Grainy photographs can be frustrating to work with. Photo retouching might be necessary, especially if the content doesn’t distract the viewer from the lack of quality. There are a few instances where grain might work, such as a vintage scene. Otherwise, poor quality shows poor execution.
And increasing the size of these images through printing will increase the grain, making it more obvious.
There are also stock photography websites that will refuse your images if they are too grainy. This article will run through what grain is, where it comes from and how to not only prevent it but fix it in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.
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What Is Grain or ‘Digital Noise’?
Back in the times of analogue photography, silver was used in an emulsion to coat the plastic film to make it light sensitive. The pieces of silver would capture the light in the scene. ISO 100 had the smallest pieces of silver, and the higher ranges, such as 3200, had much bigger pieces. This is all about photographing in areas with low levels of light.
Nowadays, most photography is through digital camera systems. The same system applies, as the visual scenes we photograph become disrupted. This is down to the sensor working very hard to capture detail from overly dark areas. We can only see these areas by using a high ISO, which gives us an image, but one fraught with tiny colourful specks.
There are many reasons why this noise finds its way into your images. Sensor size, higher ISO settings, and long exposures are just a few. Some people may refer to this as grain or ‘digital noise’. Others may call the images pixelated.
Either way, you’ll want to fix your grainy backgrounds and foregrounds.
How Important Is ISO?
The grain comes from photographing an overly dark scene. The ISO setting on your camera is the most important tool that affects the quality of your image. A lower ISO setting such as 100 or 200 will keep the grain to a minimum, whereas ISO 3200 or above will create a large amount of grain.
Users with cameras such as the Sony A7II or Canon 5D Mark IV will laugh at these numbers. Their ISO range can reach up to ISO 25,000. The idea is still the same. The range of the highest usable ISOs will continue to increase, the uppermost will contain the most grain.
The image that we will be fixing below was taken at ISO 3200, which is one of the highest ISOs my Canon 7D can reach.
Prevention Is Much Easier Than Correction
We always recommend keeping your ISO as close to 100 as you can. Of course, there will be times where you find yourself photographing inside, where ISO 200 just won’t cut it. Look at changing your aperture first, and then your shutter speed (maximum 1/60 without a tripod/wall) to keep your ISO low.
If you find yourself in a low light situation, there are things you can use to boost the light. Look for areas with a higher amount of light to photograph. Also, forcing your camera to meter on the lighter areas of the image will mean the camera doesn’t overextend itself in capturing the darker areas.
With event photography, a strobe or flash unit is best, such as the Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT. This will add varying amounts of light for you, depending on the scene.
In other cases, such as portrait and studio photography, a reflector can help to keep the darker areas to a minimum. We recommend the Neewer 43-inch 5-in-1 Multi-Disc Reflector to bounce the light back into the scene.
Some situations won’t allow you to use a flash, such as concert photography. Use the available lights as much as possible, and utilise the surrounding area. A tripod, or standing against a wall will help you to lower the shutter speed, allowing your ISO to stay low.
One trick that will get you out of a sticky situation is to slightly overexpose your image. One stop should be enough. This will minimise the grain during the post-processing stage. When you come to lower the exposure, it will lower the digital noise also.
Remember, when you edit an image in Lightroom or Photoshop, the digital noise will increase. There are ways around this, as you shall see in the next part of the article.
How to Fix Your Grainy Images
Adobe Photoshop is the workhorse for all photographic post-processing. This program has a specific filter for eliminating noise.
This is the image we will be using. As you can see, the grain is very distracting and brings down the quality of the image.
First, open the image in Photoshop. Go to Filter>Noise>Reduce Noise.
In the Reduce Noise pop-up window, you will see Strength, Preserve Details, Reduce Color Noise and Sharpen Details.
Adjust the three sliders – Strength, Reduce Color Noise, and Sharpen Details until you get reduced grain and obtain the required quality.
As you can see, I raised the Strength from 6 to 10, reduced the Color Noise to 100% and pulled the Sharpen Details to 0%.
Here is the image after the noise redution. You will need to press the Remove JPEG Artifact to see the preview.
Here is the before and after image from reducing the noise in Photoshop.
Lightroom is a great tool for fixing grainy photos. It has a dedicated adjustment panel for increasing and decreasing the detail in the image.
This is a zoomed in part of the image we will be using. As you can see, the grain is very distracting and brings down the quality of the image.
First, open the image in Lightroom. Head over to the Develop module.
On the right-hand area of Lightroom, go down to the Detail panel. The Noise Reduction area is what we are going to focus on using.
Move the Luminance slider to the right, using the preview box above to see how it affects your image.
I went to 100% to show you how Luminance changes your image, reducing the grain on the pixelated image. I lowered the Detail from 50 to 42, to give the image a smoother look, and the Contrast went up to 27.
Each image is different, so you will find that playing around with varying degrees of these sliders will give you the best reduction in noise.
Here is the final image after removing most of the grain.
Here, you can see the before and after of the digital noise reduction. The image still isn’t grain free, but it is definitely less prominent. This is fine for me and my image, as it isn’t a close-up.
Also, with some concert photography images, grain will be impossible to eliminate altogether. The digital noise may even help to give the image an atmosphere.
There you have it! Two different ways on photo retouching to fix grainy photos, the reason behind the digital noise and ways to prevent grainy pictures from occurring.