Image Noise Revisited: Reasons Why It’s Actually Good

Bet you thought that image noise was always bad, right? Well, if you’ve been hanging onto that belief for a while, you’ve actually been wrong. It’s true! Image noise – yes, contrary to conventional wisdom and popular belief – need not be a bad thing.

Image noise is that byproduct of an image that’s widely seen as undesirable. It’s essentially random differentiations of either color or brightness in the image itself. Originally, this byproduct was not part of the original shot. Because of this lack of control and expectation, it’s easy to see why the average photographer considers image noise something to be scorned…but it doesn’t have to be.

Image Noise
image by Andres

Here, we take an intrepid, contrarian view of image noise and explain why it’s actually good at certain times.

You Get to Shoot More Memorable and Unique Pictures Than Ever

In spite of the tendency of image noise to create unexpected results in your images… it does add a lot of character and personality, more than ever before. Image noise is related to high ISO: The more you jack up the ISO, the greater the image noise ought to be. If you look at famous, older photographs that oozed character and personality, you’ll notice that there’s quite a bit of image noise there.

Just think of pictures taken by the likes of Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Don McCullin. The image noise is quite significant in their photos because they were all about capturing the grittier side of life through war photography and other pursuits, but their images are chock full of stellar character because of the high ISO!

Increasing your ISO means being able to take nicer shots in harder conditions, so just go with it.

The Gritty Side of Life Just Comes Alive

Having a high ISO just lends itself really well to shooting pictures that capture the grittier side of life. Whether you call it documentary photography, war photography or anything else, the fact of the matter’s that grain in your images is a blessing when your subject matter’s uneasy and stark. Sure, image noise won’t be suitable for taking pictures of cute, little puppies and children, but to capture things like urban decay, homelessness, mentally ill people in institutions or homeless people on the streets, nothing makes them come alive like some image noise.

Photography isn’t just about taking shots of things that make people feel good. On the contrary, it’s about shooting scenes that can disturb you, make you think and expose you to a side of life that you don’t see in your everyday existence. That’s why the grittiness from image noise is splendid: It brutally communicates the reality of situations to the human eye and mind.

It’s a Good Way to Maintain Sharpness

Images with a higher ISO just look sharper to the human eye. The reason for this can be traced back to how cameras apply noise reduction to your JPG images. In most cases, the image noise will be smoothed over, but it will be smoothed over to the point that it’s too much. It’s not uncommon to see, therefore, images that look noticeably less sharp and, in ridiculously extreme situations, images that almost resemble molten plastic.

Yes, it’s possible to set the noise reduction to different levels of strength, but know that it all has one common outcome: Your pictures will be less sharp. If you can live with that, then fine, but some photos shouldn’t have their sharpness compromised under any circumstances. For those, be sure to just turn that noise reduction completely off, or, better yet, switch over to RAW to ensure you get a really sharp image courtesy of high ISO.

Take More Realistic Portraits Than Ever Before

Today’s photography world is characterized by the obsession to turn out photos that are virtually perfect, in the sense of being very polished and free of blemishes whatsoever. Ask yourself if that’s really the type of photo that you want to be shooting… especially when it comes to portraiture! After all, portraits of people should hardly be perfect because the human face is never perfect. To the intellectually honest individual, that’s exactly what creates the interesting personality and uniqueness that differs from person to person.

Killing off image noise in your portraits destroys this lovely effect of realism. Portrait photography, unfortunately, has been hijacked by the obsession to make its subjects as picture-perfect as possible, which is an affront to reality.

Using image noise in portraits empowers photographers to show subjects as they really are: with blemishes, wrinkles and everything that makes them real people.

You Can Shoot Stormy Landscapes With Ease

Everywhere you look these days, it also seems that there’s nothing but an over-saturation of HDR landscapes – enough is enough! It’s just getting to be excessive. The right type of landscape is the perfect fit for image noise: Anything in black-and-white that features stormy, brooding or dark skies is a winner. Landscapes that have bare trees, overcast skies and even snow, sleet and ice are perfect for a grainy image.

The great thing about this approach is that your images will intrepidly and uniquely stand out from the rest of the pack because you’re going against the grain (pun intended). And that’s a good thing since you want to be recognized as a photographer…not blend quietly into the background.

Reconsider What You Think About Image Noise

The pursuit of getting rid of image noise in modern photography is a great metaphor for the scary habit we have in society of always trying to get rid of things that make us feel uncomfortable or look “ugly”. We don’t like fat on people in pictures… so we conveniently airbrush them out; we don’t like somebody… so we conveniently avoid them; and we don’t like blemishes on portraits… so we use image noise reduction to make things more “perfect”.

This couldn’t be more misdirected. In reality, nothing’s perfect, so we should stop striving to be something we can’t be by getting rid of the “ugliness”. In reality, things that may at first appear ugly, like image noise, are really very useful because they force us to appreciate character, contrast and non-conformity.

In the end, by using and not avoiding image noise, you’ll get super-interesting pictures because you bucked the trend, so congratulations!

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