How I Work

Making Noise About Noise

In the days of film you had grain, with digital you have noise, but it’s basically the same thing. To oversimplify, as the light gets dimmer your photographer has to crank up the camera’s sensitivity and what you get is more image degrading digital noise. Little specks all over the photo.

Shot in a dim reception hall, this photo shows an example of unavoidable noise.

Professional level cameras and lenses do a better job of lessening the effect, but ultimately some amount of noise is going to be a fact of life. It’s especially notable when the lights go down (think reception, dark churches, and outdoor shots by moonlight).

There is a lot of noise made about noise and its negative impact on photos and I admit I’m obsessive about avoiding it as well. But, let’s take a step back and see if we can make a case for the advantages of having a bit of grain or noise in photos.

(For the rest of the post I’ll pretty much use “grain” and “noise” interchangeably.)

  • Grain adds character – There is a certain plastic quality to an image that is completely devoid of noise or grain. Grain adds texture and a visual tacticity and can enhance a mood or create an artistic quality. Often a photo that exudes a dreamy romance would be partially stripped of its emotion if it were clean and smooth.
  • Grain creates a sense of realism – Sometimes noise-free images look setup or staged. In commercial photography every photo is carefully staged and lit to look natural, but we all know it’s about as true to life as an ’80s Schwarzenegger movie. They’re a little too perfect, a little too clean. Whereas photos of real moments are generally taken under less than ideal conditions or lighting. These photos may have some noise, but they have a sense of realism as well.
  • Grain can be beautiful in black and white – Noise in color images isn’t always beautiful, but in black and white it can be art! Again, it enhances a mood and texture, but without the distraction of color it takes on a unique quality that is typically quite pleasing.
  • Removing grain destroys detail – Today’s software allows the photographer to smooth out a lot of the grain, but it also smooths out a lot of fine detail and leaves images looking a bit like a watercolor painting. In some cases, leaving the grain in place makes for a better image overall.
  • Grain is better than blur. Sometimes, when it gets particularly dark in a church or reception hall, your photographer is presented with a choice: slower shutter speeds to let in more light or crank up the sensitivity. As shutter speed drops, the chance of motion blur increases greatly. Increasing the sensitivity may increase the noise, but I’d rather have a noisy photo of a sharp subject than a useless, blurry photo with no noise any day.
  • Grain is unavoidable, learn to love it – It’s the old “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” argument. Seriously, though, there is a certain aesthetic to image grain that, once appreciated, can make for a really beautiful image full of texture and life.
Grain in black and white photos add texture and charm.

So, yes, I try to avoid grain and noise in my photos by using good cameras, good lenses and good technique. Yet, in very dark conditions there is a limit to what technology and optical physics can do so there are times it’s simply unavoidable. Like everything in life, it’s all about finding the right balance.

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