How to reduce noise in Photoshop CC – it’s one of the most common questions my students ask. And there are lots of ways to do it.
But the trick I’m about to show you is hands down the BEST way. What makes it so good? It combines the noise removal power of Lightroom with Photoshop’s selective editing flexibility.
How to Reduce Noise in Photoshop CC: The Background
I edit all of my photos in Lightroom. 100% of them. (You can read more about why all of my photos start in Lightroom here if you’re interested.) I only take the most special or the neediest photos into Photoshop for further editing.
When it comes to noisy photos (photos taken with a high ISO), Lightroom’s combination of noise-reducing power and ease-of-use makes it my first choice for removing noise.
Why is this level of control so important when removing noise? The thing about removing noise in your photos is that you can’t just turn it off or hide it. You have to blur it in order to reduce the appearance of noise. And blurring the noise blurs the rest of your photo as well – that’s not good when you are trying to remove noise but retain sharp eyes, sharp mountains, or sharp anything else in your photo.
So Lightroom’s got the power to reduce noise and reduce it with minimal negative impact to your photo. It works best if you want to remove noise globally – from the entire photo.
This screenshot shows you Lightroom’s global settings. You can remove luminance and color noise separately. You can also adjust the detail that remains in your photo. (We’ll talk more about those settings shortly.)
However, there’s a big difference in Lightroom between removing noise globally (removing it from your entire photo) and removing it from certain areas only. Look at the local adjustment brush noise settings:
It’s just a simple slider. If you want to remove noise from a selected part of your image in Lightroom, you lose the ability to differentiate between the type of noise, the detail, and the other settings.
So that’s the problem. If you have a very noisy photo, you want to focus your noise removal work on the places where the noise is most apparent to avoid blurring the entire photo. And you want to minimize the noise removal work that you do – don’t blur for luminance noise if color noise is all you have, for instance.
In this photo, you can see my settings for removing all the noise globally next to a zoom in. See how I’ve lost detail in her hair and her eyes are soft?
Are you ready for my super cool trick to solve this problem?
How to Reduce Noise in Photoshop CC: The Best Way
When you have a severely noisy photo – and that photo is worth your editing time – I still recommend that you start in Lightroom. Your first step is to adjust exposure, color, and perform any other basic edits.
I took this unedited photo early one morning when my family and I had gone to a west Texas cabin for the weekend. My daughter and I woke up before everyone else and were trying to be quiet as we watched the snow flurries come down. I shot it at ISO 10,000.
The noise might not look terrible in that version, but wait till you see the zoom-in below. The only thing I wanted to change about the photo was the noise – I like the on-camera exposure and the mood the soft contrast creates.
The next step in noise removal is to is to identify where the noise is in your photo, what type of noise it is, and the best way to minimize it. You can follow my process below.
You’ll begin by removing some amount of noise from the entire photo. As you adjust, don’t try to remove all the noise – concentrate on the background and less important parts of your photo and adjust until you get to a point where the noise is less noticeable but the photo isn’t too soft.
Below, I’ll talk about each type of noise and how to remove it. Keep in mind that one photo can have one or both types. Sometimes the best way to determine which type it has is to play with these sliders – if increasing the Luminance slider doesn’t help, then your photo must have color noise.
Luminance noise looks like flecks of white, silver, gray, or black in your image. You can see it in my zoom in:
To fix it, move the Luminance slider to the right until you see an improvement. Next, adjust the Detail slider until you find a balance between reduced noise and the softening that blurs important details like hair and eyes. Moving this slider controls how much detail is protected from softening. Move it to the right to protect detail (and lose noise removal). Move it to the left to remove more noise (but lose detail).
You might need to adjust the top slider again after you find the right Detail amount.
Lower values for the Contrast slider smooth the photo. Higher values increase contrast but can create blotchiness. I don’t use this one much, to tell you the truth.
Color noise is made of flecks of red, green, and blue.
Lightroom automatically adds a small amount of Color Noise removal to each Raw photo – you might notice this default setting once you starting looking in detail at the noise removal panel. Most photos have a bit of color noise from digital processing – I don’t suggest reducing it below the default of 25.
The Color slider works just like the Luminance slider – move it to the right to remove noise. The Detail slider works the same way as the Detail slider in the Luminance section.
The Color Smoothness slider smooths or blurs ragged color transitions that noise creates. Move it to the right to increase the effect. This isn’t one that I find necessary to use very often either.
Now that you’ve completed your global noise reduction using the Luminance and/or Color sections, make any other necessary Lightroom adjustments.
How I Edited My Photo
This photo had Luminance noise only, so I left the Color section at the Lightroom default. I was most concerned with the noise appearing around her eye, where her skin was brighter. The noise towards her ear didn’t bother me – it recedes into the shadows.
My global setting reduced the noise to some extent, but note that it’s still visible around her eye. To fix this, I could use the Lightroom local adjustment brush that will attempt to remove both color and luminance noise from this area. Or, I could go to Photoshop for more precise editing. Let’s do that! (To open a photo into Photoshop from Lightroom, right click on it, select Edit In, and then select Photoshop CC.) Here’s where the fun starts.
How to Reduce Noise in Photoshop CC: The Process
First, duplicate your background layer by right-clicking on it and selecting Duplicate Layer.
Then, convert this new layer for smart filters. Go to your Filter menu and select Convert for Smart Filters. Converting this layer for smart filters gives you the option to go back and change the amount of noise removal you apply if you later decide it needs to be increased or decreased.
Next, go to Filter>Camera Raw Filter. This opens your photo in Adobe Camera Raw.
ACR might look very much like Lightroom to you – it’s the built-in Raw photo editor for Photoshop users who don’t use Lightroom. Choose the Detail tab, which is the third one from the left.
And now you should see the same Noise Reduction sliders we looked at in Lightroom. Focus on the most important area of your photo – the area you want to remove as much noise as possible from. Zoom in and adjust the sliders until you’ve found the perfect amount of noise removal, just for this area. You can see my settings here:
That zooming in is important, by the way. You’ll be able to keep an eye on important details, so don’t skip that step.)
When you’re finished, click the OK button at the bottom right corner of the ACR window to go back into Photoshop.
This additional dose of noise removal made my photo too soft. But since we’re in Photoshop, I can use a layer mask to constrain the edit to the area around her eyes only. This photo shows you where I painted – note that I avoided her eyes, eyebrows, eyelashes, and the hair on her face – these areas were showing softness the most. (Everything with the red overlay has NO extra noise removal showing through.)
The end result is that I have a double dose of noise removal. The first covered the entire image and removed it moderately. The second focused on the most important part of the photo – my focal point. By creating two steps, I was able to avoid excess softening in the background of the photo – that would have been a giveaway that I had applied too much noise reduction. I was also able to avoid blurring her eyes and other important details.
Don’t Use Lightroom?
Open your photo directly into an ACR filter to make your global adjustments. Then duplicate that layer and open the new layer into an ACR filter to selectively remove noise.
Power User Tip
You can use an ACR filter on a smart layer to apply any Lightroom edit you’d like in Photoshop. If you need super detailed editing, this trick might be the one you need!
How to Reduce Noise in Photoshop Elements
PSE users, Elements doesn’t have the Camera Raw filter that Photoshop CC offers. However, it does have a Noise filter that gives you a bit more control than the Lightroom local adjustment brush. After you open your photo into Elements, duplicate the background layer. Then go to the Filter menu and select Noise>Reduce Noise. This window will open.
Its sliders are similar to the Lightroom sliders, except that you don’t have quite as much control.
The Strength slider controls Luminance noise. Details works just like it does in Lightroom, and Reduce Color Noise does exactly what it says.
That “Remove JPG Artifact” box? If you save JPGs over and over and they get smaller and smaller, you’ll get a very low-quality photo that has JPG artifacts – they look like big color noise. If you are desperate enough to try to remove them, sure, give this box a try. But it’s much better to avoid saving your photos repeatedly as JPGs in the first place.
Keep It Real
This tutorial goes beyond what I do for most of my photos when I edit. I only use this technique for the really special ones, or for client photos. If I’m just throwing a photo onto Facebook to share with family and friends, I’d just use Lightroom’s global noise reduction to remove some, but not all, of the noise and then call it quits.