Noise processing in Lightroom 2 and 3-Beta-2

A new public beta of Lightroom 3 came out yesterday. Lightroom is Adobe’s RAW processing application for photographers1, and they’re making some big claims for version 3. In particular, they’ve reworked their noise-reduction features from the ground up.

Noise is a problem in shots taken with very high sensitivity, and there are two types: colour and luminance. The second diagram on Cambridge in Colour’s page neatly shows the difference – colour noise is random areas of the wrong colour; luminance noise is grain-like dotty structures. Anything to reduce this is a good thing, but in my experience there’s only so much you can do. LR2 was a pretty good noise remover2 – how much better could LR3 be? So I had a quick play.

Here’s a 100% crop of an ISO 6400 shot, processed in LR2 and LR3. In both I’ve cleaned up the noise according to personal preference – the best balance I can find balance between noise and detail. LR2 is on top, LR3-beta-2 is below:


That’s a hell of a difference for software to make. There’s no colour noise that I can see, and the luminance noise is finer, revealing much more detail. For this particular image, I’d say it’s given me an extra stop’s worth of detail – the equivalent of letting in twice the light (in terms of LR2 processing quality). It’s absolutely the difference between a shot I can use and one I’ll ditch.

Now, there are all sorts of problems here. Firstly, viewing images at 100% is a bad idea: photos are almost always printed or downscaled for the web, and should be judged in their final output – there’s no point obsessing over fine detail, or lack thereof, that’s invisible in practice. Secondly, this is ISO 6400 – a sensitivity only used when absolutely necessary. Thirdly, this may not be representative of all situations – much more testing is needed.

Still, though. That’s very promising. Enough that I’m switching over to LR3 for all my processing (providing I don’t find any major bugs). I tried it with a load of shots from yesterday, and the new approach to noise is immediately evident even in lower ISO images – the grain is more visible, but is much finer, and the shots at least seem more detailed. If I don’t like the extra grain, I can soften it to LR2 levels, but still benefit from the superior colour noise processing. Nice.

If the above results are sustained, LR3 will be a must-have upgrade.

  1. RAW files are straight data dumps from the camera’s sensor. Normally the camera converts this into an image for you, but you can have greater control in a dedicated RAW processor. []
  2. third-party noise-reduction programs are a bit better, but nothing to write home about []