Does noise reduction work?

A close, thoughtful look at digital grain

How effective is noise reduction software built into compact digital cameras in improving image quality?

Many digital compact cameras offer a “noise reduction” feature that is claimed to reduce the digital noise that shows up at ISO 400 and higher. Does it work?

 

A new technology—Back-Illuminated CMOS sensors—is said to improve low light/high ISO performance, but so far any improvement has been minimal in our field tests. And grain reduction may work more effectively in some cameras and not as well with others, depending on how sophisticated the on-board software is.

 

Let’s compare 100% details of a mannequin shot under constant light conditions, shot with a contemporary 12MP cameras, one with no grain reduction, one with its grain reduction feature turned on, starting at ISO 400.

ISO 400


No noise reduction: Unacceptable grain.
 


Noise reduction: Hair is actually slightly sharper and indeed, this is good, printable quality.

ISO 800


No Noise reduction: Quality continues to deteriorate.
 


Noise reduction: While the underlying image appears sharper, the grain also appears tighter and more apparent. An interesting phenomenon!

ISO 1600
 


No noise reduction: Unacceptable grain!
 


Noise reduction: While the image continues to maintain sharpness (look at the hair), the grain becomes much more pronounced, completely obscuring shadow detail and creating a pointillist effect on the skin.

Just for fun…

Our Noise Reduction camera also offers ISO 2000 and 3200 options. We couldn’t resist. Here’s what we got…

ISO 2000

 


Lots of noise, sharpness finally starts to deteriorate.

ISO 3200 (recorded at 3MP)
 


So much noise reduction had to be applied that the image was extremely distorted, with virtually no sharpness or detail.
 

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