Last Updated on September 22, 2021 by Nancie
If you have ever taken photos of birds (or anything else) in a dark setting and gotten a noisy picture, check out On1’s new NoNoise AI software. I downloaded a free trial and found it so easy to use and the results so impressive that I purchased it almost immediately.
Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
What is Noise in a Digital Picture?
If you are not super familiar with photography terms, you may wonder what “noise” means. It’s a funny term because we tend to think of noise in terms of sound, but this noise is random weirdness in the tiny pixels that make up a digital picture. Instead of the true appearance, you see odds and ends of colors and shades that shouldn’t be there. It can make a picture look muddy, unnaturally grainy and very unclear. (See left side of photo above. Zoom in a bit to see it well, especially if you are reading this on a really small screen.)
Noise tends to show up more often in photos taken in darker, low-light settings. You might notice that a picture you take of a bird sitting on a sunny branch is clearer and sharper than a picture of the same bird taken in the shade. If you take photos in shady areas or go birding very early or near dusk when light is low, you might struggle to get a good picture.
Setting Up a Camera to Maximize Light
Let in More Light
So what is the answer? First, before you look at editing out the noise, try to minimize it when you take your pictures. Good light seems to be the best defense against digital noise. A camera and lens that maximizes light can make a huge difference. If you can afford a full-frame (large sensor) camera and/or a low aperture lens, you have a huge head start. But these high-end professional cameras are pricey and typically, you need to work with what you have.
Get the exposure right in the camera when taking the picture and you’ll have less noise to deal with later. Regardless of your camera, choosing the right camera settings can really help. ISO, aperture and shutter speed all work together to create exposure for your picture. (See my post on Creating Bird Photography Camera Settings for more on this topic.)
Camera Settings to Try
Basically, when trying to maximize light in a shady situation, you want to find a balance between ISO, aperture and speed. Although cameras have gotten much better over the years, in general, high ISOs tend to be more noisy. So the lower the ISO you can get away with and still get a good exposure, the less chance of noise.
Opening the lens as wide as you can with a low aperture number setting helps a lot to allow more light into the lens. It’s usually the very first thing I do when I’m trying to photograph something in low light.
We might like to crank up the shutter speed high to get sharp photos of quick-moving birds. But the downside is that this closes the lens quicker and so less light gets in. So a faster speed tends to require a higher ISO to get good exposure. And that brings in noise.
So when dealing with low light, I open up my lens aperture as wide as I can. Then I try different shutter speeds to find one fast enough to get the results I want without the ISO going too high.
Practice Taking Photos in Low Light
Work with your camera and lens and PRACTICE taking photos of birds in shady conditions A LOT. Try your camera’s various setting options. Ideally, learn to use your camera’s manual mode so you can take control to get the balance of ISO, aperture and speed right for your subject.
Using NoNoise AI to Improve Bird Photos
I am an amateur photographer. While I have a good camera and lens, it is not high-end professional gear. While I’m getting better at choosing settings for my camera and lens, the reality is that some of my bird photos taken in the shade are full of noise. It can be really frustrating to take photos of an exciting new bird on a birding trip, only to return home with noisy dark photos that are only usable to confirm that yes, you did see that bird.
Enter On1’s NoNoise AI. This software just came out this summer. It is meant to rival Topaz Denoise AI, which is apparently the current reining king of noise reduction software. I’ve been using On1’s Photo Raw software for several years now as an alternative to Adobe’s PhotoShop and Lightroom software. As an On1 user, they sent me some emails touting their new NoNoise software.
Their Photo Raw software already includes noise reduction sliders. So my first thought was along the lines of “why should I pay extra for this software? Is it that much better?” Well, I got a trial version and tried it out on some noisy photos of birds in the shade and – wow. It’s worth it. NoNoise is going to be incorporated into Photo Raw’s next version (2022) in September 2021, but I craved the software so much that I paid extra so I can use it on my bird pictures NOW.
NoNoise AI is For RAW File Formats
First, you should know that NoNoise is designed to be used for RAW format photo files. So it’s not going to work as well on your cell phone and point-and-shoot JPG photos. The reason apparently is that NoNoise takes the original data in a RAW file and reinterprets it – basically reprocesses it in a different way that reduces the noise. A JPG file has already been processed (in the camera or in your photo editing software or both.) It no longer has all of the original data that a RAW file includes. You can use NoNoise on a non-RAW file and it may improve it some, but RAW files is where it shines.
How Does NoNoise AI Work With Your Photo Editing Software?
Stand-Alone Software or Plugin
NoNoise AI is currently stand-alone software that will also work as a plugin to several photo editing programs: Adobe’s PhotoShop, Lightroom and PhotoShop Elements, Affinity Photo, Capture One, Apple Photos, Corel Paintshop Pro and On1’s Photo Raw. Apparently in the fall, it will also be incorporated inside the next version of On1 Photo Raw itself.
Set NoNoise AI up as a plugin to let you open NoNoise from inside your photo editing software and run it against a particular photo. Or open NoNoise separately and then use it to open files you want to run NoNoise against.
Running NoNoise on a Noisy File
When you open a file in NoNoise, it immediately processes the file, something that takes a few moments. (Speed probably depends on your computer.) Then you see the photo as a sliding split-screen. The left side of the screen shows the original and the right shows the automatically generated less-noisy, sharpened result. Slide the split line right or left to see more of the difference. Or set it up to instead toggle the before and after on and off.
As you can see in previous pictures, there are noise and sharpening sliders on the right side of the screen to finesse it a bit more if you like. And there are some other minor editing controls over on the left. It even includes the ability to use masking and apply noise reduction differently to different layers. But honestly, the automatic AI results I’ve had so far have been impressive. I tend to go with what they accomplish.
My personal work flow is to identify the photo I want to work with in my photo editing software. Then I open the file’s original version in NoNoise. (As I explained, it works better if you do the noise reduction on the original RAW file first rather than exporting an already edited file over as another file type.) I’ve found that the auto-generated noise reduction is usually great. So I often simply save the result into the original folder as a DNG file. Then I do the rest of my photo editing on that file in Photo Raw. The NoNoise step only adds a couple minutes to my work flow and the results on these particular files make it well worth it.
For more detail on how NoNoise AI works, computer requirements and how it works with the photo editing software you use, check out On1’s website.
Less Noisy Photo Results
NoNoise AI is like noise reduction for dummies. You don’t really have to know what you are doing to use it. So an amateur like me can often simply run NoNoise on a RAW photo and have greatly improved results.
Obviously there are limits to its magic. Some photos are so dark and noisy that it’s too much to ask NoNoise to turn it into something you’d get if the light and exposure was better when you took the photo. But I’ve found that even those photos are much better. And something that is just a little or maybe moderately noisy can turn from being unusable to usable.
An Example of NoNoise in Action
The previous split-screen photos in this post give you an idea of the difference NoNoise can make on a photo. Here is a little bit more subtle example.
I took this photo of a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird visiting a feeder while sitting on a bench a few feet away in my back yard. Both bench and feeder are in the shade. I opened up the camera lens as much as I could and played with my camera settings to try and slow the bird’s motion while not making the photo too dark. But I was still taking a picture in the shade instead of the sun. So the ISO was higher than ideal and I got some noise.
This is the way the unedited photo originally looked. (Note: I’ve saved these photos to JPG because RAW files are too big to post on a blog. They are still representative of the way the file looks.)
This is the result I got first when I developed the picture inside On1 Photo Raw. The noise reduction inside the program helped, as did playing with the white balance, but I felt it was still too noisy to use as a photo for Mosaic Hummbler Bold feeder post.
This is the result I got when I first ran the original RAW file through NoNoise and then developed the picture inside Photo Raw with the same settings as the previous photo. If you “pixel peep” and zoom way in to 100%, you’ll still see a bit of noise. But notice that this version looks not only less noisy, but also clearer and sharper. The results turned this photo into something I could use for my blog post.
(Note: Depending on the picture, noise may be more noticeable in print and on larger screens than on smaller screens. Zoom 100% into the various pictures in this post to get a better idea of their noise levels.)
On1 offers free trials of their software, including Photo Raw and NoNoise AI. So you can download a trial to see how it works for you on your own photos. If you are taking RAW file format bird photos in shady locations, I’d really recommend checking out the trial and see what you think. You might also check out other noise reduction software while you are at it. See if they have free trials as well so you can pick your favorite.
If you try NoNoise, or if you have already used it or other noise reduction software, please feel welcome to share your thoughts in the Comments below.
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