Photography & Filming

Why noise doesn’t really matter

Does noise really matter all that much in portraits? I think people are too hung up on having their images 100% noiseless, whereas the crisper and sharper, the better. And that’s just the point, isn’t it?

People are hung up on noise for no reason — we’ve had it for years and years. I’m talking about low noise here from having to put your ISO up a touch to get a good shutter speed due to low light. Not talking about using incredibly high ISO for night photography, nor noise caused by a badly underexposed image fixed in post, either. I’m talking about a little bit of noise added to your image, rather like the grain that appeared with film cameras.

Noise or grain?

What’s the difference between grain and noise? Film grain is caused by the grains of silver present in the film — they’re not consistent in the pattern. ISO noise (often called grain) is caused by the digital sensor and is more pixel-based and consistent in the pattern.

Cameras these days are incredible. My Sony can almost shoot in the dark, and the ISO range is into the extremes, from 50 to 102,500!

I frequently shoot at a higher ISO (640 to 800) and tell my students not to be afraid of a slightly higher ISO. You’ll have less noise from higher ISO than from a badly exposed image (fixed in post), and they can add a certain old-world charm. If you are using editing software to create vintage film looks (like Nik or Exposure) chances are you’re pretty much always adding noise with the filters.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should

Just because I can shoot at ISO 50 and have absolutely no noise, does this mean I should? I adore creative portraits and often there is a theme or story behind my images. Sometimes I find my low ISO images too crisp and I have been known to actually add noise in post! A little bit of noise in an image can give a romantic old-world feel to my images.

I love the Hollywood look and grain was all part and parcel of the silver screen and film cameras. I honestly believe that a little bit of grain can make a photo look like a photo. The above images were shot at ISO 100 and I added grain in post. Next week I’ll show you HOW to add some old-fashioned grain to an image.

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