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Noise Reduction with NIK Dfine

Port Everglades Cruise Port - No Noise Reduction Copyright 2012  Andy Richards

Port Everglades Cruise Port – No Noise Reduction
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

I continue to be impressed with parts of the NIK™ suite of software. In the beginning, I was prepared to find that it was a gimmick for “lightweight” users and not for Photoshop Purists. I have acknowledged the error of my ways (and my own narrow-mindedness) in a couple of recent blog posts on Viveza and Color Efex.

I continue to be impressed with parts of the NIK™ suite of software

I fell in love with the power of Viveza 2, and its ability to achieve the color and “look” enhancement that I have not been able to consistently duplicate with Photoshop and “conventional” methods such as selections, masks, etc. I have used Color Efex Pro to a lesser extent, but still, really like the simple power of its digital graduated neutral density filter (GND). While I have occasionally used the other filters in Color Efex, I could have been perfectly satisfied to have had it as an option in Viveza and skip the whole download and install of Color Efex. But now that the tool is there, I do find myself using it more than I might have thought.

For my limited HDR needs, I’ll stick to Photomatix for now

I have not tried SilverEfex, and probably won’t in the near future. For whatever reason, the whole B&W think just hasn’t tweaked my interest. I tried the HDR Efex and after playing around a bit, uninstalled it. I find its effect to be too blunt and “in your face.”  It might “just be me,” but I am not a fan of the “cartoon-like” imagery that many “HDR” affcionados tend to showcase. My HDR usage has been more of a sophisticated blending tool, to try to get the dynamic range my eye could see that technology cannot yet attain in a single image capture. For my limited HDR needs, I’ll stick to Photomatix (for now).

When I first downloaded Viveza 2, I also downloaded Pixel Genius’ Photokit Sharpener, which was recommended by my pro friend, mentor, talented photographer and post-processing guru, James Moore. His take was that the Photokit software was ever so slightly better. I have no doubt that Jim knows of what he says. I have seen his work (and you should, too). But I have come to find a comfort in the U-point technology which all of the NIK software has in common. The more I use it and the more familiar I get with it and its effect, the better I like it. I especially like the degree of localized control you have with it. So I thought it was worthwhile to try the NIK sharpening software, Sharpener Pro. And as I have used it, studied it, and learned its nuances, I have become a believer.

I have come to find a comfort in the localized control offered by U-point technology

Pixel Genius’s Photokit uses the algorithms, masks and processes that Bruce Fraser and Jeff Schewe and company have explained in their Real World Sharpening Book and their white papers. These guys were (and those of them remaining—sadly, the world lost Bruce Fraser to cancer a year or two back—a great loss for his friend and family, and for the digital photographic community) still are, the gurus of sharpening. And with the choice of either a white or black mask always present, it is possible to brush the effects of the sharpening in and out very effectively and to control the opacity of the mask.

Port Everglades Cruise Port - ACR noise reduction appliedCopyright 2012  Andy Richards

Port Everglades Cruise Port – ACR noise reduction applied
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

Having said that, I think the NIK software “control points” (using U-point technology) give me more control, especially with localized work. I have them both on my computer and will continue to use both, as I think may be most appropriate. But I can see that the workflow and consistency of method will probably continue to steer me to NIK’s estimable software programs.

I have done a fair amount of low light shooting. In fact the biggest factor that pushed me toward the so-called “full frame” technology offered by Nikon’s FX sized sensors was image quality, and low noise performance was clearly a selling point. Because of the really good low light rendering ability of these Nikon sensors (and even my D200 DX sensor was pretty darn good), and the in-camera noise reduction, the issue of noise was not something that seemed to be a problem for me.

Workflow and consistency of method will probably continue to steer me to NIK’s estimable software programs

But when I carried only my compact, Canon G-12 with its small sensor during my Caribbean cruise in 2012, I saw first-hand, the loss of image quality when noise becomes a problem.  A combination of factors, including low light and very high ISO on a small sensor (that is admittedly getting a bit long in the tooth), make for seriously damaging noise conditions.  The images here, of the Norwegian Cruise Lines “Allure of the Seas” taken from the deck of our own Ruby Princess (Princess Cruise Lines) in the early morning twilight at Ft. Lauderdale’s Port Everglades Cruise Port, couldn’t better illustrate the disastrous effect of noise on an image. All three images are from the same canon proprietary raw file. In every case, I left it at the native resolution of the G12, with no capture sharpening and no cropping. In each image, I made some basic ACR adjustments to set white and black points, squelch the highlights a bit and ad mid-ton contrast and saturation with the clarity and vibrance sliders. Once in Photoshop I boosted the saturation a bit in NIK ColorEfex Pro. I used NIK Sharpener Pro to do some localized sharpening on all 3 images.

The first image posted here is straight from the camera, with only the adjustments noted above. There were no ACR adjustments for color or contrast noise and no ACR sharpening. As you can see, it is just plain “ugly.” In the second image, I used the localized adjustment brush and added a generous amount of noise reduction in ACR (note that noise reduction generally softens the areas it is applied too; hence the adjustment brush to try to keep those areas that didn’t really need noise reduction sharp). You can see the effect of the raw converter’s noise reduction (and on a less disastrously noisy image, I have found that it is actually quite good). But it is still very visibly noisy. This is an image in which, in particular, the color (chrominance) noise is simply unacceptable.

Port Everglades Cruise Port - NIK dFine Noise ReductionCopyright 2012  Andy Richards

Port Everglades Cruise Port – NIK dFine Noise Reduction
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

In the last image, again, zero noise reduction was made in ACR. Instead, I put it into NIK Dfine and really cranked up the global noise reduction (I am still learning how to use the software to apply localized adjustments, but this is an image that is just—overall—noisy). I am impressed. While I am not suggesting this is an image under any circumstances that is acceptable in image quality as a photographic image (it may have some “artsy” potential, using some of the painting filters in Photoshop—but not as a photographic quality image), I was surprised at how “acceptable” this result is. While it is an extreme example, it demonstrates to me the value of having Dfine as part of my post processing toolbox and learning it use it subtly to increase the end result of post image processing.

A significant concern is whether new owner, Google will continue the quality and detail established by the NIK software company

I have one significant concern about NIK’s future—whether its new owner will continue the quality and detail that the NIK team established. As most are aware, software and internet giant, Google purchased NIK software sometime in 2012. When I first downloaded Viveza2, I have a couple of email exchanges with the NIK software folks. They could not have been more responsive, courteous or helpful. Not so, Google! It kind of dismays me, as I have been a Google “groupie” for some time, using iGoogle as my primary homepage (until in 2012, they unceremoniously announced they would be discontinuing it some time this year), Chrome as my main internet browser, a first adopter of Google+ (seemingly to me, a bust), and making Google my primary search engine. I communicated with them recently and got an auto responder message telling me they were “pretty busy” and responses would be 1-2 business days. That was a week ago.  No other response–whatsoever.  Are you trying to tell me something, Google? 🙂

The NIK software does lack a bit for documentation. There are two print books and an eBook out. I reviewed the original print book a while back. It was written by a former NIK employee and seems to be the best of the 3 for “getting under the hood.” I’ll review the newest offering by John Batdorf in an upcoming blog and compare the 3. But in terms of its implementation, I think NIK originally hit a solid base hit. While I would not find use for the entire suite of software, my own toolbox will continue to include, Viveza, Sharpener Pro (both of which will get regular and consistent use) and Dfine and Color Efex Pro.

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9 Responses

  1. Andy, if you’re worried about the Google-NIK relationship, have a look at OnOne. After testing just about everything affordable, that’s what I settled on. I came to it through PPA. Those wedding/portrait guys are very picked. — Ray

    • Thanks, Ray. My correspondence to them was a minor item. It just concerns me that there was a complete failure to respond. I am happy with the current state of the Nik software. I have read a small amount about Oneone. Will have to take a look at it in more depth. Thanks for the insight.

      • Andy, Google very rarely replies to anyone about anything. The software will probably be solid for the future. It’s how Google sees the images that you produce with them… it always comes down to ownership and copyright issues.

      • Yeah. Kind of like the wizard of oz, LOL. I looked at the onOne stuff and it looks in some ways more complementary to Nik than a replacement. I might take them up on their special deal for Nik owners. Will see. Am busy spending money on other gadgets and things right now 🙂

      • Other gadgets. Yes. Yes. I understand. 🙂 Don’t rush on OnOne. They have this way of lowering their “special” prices every couple of weeks.

  2. Thanks, Andy. I’ve been playing a bit (too much) with after-the-fact HDR. A friend liked Topaz so I bought their Adjust. I like it but have nothing to compare it to. I downloaded Photomatix but have not bothered to learn it – an extreme problem for me and other software I accumulate. I assumed Photomatix is only for when you take multiple shots and merge. If it works with single images after-the-fact, I need to check and compare. I also purchased OnOne’s Layers but did not bother to learn it when a friend showed me how to take out color around and object in Lightroom – which was why I purchased Layers – since I only have Lightroom and not Photoshop or Elements.

    Re: your mentioning the G12, I’ll have to look and see if you have any posts on rangefinder RAW cameras – I assume you do. I am very seduced by the idea – especially walking around cities when I travel for business. But my brain asks why I would give up the sensor size – despite the bulk of a DSLR.

    • Found your G12 review. I’m sure I’ve read it before but will check it out again.

    • Phil: There is so much out there. Some of it overlaps and some of it is really not the same. For example, I looked at onOne, following Ray’s suggestion. I see it as being complementary to Nik, rather than a substitute. Haven’t looked at Topaz software, but know some folks who have been using it for years and like it.

      As far as the G12, and my review, remember that is more than a year old – which is “light years” when it comes to technology. My next move in the compact camera world (trying to get away from labeling them all “P&S” as many of them have moved far beyond that) will probably be to the Sony NEX line (I need to do my homework, as you can get an early version–the NEX3–with an 18-55 lens, for around $400 right now at Best Buy–but not sure its up to what I want). I know the NEX 6 and 7 use the very same sensor as Nikon uses in its D7000. So it is a DX size sensor in a very small package (every bit as small as the Nikon 1, which I think missed the boat by NOT incorporating the D7000 sensor). I had a D7000 for a brief period and was very impressed. If I hadn’t moved to the FX format, I would probably be shooting the D7000 (or the new 7100). I would Look HARD at the Sony NEX. I would not buy the G12 now (it was right when I did).

    • A small point of clarification. I have not used Photomatix to work on a single image file, though it is certainly possible. I have a very talented friend who takes a single raw images and saves an “over” and “under” and a dead on exposure and then uses Photomatix for blending to get some pretty spectacular results. He showed me the technique and I played around with it, but at about the same time, I discovered Nik Viveza, and I have found that with appropriate adjustments in CS6 ACR and in Viveza and Color Efex’s GND filter, I can achieve acceptably similar results with a much easier workflow.

      My comment was meant to say that when I use HDR software, it is to blend exposures that I know cannot be achieved in a single capture, even with a sensor like the D600 sensor. In those cases, I take bracketed images from -2 stops to +2 stops, and then use the HDR software to combine them. But I am not usually trying for those images you see all over the web that have made “HDR” almost a bad word to some of us who prefer the traditional photographic look. Rather, I am seeking a traditional photographic look. And for my personal taste, Photomatix still does the best, most subtle blending.

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