness of an image. So, keeping ISO under 400 is ideal.

4. Use a Tripod

But, high ISO is inevitable when we take photos in low light situations. To avoid cranking up ISO, we use tripods whenever possible. With a tripod, the camera is not subject to handheld shake and we can go as low as we can with the shutter speed. This is especially true to static landscape scenes.

As for tripods, we use two different types for our photography. The first type is a carbon fiber tripod by Manfrotto. It is a carbon fiber tripod that we bought back in 2015. This tripod is very durable and has not disappointed us a single time.

But, there are situations when we need a light tripod. This is especially true whenever we travel or hike. For this reason, we bought a lightweight travel tripod by Bonfoto from Amazon. Take a look at our review of this tripod in a separate post.

4. Use a Fast Lens

Another approach to keep ISO setting low is to use a fast lens. This lens comes with a very low f-stop number and is ideal in low light conditions. For instance, we have a 35mm lens that has a minimum f-stop rating of 1.4.

When you use a lower f-stop number, the lens will let in more light. This will allow you to use a lower ISO setting. But, you must be careful with this, as a low f-stop setting produces a shallow depth of field. Thus, a much smaller distance will be in focus, rendering everything else out-of-focus. We always double check our photos on our camera’s display to ensure that the subject is in focus.

5. Use Artificial Light

Another way to lower the ISO setting is to use artificial light. We often use flash units, especially for portrait photography. We put them on top of our cameras. But more often, we attach flash units to tripods and use wireless remote to trigger flash. By doing so, we can position flash up close to the subject, while standing farther away with a camera. The following are flash units by Godox that we recommend:

Also, whenever we do studio work, including stock videos, we use lighting stands. Our go-to lighting kit is by Neewer that we love and use. The kit comes with three softboxes and a wireless remote. The remote allows us to control light intensity and color. Also, this particular kit can be powered by either electric outlet or batteries.

How to Reduce Noise in Post-Processing

We start dealing with noise in RAW images in Adobe Camera Raw, which is similar to Adobe Lightroom. We personally use Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Bridge to manage and edit our stock photos.

Adobe Photoshop image with free trial try now button

Reduce Noise in Adobe Camera Raw/Lightroom

To reduce noise in Camera Raw, we use the Detail tab. Here, you can set noise reduction value as needed. The detail slider lets you preserve details. The contrast slider lets you preserve contrast.

Adobe Camera Raw detail tab for noise reduction and color noise reduction

We often set the detail slider to somewhere between 20 and 50. But, of course, it all depends on the situation. There is also the color noise reduction tool that we use to reduce color noise. The best way to find your ideal setting is to play around with sliders until the result is satisfactory.

Noise Reduction in Adobe Photoshop

The biggest problem with reducing noise in Adobe Camera Raw is that it is a rather blunt tool. There is a very limited way for us to tell Camera Raw to target only the noisy areas of an image. For this reason, we try to apply very little noise reduction on RAW photos in Camera Raw. Instead, we use Camera Raw to reduce noise manually in Photoshop.

Here is how we do it. After opening a RAW image in Photoshop, we duplicate the layer. Use the Control+J (PC) or Cmd + J (Mac) shortcut for this. Next, we create a layer mask. Then, we open Camera Raw on this duplicate layer. You can do so either from the Filter menu or using the Shift+Control+A shortcut. Then, we apply noise reduction in the Detail tab. After that, we head back to Photoshop and mask out areas that do not need noise reduction.

Noise Reduction Plugins

But, sometimes the noise is so severe that the image requires special handling. We tested several noise reduction plugins and decided to use Topaz Denoise AI. This plugin uses a machine learning algorithm to reduce noise in a targeted way. The program avoids clean, sharp areas and instead reduces noise where necessary.

We saw a noticeable improvement in our approval rates after we began using Topaz Denoise AI. This was especially true for Shutterstock. The program lets you choose various noise reduction models depending on the situation. It also lets you remove color noise and even add sharpness to an image.

Topaz Denoise AI Photoshop plugin to reduce noise in images and photo files

Topaz Denoise AI is not perfect though. But, it is still much better compared to what we did before.

Concluding Remarks

That is today’s tutorial on how to deal with noise in photos. Let us know in the comments if there is another effective method that you personally use that we did not mention. We are very curious to hear what other fellow photographers are doing.

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