The Best Method to Reduce Noise in High ISO Photos

By Douglas Gritz

Denver Photographer

denver branding event photography wine bottle and model

I recently completed an event photography shoot for a liquor brand that led me to having a pile of very noisy photographs. Why? Well, the brand like photos for their social media marketing that shows their liquor being used at bars and of people hanging out while enjoying their product. Since most people do this sort of thing at night when it is dark and at venues where the lights are dim that’s when I had to shoot the photos.

One of my favorite photos from the shoot is below. It was shot at 6400 ISO. Below is the RAW photo as shot.

Photography with a lot of ISO noise

The photo is a bit underexposed, but that was on purpose. The higher your ISO, the more detail you lose, so I wanted to shoot at the lowest possible ISO while still getting an exposure, knowing later I could boost the exposure with Adobe Lightroom. Of course, this would introduce more noise.

Here is the photo after correcting the exposure in Lightroom. Lots and lots of noise.

high ISO noise image

High ISO Noise photo

But worried I was not! That’s because there are many, many tools available to photographers now that can help beat back that high ISO noise.

My favorite process, and the one that produces the best results in my experience, is using combination of two of those tools.


Step 1:  DXO Photolab

Of all the stand-alone programs and plugins available for reducing noise, this one has struck me as the most impressive. It nicely ties in with Adobe Lightroom and it works directly with the RAW file, as opposed to some other software that work with the image only after a conversion to a .psd or .tiff file.

So from File->Plug-in Extras you find the transfer to DXO Photolab feature. Before you do this make sure your “Detail” tab in Lightroom is disabled. This is where Lightroom’s own built-in noise reducing settings reside. They are turned on automatically. Once your image is in DXO Photolab, you’ll find the “Noise Reduction” panel on the right.

dxo photo lab noise reduction panel

There are two options here. “HQ” for quick work and “Prime” for an even better result. For me, this is what really separates DXO Photolab from the competition. Other noise-reduction software I have tried will show you an accurate preview of the results. When using Prime in DXO Photolab that is not possible. That’s because the algorithm it uses is so robust that it can not show the preview before rendering. For that to happen, you need to hit “Export to disk,” and that is when the program works its magic. It can take 30sec to a couple minutes depending on your processing power for the export (and the magic) to complete. Here is the result after the export. Pretty fantastic, huh? Best of all, you can try it out for 30 days free using their demo.

Noise reduced in photograph before using neat image

Noise reduced in photograph after using DXO photolab

STEP 2: Neat Image

You wouldn’t get an argument from me if you left your photo at that and called it a day. However, when you zoom in on this image there is still a fair bit of noise, so I include one more noise reducing step.

I export to Photoshop and in there I use a plugin from Neat Video called “Neat Image.” I first came across Neat Video when I was looking for a plugin to reduce noise in a documentary film I shot a few years ago in which I was working with a RED camera that was not a great performer in low-light situations. I was absolutely blown away but the results. And it turned out they made a plugin for photography, too.

The downside of the plugin is it only works after exporting your photo to a .psd or .tiff file, which is why I use it only after I’ve gotten everything I can get out of the RAW photo file. Once you install the plugin, it is available in Photoshop under the Filter drop-down in your menu bar. I find just using Auto Profile and Auto Fine-Tune works well.

Here is the result after applying the Neat Image noise reduction. As you can see, the noise is pretty much completely gone!

Now, I must warn you skin tones can look at bit plasticy at this stage. If you are finding that is happening with your image, I suggest first duplicating your photo layer so you can use Neat Image on that and then lower the opacity to taste to get the happy medium you want. That’s the quick and easy method, The more time-consuming one is going into the individual parameters inside the Neat Image panel and playing around with them until you get results that are satisfactory.

Noise reduced in photograph after using neat image

Photography with a lot of ISO noise

Here are more photos from the event that show the benefits of this method.

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