noise

I was editing this and noticed

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Olympus EM5 image shot with Olympus 45mm lens
Olympus EM5 image shot with Olympus 45mm lens

After I published the Friday Image No 20 I decided to review my Olympus EM5 shots. I had taken a few of the same location with the extremely sharp Olympus 45mm prime. You can see one particular example above.

What I noticed, that took me completely by surprise, is that I can see traces of noise in the EM5 image which isn’t present in the GM1 shot when viewed at 100% magnification. I have always been impressed by the EM5 images and just how clean the images are, but the GM1 appears to surpass this when both cameras are used at their base ISO.

Olympus EM5 image at 100%. ISO200 with some processing applied in Nik.
Olympus EM5 image at 100%. ISO200 with some processing applied in Nik.

 

Panasonic GM1 at 100%. ISO200 with similar processing in Nik to the EM5 sample. Notice also the different colour handling of the two systems. I need to profile both of these cameras.
Panasonic GM1 at 100%. ISO200 with similar processing in Nik to the EM5 sample. Notice also the different colour handling of the two systems. I need to profile both of these cameras.

If you are wondering why I find this so important, it’s because this noise becomes amplified in post processing, especially when enhancing images with structure and dynamic contrast tools. The less noise is present, the higher the quality of the finished image and the less noticeable any image artefacts are.

Day Out with an Olympus

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Shot at ISO 800 on the Olympus OMD, handheld with a 45mm lens. The RAW image file displays low noise, excellent sharpness and lovely colours.
Shot at ISO 800 on the Olympus OMD, handheld with a 45mm lens. The RAW image file displays low noise, excellent sharpness and lovely colours. I didn’t take any brilliant shots but it was a great day out.

I won’t bore you with the details but all of my free time (including that I use for blogging) has vanished, at least for the short term. I am actually putting this blog together whilst trying to eat some lunch. Yesterday however I was fortunate to have a day out on a photography course designed to allow you to try out a camera – the Olympus OMD.

This Olympus Experience Day was put together by Olympus with pro landscape photographer Steve Gosling. I like Steve’s work a lot and having been on his “Business of Photography” course some years back so very interested in attending this day. The course was held at the RHS gardens in Harrogate and whilst not my usual subject matter I found a few things to shoot and try out the camera. What I thought was good (other than the exceptional value of the day) was that I had an OMD to myself for the entire day.

At the start of the day there was a short session to help delegates understand how to use the camera followed by a questions wrap up at the end. In between Steve spent time with each person individually to answer any questions they may have. I think this is a great way to allow people to try before you buy and I wish more manufacturers would follow the model (other than Hasselblad and Phase One as I can’t afford their hardware). It was also a great day with an experienced pro photographer and opportunity to draw on his experience and thinking.

Now you know I was impressed by the day, what about the camera.

I really like this camera, but to be honest I didn’t expect to at the start of the day. I had read some horror stories about the poor menu system which is something I have experienced before with my NEX5. I actually found the OMD’s menus quite logical and was able to set up the camera relatively quickly. It was certainly much better in my opinion than the NEX5 (when first launched).

I tried the camera with the 12-50 Olympus lens, my 14-45 Panasonic lens and my 45mm Olympus lens. It handled extremely well with all and felt very solid in the hands. I wasn’t however that impressed with the 12-50 lens other than a very nice macro function it offered.

To me, the most important aspect of a camera is how it handles and the image quality produced. I have to say, this is an exceptionally well made camera which feels very durable. The image quality is also very impressive for a Micro 43. Much of the day I was shooting at ISO400 or ISO800, something I would avoid with my GX1. The image above was captured inside a potting shed at ISO800 and my 45mm lens hand held. It’s very sharp with no camera shake and is very clean in terms of noise. In fact I can’t believe how clean the images from this camera are. I will have no issues submitting ISO800 images to stock libraries and believe me; I am very picky about this.

So will I buy one of these cameras? I would certainly like to. The only thing stopping me is that I have just sold my Canon 9500 printer with a view to upgrading to A2, so that’s my current priority. I may therefore need to stick with my trusty GX1’s for a while longer.

Dfine Noise Reduction Book Launch

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Sample LX5 Image from my book. This is one of the worked examples which can be downloaded as a full resolution - you need to do your own B&W conversion however.
Sample LX5 Image from my book. This is one of the worked examples which can be downloaded as a full resolution image – you need to do your own B&W conversion however.

I am very pleased to announce that my new book “How to Avoid and Remove Image Noise with Nik Dfine 2” is now live on Amazon and priced at only USD3.99 or GBP2.54. The book is organised into three parts:

  • Part 1 examines the sources of noise in digital photography and outlines the steps you can take to prevent or minimise it
  • Part 2 covers the Nik Dfine software, how it operates and how you can improve its performance over the default settings
  • Part 3 covers two worked examples and is supported by two full resolution images (including the one above) that can be downloaded from my Lenscraft website

I have long believed noise avoidance and reduction is a key skill and one that will make your work stand out from the crowd when done correctly. Nik Dfine is just one of three noise solutions I use (the other two are Neat Image and Topaz DeNoise) and produces very natural looking results so is ideal for Landscape and nature Photography.

Because of the specialist nature of the book I can only release it electronically. But don’t worry if you don’t have a Kindle as Amazon provide free Kindle reader software for the PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone and Android platforms.

What if you don’t shoot RAW

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Harsh processing on LX5 images can highlight problems with noise and sharpness if you don't take steps to address these.
Harsh processing on LX5 images can highlight problems with noise and sharpness if you don’t take steps to address these.

If you look back over my posts you will find quite a lot of comments about the need to shoot in RAW format and how I use RAW all the time. I have however been reminded by a couple of readers that not everyone does or even wants to shoot in RAW. So what should they do?

I have lots of concerns and reasons why I don’t shoot in JPG but one of the main reasons is the lack of post processing control. This is especially true of Noise Reduction and Sharpening which are applied to JPG’s in camera and which are key to determining the sharpness and detail in the finished image. If you are an LX5 and/or GX1 users I can tell you how to address this and my advice will probably apply to other cameras in the Panasonic Range as well as possibly other manufacturers.

There are two basic problems to my mind with the JPG’s from the LX5 and GX1 (and also the GF1 if I remember correctly). They have too much noise reduction and too little sharpening. If I had to shoot JPG I would be turning off noise reduction and sharpening in camera. I would then apply noise reduction as a separate step once I had the JPG on my computer before I did any image manipulation. I would then sharpen the final image to a level at which I am happy. Working in this way will help preserve your images and minimise loss of detail.

The way to switch off the noise and sharpening is through the Film Mode in the LX5. This is found in the Menu under the Record settings and is on the first page. Here you have the option to configure a new Custom film setting for which you can specify Contrast, Sharpening, Saturation and Noise Reduction. The GX1 is very similar to this.

If you want to shoot JPG but want to achieve sharp details, check your camera manual and give this approach a try.

LX5 Essential Accessories

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Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Shot with an LX5 and processed in Lightroom with Nik Dfine and Silver Efex Pro 2

I don’t normally like carrying too many accessories for my photography because they can be a bit of a double edged sword. On one hand they help you do things that wouldn’t otherwise be possible but on the other they add size, weight and can hinder your work. There are some accessories however that I do consider essential for the LX5:

  1. Screen protector – I don’t think this one takes much explaining other than to say the rear screen can scratch easily. I use a 3 inch thin plastic screen protector that was made for a mobile phone as they are cheap and do a great job.
  2. JJC lens cap – Where the LX5 lens meets the camera body there is a threaded ring. Unscrew this ring and you can screw on the JJC replacement lens cap. The lens cap is never removed but as you switch on the camera the lens extends through the lens cap which splits into three. When the lens retracts the lens cap closes to cover it again. This has protected my lens on countless occasions and also reduces lens cleaning. This is a great accessory for street photography.
  3. Filter Tube – In the previous point I explained how the filter cap could screw to the lens of the camera. The filter tube follows the same approach and screws to the camera with the lens extending inside the tube. The other end of the tube is threaded and can accept a filter ring to which you can then attach filters. For Landscape Photography the ability to attach an filters such as an ND Graduate is essential. The only downside is that you can only attach either the lens cap or the filter tube but not both together.
  4. My final accessory is really optional and is noise reduction software. If you are keeping below ISO400 with the LX5 and not printing larger than A3, you probably don’t need this but as the ISO creeps up it can become essential. Even if you use only low ISO settings you may be a bit of a perfectionist as I am (I often clean images even from my 5D MkII to remove noise because I am that fussy). I actually use 2 software packages for noise reduction at present, Nik Dfine and Topaz DeNoise. DeNoise is probably the best to my mind but you might have your own preference.

On a final point of interest, many photographers would consider the LX5 to be an accessory for their main camera. If you are one of these people think again and try a day out with just the LX5 and a couple of accessories.

Why I Changed my Camera

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Haweswater in the English Lake District. Shot on a GX1 with 14-45mm kit lens from a GF1.

In the past I have received quite a bit of correspondence from people wondering why I changed my camera from the Sony NEX-5 to a GX1. There is also a fairly regular flow of people wondering what I think of the GX1 or the Panasonic system in general and is it worth investing in. Since I started publishing the Light Weight Photography blog in addition to my Lenscraft website the volume of enquiries has accelerated. It seems many people are considering going light weight but just have some doubts. I thought therefore I would take a little time to outline how my journey has brought me to the Panasonic GX1 in the hope that it will help anyone facing this decision. If this raises any questions, add them to this blog posting below and I will do my best to answer.

Firstly I would like to say that I won’t recommend anyone reading this make a decision based on what I like and what suites me. Selecting a camera is a very personal choice and one that each photographer has to make for themselves. I will however outline why I have made the choices I have.

My first serious “light weight” camera was a Sony R1. This had a 10Mpixel sensor and a fixed Zeiss lens which was the equivalent of 24mm-120mm. The camera produced good images that I was very pleased with but the resolution really became too small for what I wanted to do with my work (mainly stock and fine art). The sensor was starting to show its age with poor low light performance (due to noise) and the entire camera was still the size of a small DSLR. (By the way I still miss this camera.)

It was these limitations together with the launch of the NEX-5 that convinced me to sell the R1 and buy the NEX-5. My hope was that the NEX-5 would perform similarly to the R1 with a higher pixel resolution (14Mpixels), better low light performance, all in a smaller package with a more complete coverage of focal lengths. To go with the NEX-5 body I purchased the pancake wide angle prime 16mm lens, the kit lens which I think was an 18-55mm and the very large 18-200mm super zoom. At the time this was the entire range of lenses although there were regular rumours of new lenses.

The Matterhorn, Switzerland
The Matterhorn, Switzerland. Shot with a Sony NEX-5 and 18-55mm kit lens.

Initially I was happy with the camera and impressed with some aspects such as the excellent sensor and small size. I soon became aware however of new limitations and that my decision to purchase the Sony had been heavily influenced by the performance of the R1. I had reasoned that Sony had produced such a great camera in the R1 that the NEX-5 had to be better – but for me it wasn’t.

The body and kit lens together were still too bulky and the 18-200 lens was simply huge. The prime 16mm and kit lens whilst tiny suffered from diffraction and left my pictures a little soft (not a lot but enough to frustrate me). Corner focus on all lenses ranged from acceptable to dreadful and I was having my images regularly rejected by Stock libraries as a result. Worst of all for a landscape photographer was that the widest lens equated to 24mm on a full frame camera and I needed at least a 20mm.

For a while I considered a lens adapter with the NEX-5 but I still couldn’t get the lens quality and focus length I wanted in a compact, lightweight package. It was this that caused me to switch to a Panasonic GF1 which was starting to show its age at that time. This was a 12Mpixel camera and I purchased a 14-45mm lens, a wide angle 9-18mm (equivalent to 18-36mm) and 45-200 lens. This was a great outfit with quality lenses in the focus lengths I wanted, all in a small package. The image quality was good and I never had an image rejected from this camera.

Dovestone
Dovestone on the edge of the Peak District (near to my home). Shot on a GF1 with 14-45mm kit lens.

I have to admit that I loved this camera due to its design, build and size (my daughter now has it). The limitation was that the sensor wasn’t quite as good as I would have liked. I could see a little too much noise and at 12Mpixel it was still a little too small. It was these limitations that encouraged me to purchase the GX1 body with its 16Mpixel sensor. The lenses I have kept because I think they are excellent in terms of image quality, build, size and weight. The 9-18mm in particular is amazing.

I think the GX1 produces great pictures but it’s probably not the end of my journey. Ideally I want a 20Mpixel sensor with better low light capabilities. I also find the GX1 sensor still has a little too much noise for my taste (you may think otherwise) so I often apply light noise reduction even at ISO100. I should mention to put this in perspective that I can often see noise patterns in my 5D MKII even at ISO100. The size and lenses are however spot on and I can only see myself adding to these. In fact I have also added the Panasonic 20mm prime and Olympus 45mm prime which are both first rate.

I think my view has now shifted to make lenses my most important factor when choosing a camera system (providing its small and light) and I accept that I will upgrade my camera body from time to time. I hope from this explanation that you can see my journey and reasoning and that it will help you. As I mentioned above, if anyone has any questions post them here and I will do my best to answer.

Color Passport Update

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In past blogs I have discussed how useful I find the Color Passport from Xrite. Initially I used this to set my white balance in the GX1 so that the AWB setting I tend to use almost 100% of the time is more accurate. Previously this was setting the colour temperature to 4,700K and the tint adjustment in Lightroom to 0. Having created a custom white balance the colour temperature has increased to 5,400K and the tint to +8. These are significant corrections and ones that I probably wouldn’t have landed on myself.

The other thing I have used the Color Passport for is to create a custom calibration profile for the GX1. Again this is having a dramatic effect as the contrast increases, pinks have become more vibrant, orange less saturated and blues and greens look more natural. I now use this profile as the starting point for all my conversions for the GX1.

The other night I was adjusting images before sending them to my stock library. My workflow for this uses a separate package for keywording and Lightroom for the RAW file conversion. What I happened to notice when doing this was that the thumbnails in the keywording application appeared more natural than the image in Lightroom, despite having used my custom camera calibration. After a little adjustment to the calibration slider I found setting the Green Hue to -33 and the Green saturation to -11 gave me much more natural Landscape greens.

Now I don’t know if this setting will work for all images so I decided to apply it to other shots in the batch. I created a custom Lightroom Preset and applied it to a few others. Yes they improved but there was also an interesting side effect with some. Applying the preset seemed to change the histogram substantially. Histograms that lacked contrast and that were gathered in the mid tones now extended across a greater tonal range and in some instances filled the histogram. Looking more closely at these images I found the details appeared crisper (which might be expected from improved contrast) but the luminance noise appeared reduced even though I hadn’t applied any noise reduction. Whilst you might struggle to see what I am talking about at this reduced resolution, here is a comparison from the above image (click the image to enlarge).

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I will keep a close eye on this in the future, but it seems to have given a promising improvement to quality, which is all important with stock images.

Noise Reduction Update

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A few posts back I mentioned a new noise reduction program I had been using with my GX1 images. The program was Topaz DeNoise and I had a 30 day free trial. Well I’m happy to give an update and I will start by saying I purchased the full edition.

After the blog I got down to the serious business of trying out quite a few noise reduction products. These ranged from OK to quite good but DeNoise was the best for my needs. I must admit that if I was judging this purely on how effectively some of the products removed noise, there were a couple of programs that seemed to match the performance. Unfortunately these were devilishly complicated to use.

The problem most of the programs seemed to suffer is that they had too many tabs and sliders to be adjusted. First I would need to select the range of noise e.g. high frequency, medium frequency etc then I would select the level of reduction for both luminance and colour noise. In addition to this I could target tones (highlights, mid tone and shadows) as well as different colours. Often there were a number of other controls I also needed to play with. These solutions to me are not lightweight and usually left me wondering if I had made the best selection I could. I also wasted a lot of time cycling through all the options trying to perfect the noise reduction.

What I really like about DeNoise is that it’s very quick to use as well as being very effective. Firstly I set the level of noise reduction whilst viewing a mid-tone area of the image. I then look at a shadow area and use a shadow slider to increase or decrease the level of noise reduction in these areas. Next I check the highlights and use the highlights slider to make any further adjustment.

Once I am happy with the noise in these areas I can apply additional colour cleaning noise with another slider as well as using two more adjustment sliders to affect the red or blue channel. What’s great about these sliders is that they all work together. The first slider is enough to achieve good results but the other sliders allow you to fine tune and target the effect.

Once you have applied your noise reduction you might find you have impacted some of the very fine detail. To counter this there is a “Recover Detail” slider which is quite effective. There is also a De-Blur slider which I never fail to be impressed by. This is something that I first came across in the Topaz Detail plug-in and it reduces typical lens blur introduced by camera optics and anti-alias filter. Even with top quality optics and perfect technique, this slider can make a difference. There are a few other sliders to help you really get superb results but this blog was not intended as a product review.

This is a very impressive package that it incredibly easy to use and achieve superb results. Even shooting at the best ISO possible with my cameras, this plug-in will improve the results. Give it a try if you want a lightweight noise reduction workflow that is totally effective.

More Lightweight Noise Reduction

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In a previous blog (Don’t Let Noise Kill Your Images) I wrote about the steps you could take to minimise noise in your images. It’s long been recognised that cameras with small sensors have higher levels of noise than they would if they had a larger sensor as a result of packing more pixels into less space. Whilst there have been great advances in this area, it can still be a problem.

If I look at the images produced by my GX1 (16Mpixels) and compare these to images shot on my GF1 (12Mpixels) both of which have the same sized sensor, I can see real improvements in the GX1 both at base and higher ISO levels. I would say that I am examining the images in great detail for any trace of noise in case you think these cameras are poor performers. To give you something to compare against, when I do this for check with my 5D MkII I can also pick out noise at ISO100 in dark areas and in the Blue channel. So what do you do if you find you can’t avoid capturing noisy images?

In the past I have used a noise reduction tool called Neat Image but to be honest it’s quite a lengthy process to get good results and whilst it has a batch mode, I prefer to fine tune the software to each image (hardly a lightweight processing workflow). This weekend however I decided to download a trial of DeNoise from Topaz labs and the Noise reduction plug in from PhotoWiz (I already use Contrast Master, B&W Styler and Focal Blade plug-in and rate these highly). The results were a bit of a surprise.

I found both solutions did a better job than Neat Image however the PhotoWiz product took some time to process my sample image, something I want to avoid. Comparing this with the performance of Topaz Labs DeNoise solution I found a huge difference. DeNoise was incredibly fast to process my image but it also gave the cleanest and most lifelike results. Finding the right level of reduction was as simple as moving one slider but it was then possible to further fine tune the results. It gave me lots of control in an interface that was very easy and fast to use.

I want to experiment further before purchasing, but early results look very promising.

LX5 Compact Camera Outperforms 5D Mk II SLR

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It sounds absurd doesn’t it that a little pocket camera costing a few hundred pound could outperform a DSLR costing almost 10 times as much? But that’s exactly what happened to me recently.

I happened to be driving through Somerset with the best part of the day free so I decided to take a detour and visit Wells Cathedral to take some photographs. I had seen some very impressive images of the inside and knew that the Cathedral encourage photography (providing you pay a few pounds for a permit). The only limitation I had to contend with was the low light levels and how to shoot without a tripod.

I decided I could use my 5D with a high ISO setting because of its low noise levels but I would take the LX5 along in my pocket as a sort of backup. With shooting underway, I found I was taking most of my images at either ISO800 or ISO1600 with my lens set to its widest aperture and the image stabiliser turned on. At these settings I was still only achieving a shutter speed of between 1/15” and 1/30”.

As I progressed with my shooting I started checking the LCD at 100% to see if the images were sharp. Unfortunately many of them weren’t, exhibiting quite a bit of noise from the high ISO and some camera shake. I decided to experiment a little with the LX5 and quickly found my favourite low light setting of ISO200 to ISO400 and f/2.8 was giving a shutter speed of between 1/5” and 1/15”. The resulting images did however appear sharp on the camera LCD.

Back at home when reviewing the results I found only about 1 in 5 of the 5D images were acceptably sharp whilst only 1 in 5 (or less) of the LX5 images exhibited camera shake and noise levels on all were acceptable. The problems I seemed to be encountering with the 5D were:

  • Camera shake was evident even though the image stabilizer was on. It seemed much easier to hold the LX5 steady whilst taking the photograph.
  • Because I could shoot with the LX5 lens almost wide open (f/2.8) I was able to maintain a lower ISO setting which resulted in quite good noise control.
  • The lens on the LX5 is f/1.8 and performs very well at this level. Stop it down just slightly to f/2.2 and the performance is excellent. With the Canon lenses (even though they were L series) I need to stop down at least 1 stop to gain good performance.
  • The Canon 5D is a full frame sensor so when used with wide apertures I was achieving very limited depth of field, certainly not enough for the compositions I wanted to shoot. Contrast this with the LX5 which has a small sensor so even at f/2.8 I got great depth of field.

So what of the pixel count difference?

Well the LX5 is 10Mpixel and the 5D 21Mpixel. This means I can realistically print the LX5 ISO400 images at A3+ after a bit of resizing. The 5D produces an image of this size without resizing but what use is that if the images are blurred through camera shake, lack sharpness because of noise or simply don’t have enough depth of field?

Finally I should point out that the LX5 was a joy to use in this environment where as the 5D was heavy, tricky and restricted my photography.

So now you know how it’s possible for the tiny LX5 to outperform the much higher spec and more expensive 5D. The message is know your equipment, where its strengths lie and what its weaknesses are. Shoot in the right way and you can achieve some spectacular results with equipment others don’t take seriously.