Reduce Noise on Grainy Photos

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I've removed the noise from many old family photos, and I've noticed that each photo is different, even ones taken at the same event. I especially don't like seeing lots of noise in the sky or on interior walls or on people's faces. Cleaning these photos up has resulted in much better pictures. I don't clean up noise at the expense of detail, though, and I do a lot of trial and error with noise filters before I'm happy with the settings.

Before using a noise filter, it is important to increase the contrast if it is weak. If the contrast is too weak, low contrast details may be smeared. Adjusting the contrast is usually done in the "Correct Color" step in this guide.

Extremely coarse or blocky noise can be difficult to remove with a noise filter. If coarse noise still exists after using a noise filter, Adobe® Photoshop® Surface Blur filter can be used to smooth coarse noise.

When using a noise filter, please be careful of areas with a lot of fine detail and texture. This includes eyes, eyeballs, nose, lips, hair, beard, grass, tree leaves, wood grain, natural textures, frizzy sweaters, fluffy pillows, fuzzy fabrics, and other fine details.

Checking the image can be done within the filter or using Undo & Redo after applying the filter. Once you find settings that preserve as much detail as possible while removing most of the noise, you're done. Pretty simple, in theory.

Reduce Noise Filter

Once you open Photoshop® Reduce Noise, you'll see a large preview area on the left and three large sliders on the right. Set these all to zero before beginning.

To see changes to your image as you adjust various settings in the Reduce Noise window, check the Preview checkbox. As you make changes to various settings, you can compare the original image to the resulting image by unchecking and checking this Preview checkbox. Another way to compare the original to the result is by holding down the mouse button inside the preview area within the Reduce Noise window.

There are two types of noise, luminance noise and color noise. Luminance noise affects almost all photos. Color noise is far less common, but can often found in very noisy images and scans of textured prints. Some scans of textured prints have so much color noise they appear covered in discoloration.

Reduce Color Noise can remove most of the color noise in an image. Raising Reduce Color Noise too high can cause unwanted color changes, though. Unwanted changes often occur to small objects such as eyes, LEDs, rings, buttons, art, and text.

If your image has color noise, set Reduce Color Noise to 100%. This value makes it very easy to spot unwanted color changes in the image. If you find none, you're done. Otherwise, make a mental note of the places unwanted changes occur. When you make any further adjustments to Reduce Color Noise, check for unwanted changes in the same places as before.

Now try 50% for Reduce Color Noise. Check the image for remaining color noise and unwanted color changes. Raise Reduce Color Noise if more color noise needs to be removed, or lower it if unwanted changes occur. Adjust until you find a value high enough to remove discoloration but not so high that eyeballs turn red and rings turn gray.

Strength affects luminance noise. Raise Strength 1 or 2 units at a time. Check the image for changes in the noise and detail. Lower Strength if you find a value that removes too much detail, or no longer removes more noise than the previous value. Adjust until you find a good balance of removing most of the noise while retaining most of the detail.

Preserve Details is used to bring details back into the image. Raising Preserve Details too high can bring back more noise than detail, though. The ideal value will be different for every photo. Raise Preserve Details 5% at a time. Check the image for changes in the detail and noise. Adjust until Preserve Details is high enough so that edges of eyes, facial features, and other important details return but not so high that ugly noise returns.

Here are some sample settings. You can start with these settings and make adjustments as needed.
Problem Setting
film grain, very light noise Strength = 4 to 6
moderate noise Strength = 6 to 8
heavy noise Strength = 8 to 10
no details (sky) Preserve Details = 0%
light details or slightly blurry Preserve Details = 10%
fine contrasty details Preserve Details = 20%
no discoloration (common w/smooth prints) Reduce Color Noise = 0%
strong discoloration (common w/textured prints) Reduce Color Noise = 100%

Reduce Noise Example #1

This is a close-up of a polaroid of a woman sitting in the shade. While there is a lot of noise, it is fine rather than coarse. The photo is also covered in white dots and tiny scratches. The image on the right is the result after using Reduce Noise with the following settings.

Strength: I started with 4 due to the fine noise. After trying 4 and 6 and 8, I found 6 was all that was needed to remove the fine noise or grain. Using 8 started removing detail and did not help remove the specks.

Preserve Detail: I started with 10% due to the blurriness of the image. I also tried 20% but found it caused some noise to return. 10% turned out well because there is no fine detail at all in this photo.

Reduce Color Noise: 0% worked as there was no discoloration. Most non-textured prints have no discoloration, although there are exceptions.

Result: All of the noise has been removed except for the white dots. The Dust & Scratches filter would have to be used to get rid of the dots.
before PS Reduce Noise
The noise was fine but it was cleaned anyway!

Reduce Noise Example #2

Here's a close-up of a man wearing a cap in front of a pickup. The entire photo contains a lot of noise including this close-up. The image on the right is the result after using Reduce Noise with the following settings.

Strength: After trying 6 and 8, I found 10 was needed due to the heavy noise. Using 8 left some noise.

Preserve Detail: After trying 10%, I found 20% was needed due to lettering in the cap and details in the teeth. Using 10% caused blurry teeth.

Reduce Color Noise: 0% was fine as there was no discoloration. Non-textured prints like this polaroid usually do not have discoloration.

Result: The noise was vastly reduced while leaving the detail. This has resulted in a far more pleasant appearance.
before PS Reduce Noise
This is a good case for noise reduction!

Topaz DeNoise Filter

PRESETS
RAW - lightest
RAW - light
RAW - moderate
RAW - strong
RAW - stronger
RAW - strongest
SLIDERS
Overall Strength
Adjust Shadow
Adjust Highlight
Adjust Color - Red
Adjust Color - Blue
For such a powerful and sophisticated noise filter, Topaz DeNoise is fairly easy to use. Once you open DeNoise, you'll see a giant preview area in the middle, presets on the left, and sliders on the right.

As you make changes to various settings, you can compare the original image to the resulting image by clicking the Original/Processed button at the top of the Topaz DeNoise window. Another way to compare the original to the result is by holding down the mouse button inside the preview area within the DeNoise window.

After opening DeNoise, select "DeNoise 5 Presets" directly to the right of the word PRESETS on the left side of the Topaz DeNoise window. This will display a list of JPEG presets and RAW presets directly under PRESETS.

To use a preset, simply click one of the RAW presets that matches the amount of noise in your image, such as RAW-Strong for heavy noise. Then use the window within DeNoise to check the result. If not enough noise has been removed, try a stronger preset. If too much detail has been removed, try a lighter preset. In most cases, you'll find a preset that works very well.

If you find a preset that isn't strong enough to remove all the noise but the next stronger preset is too strong, you can select the lighter preset and raise the Overall Strength slider as needed. For example, if RAW-Strong is too weak and RAW-Stronger is too strong, you can select RAW-Strong and raise Overall Strength a small amount. Raise it very gradually until most of the noise disappears while making sure that detail isn't smeared.

Once you have found a preset, and have adjusted Overall Strength if needed, you can fine-tune the result by using the sliders to the right. For example, if the image looks clean except for a noisy red shirt, you can increase the "Adjust Color - Red" slider to clean up the shirt.

Here are some sample settings. You can start with these settings and make adjustments as needed. There are many other sliders that can be used for more advanced problems.
Problem DeNoise Preset or Slider
fine grain RAW - Light
heavy grain, light noise RAW - Moderate
moderate noise RAW - Strong
heavy noise RAW - Stronger
very heavy noise RAW - Strongest
tree leaves or dark objects smeared turn Adjust Shadow down (to -1 if needed)
blue clothes smeared turn Adjust Color - Blue down (to -1 if needed)
red object still noisy turn Adjust Color - Red up (to 1 if needed)

DeNoise Example #1

Here's an extreme close-up of a motorcycle reflector. Although this is from a 35mm print, there is quite a bit of noise in the entire photo. The image on the right is the result after using DeNoise with the following settings.

Preset: RAW-Stronger was needed to remove the moderately heavy noise. RAW-Strong left some noise and RAW-Strongest caused blurring.

Highlights: Although RAW-Stronger is a high setting, the wall was still very noisy. I raised highlights from its default setting of -0.68. I set it to 0 which left the wall clean without negatively affecting other areas of the photo.

Result: The noise has vanished, even in the dark areas. The noise and pixelation along the edges of the chrome and reflector have disappeared, leaving the edges very smooth.
before Topaz DeNoise
Smooth operator.

DeNoise Example #2

Here's an extreme close-up of a tiny Christmas tree next to a porcelain figure. This photo appears to be covered in hazy whitish blotches and tiny scratches or lines. An extremely close look at the blotches reveals a strange surface that looks like tiny bubbles have escaped a thick liquid that has since hardened.

The blotches are mostly noticeable on dark objects such as this tree. The blotches make the tree look like it has light-colored leaves in random spots, giving the tree a large amount of false detail. You can see that the blotches cover most of the close-up on the left. The image on the right is the result after using DeNoise with the following settings.

Preset: After trying the RAW-Moderate and RAW-Strong, I found RAW-Moderate to be the best preset for this photo. RAW-Strong caused just a bit of blur in the tree. RAW-Moderate removed most of the bubbly noise in the photo by smoothing out the blotches. The white haziness and scratches remain, unfortunately.

Highlights: I found the off-white wall to still be quite noisy, so I raised highlights from its default setting of -0.74. I started by setting it to 0 and noticed the wall became very clean. I then tried .2 and .3 and .4. I found the wall became extremely clean at .3 and did not get better at .4, so I set it to .3

Result: The photo came out clean including the wall and the tree, leaving behind a slightly lighter color where the blotches were. Scratches in the photo became fainter.
before Topaz DeNoise
The bubbly moss tree from outer space was defeated.