Noise can ruin images for many purposes, but sometimes it’s difficult to avoid. This is particularly true for photographers who have to shoot hand held in low light without a flash.
Fortunately, there are many different products these days claiming amazing noise reduction capabilities. But how do they compare, and which one should you use? Read on to find out.
For this test I chose a very noisy image shot at ISO 25,600. This little bird is called a cotinga and was photographed in a shady aviary meant to simulate the South American jungle canopy. Hopefully you won’t have many images this bad, but I wanted a challenging photo that pushed these programs to their limits.
All images were created from the same source RAW file, but there are differences in how the different programs rendered the images. You’ll especially notice this with the colors. For the most part, I left the default settings alone and only changed noise reduction settings. I tried to find a balance for each image where the noise was eliminated as much as possible before the image either started getting too blurry or introducing artifacts. I showed a screenshot with the settings I used next to each comparison.
The first comparison is a closeup view zoomed in at 100%. This shows the noise at full scale in all of its glory so you can examine the details. Clicking on the second dot below the comparison images will take you to a zoomed out view of the whole image.
The Ratings Explained
I rated each program in four different categories so you can decide which qualities are most important to you for yourself. Here’s a quick breakdown of what they mean.
The software’s ability to remove noise and produce smoothness in an image.
Clarity & Detail
The software’s ability to show fine details without blurring the image.
Artifacts & Banding
This can represent any new lines, shapes or patterns the software introduces as it removes noise.
The software’s ability to accurately represent the image’s colors after noise removal.
The good news is that Lightroom's sliders allow you to eliminate noise in most images entirely. The bad news is that the images become blurry early on in the process. This is great if you're going for a painterly look, but not so much if you're trying to get a clear photograph.
It also did a poor job preserving color, even when the color noise reduction slider was kept at its default position.
DxO PhotoLab 3
DxO's Prime noise reduction method looks rough close up, but it is good at keeping the image crisp and not washing out the contrast. It did a decent job preserving the colors. This was the only software I used that changed the dimensions of the image without me doing anything; the edges had been clipped and the middle was slightly enlarged.
I was going for quality over speed, so I chose the Prime option. The software informed me that the large image would not preview the Prime adjustments, so I had to judge my adjustments based on what I saw in the tiny thumbnail you can see here to the right. I left most of the settings at the automatic setting since my custom settings didn't seem like much of an improvement.
Capture One 20
Capture One started introducing blur and artifacts early in on the denoising process. I use this software all the time and it's actually excellent at dealing with low levels of noise, but I wouldn't count on it to deal with anything substantial. It did do a good job at preserving color and contrast.
Topaz Denoise AI 2
Topaz Denoises' AI can be hit or miss. When it works, the results can be amazing. It can intelligently fill in missing details you couldn't see at all. When it doesn't work, it can make up details that weren't supposed to exist and look weird.
It's more finicky and inconsistent than other denoisers I've tried. I have to disable gpu processing in the preferences so I don't get bands on my final images. I still get some bands or blocks I don't see in other denoisers though, and they sometimes start to appear even at low settings. I also had to set the chroma noise reduction size to zero to keep the details close to the right color in this image.
The color separation is good, but it produced muddy looking colors that will need to be adjusted with more post-processing.
All that said, it can still produce the best results for some images and is among my favorite noise reduction software when it works.
Topaz AI Clear
Topaz AI Clear initially came out as a standalone program, but it's now one of the options in the Topaz Denoise AI plugin. The algorithm is different enough to warrant its own entry.
Much of what I said about Denoise AI filling in details applies to AI Clear as well, but AI Clear produces smoother results without getting overly blurry like some software. I haven't had the same issues I get with Denoise as far as banding or blocks being produced in the image.
Unfortunately, it isn't great at preserving colors. If I am set on using it to clean up an image, I always make a second layer that is processed with different noise reduction software. Then I use the colors from the other layer to replace what AI Clear does to them.
I almost didn't include Imagenomic's Noiseware because it's a Photoshop plugin that doesn't work on RAW files. I'm glad I did though, because it's a worthy contender with well-balanced results.
What I like most is that it reduces the noise without ever introducing unappealing artifacts. The noise kind of turns into a fine grain. It lacks the clarity of some of the others, but its color preservation is excellent and it does a fair job at restoring details without making the image too blurry.
Nik Dfine 2
Nik Dfine 2 is part of the popular Nik Collection that was taken over by DxO. The plugin works in Lightroom, Photoshop, and DxO PhotoLab.
I've seen it highly recommended by some, but I couldn't get good results with it. It was difficult to get much noise out of the image before it started getting blocky artifacts all over the place. It also lost a lot of color for the low amount of noise it reduced. It might do a satisfactory job on images with less noise, but it doesn't seem to be a good choice for high noise jobs like this.
My top picks would be DxO, Noiseware and Topaz AI Clear (in Denoise AI). DxO impressed me with the clarity and decent color preservation, although the image didn’t look pretty at 100%. Imagenomic Noiseware was my favorite on balance. Topaz Denoise’s AI Clear had the worst color distortions but I did like the balance between smoothness and detail.