Coping with Digital Noise in Your Photographs

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

As DSLRs and mirrorless cameras get better and better, they are offering higher and higher ISO settings. The Pentax K-1 Mark II has a high, not extended, ISO of 819,200. That’s not a typo. (You can read my review of this camera here.)

At the same time, newer cameras are getting better and better at coping with digital noise with most not only having cleaner high ISO results but in-camera noise reduction that works well depending on the cause of the noise and the camera used.

Like film grain, digital noise has many causes. Here are a few of the most common ones:

 

Accumulative noise increases during long exposures and high ISO settings, in other words your typical night time photography scenario. The noise varies with color and brightness and is different for every digital camera and is more obvious in underexposed areas where it’s spread across the frequency spectrum.

Amplified noise is caused by high ISO speeds and is the digital equivalent of “pushing” film to achieve greater sensitivity.

Dark noise is produced by heat from the camera’s sensor. There’s not much heat when you make a single image but when  shooting rapidly in continuous mode there isn’t enough time between captures to dissipate the heat generated. So the heat is collected along with the data from light passing through the lens and added to the image.

Random noise is created by fluctuations within the camera’s circuitry or even from electromagnetic waves (sunspots?) outside the camera. Signal noise is caused by fluctuations in the distribution of how light strikes an image sensor. There also other sources of external noise, including “pixel death” that is pronounced at high altitudes.

Here’s a few tips you can take to reduce noise before making a digital photograph:

  • Avoid placing external battery packs close to the camera. Some packs contain transformers that raise voltage levels to produce faster flash recycling but they also emit electromagnetic interference, which can result in banding.
  • Avoid taking pictures close to strong sources of electromagnetic energy. I’ve been told that it’s common to see banding in images shot from the observation deck at the Empire State Building in NYC due to the presence of the antennas at the top of the building.

 

 

Along with photographer Barry Staver, Joe is co-author of Better Available Light Digital Photography that’s out-of-print but new copies are available for $21.88 or used copies for giveaway prices—less than four bucks—from Amazon, as I write this.