Adobe Lightroom ISO Specific Noise Reduction Pre-Sets

Since my post (HERE) and podcast (HERE) discussing the differences in RAW renderings from Lightroom and DPP I have had several people contact me to ask if I would send them the Canon EOS 1DXMK3 ISO specific noise pre-sets I discussed making at some point in the future. Originally, I was planning to make these just for my own use, but decided if I was going to invest the time and do this properly that it would be worthwhile making them available for those that are interested. If you would like a copy of these finished and optimised pre-sets (includes the test RAW files) you can purchase them through my store Melrakki Publishing for just $10. If you have travelled with me on a workshop or expedition and would like a copy of these pre-sets please contact me directly and I will make them available to you for free.

Before I sat down to make these pre-sets I actually reached out to a close colleague and engineer at Adobe who is heavily involved in the coding of Lightroom and who shed some fantastic additional light on what some of the sliders are doing ‘under the hood’. I have been using Lightroom since its beta days and have a better than average grasp and understanding of what is going on under the hood with most sliders. However, I was able to learn a thing or two that has helped me greatly optimise these pre-sets and I want to share this information as it is critical to understanding how to set the Noise sliders properly and how they have been applied in the pre-sets I have created. Even if you don’t own a Canon EOS 1DXMK3 this information will be relevant and useful to you.

Detail Panel Settings: Before I get into the methodology I want to make the critical point that both the Detail panel sharpness and noise reduction sliders in Lightroom are interactive. Adjusting one slider is not enough in most instances and significant back-and-forth play between the sliders is required to set the sliders optimally.

Methodology: Over the last few days I have done very extensive testing and analysis in the creation of these ISO specific noise pre-sets for the Canon EOS 1DXMK3. To create them I photographed a large X-Rite Color Checker (A4 video version) in a D6500 light controlled Graphic light workstation with the Canon EOS 1DXMK3 and an 85mm f1.4 L series lens at f5.6 at every single full stop ISO from 50 to 102,400. Technically, you can push the EOS 1DXMK3 to H1 ISO 204,800, H2 ISO 409,600, and an incredible H3 ISO 819,200 but these extreme ISO ranges break down so badly that they are little more than a marketing gimmick. Thankfully these extreme ISO ranges are disabled by default in the EOS 1DXMK3 and that is how I suggest you leave them – permanently.

1/3rd stops were not used as these are ‘push’ or ‘pull’ ISO stops that use in camera software ‘under the hood’ to adjust the exposure +/- 1/3rd of a stop accordingly. As such I never use 1/3rd stop ISO increments and have both my EOS 1DXMK3 cameras set to full stop ISO only. I also find when I am shooting in the field that I prefer one click to go from ISO 400 to 800 for example instead of having to make multiple clicks to gain a stop of light.

Aperture priority was used, meter as read (no exposure compensation) and only the ISO and shutter speed were varied. The X-Rite Color Checker was used as it enabled me to carefully monitor and check for noise in the shadows and because I wanted to be able to check for individual colour shifts and bleeding at each specific ISO in very specific colours. It should be said that any differences in colour shift would in all likelihood not be visible in normal photographic scenes; but using the X-Rite Colour Checker makes it far easier to visually detect shifts or bleed in colour and thus makes it far easier to apply optimal noise reduction in Lightroom.

The RAW files were then imported into Lightroom with the Adobe Color Profile and very carefully analysed at 100%, 200% 400% and 800% magnification. Unlike sharpening which must be gauged at 1:1 100% magnification, Noise Reduction really requires additional zooming and with some of the noise control sliders it is necessary to zoom in significantly to see the differences as you adjust the sliders. I probably spent the better part of two days just staring at these RAW files at different magnifications and visually comparing them to each other side by side as I tweaked the settings in the detail panel for each ISO. The goal was never to make ISO 102,400 look as good as ISO 100 (that simply is not possible); rather ISO100 was used as a reference point to which all other ISO RAW files were initially compared. Then the sliders were adjusted for each full stop of ISO difference. In other words, the goal was to make ISO 200 look as close as possible to ISO100, ISO 400 as close as possible to ISO200 etc. all the way up to making ISO102,400 look as close as possible to ISO 51,200. Once this was done and checked I then went back and compared the results two full ISO stops difference and then three full stops difference and tweaked further. Finally, I rechecked my settings and results over a period of three days to satisfy myself that I could not optimise them further. It is worth noting that ISO 102,400 in particular looks very different (horrible) to ISO 51,200 and is the most difficult ISO to make look ‘good’. Hence it has the highest degree of tweaking in the pre-set. Even with this optimised pre-set for ISO102,400 I would strongly encourage you to avoid this ISO at all cost. In real practical terms I would actually recommend you set a virtual ceiling of ISO 12,800 and only exceed that when you have no other choice. Above ISO 12,800 things begin to break down and by ISO 25,600 start to become quite nasty. In real world practical use I personally try not to exceed ISO 12,800 and have a preference to shoot at ISO400 as my baseline (I used to use 800 but have adjusted post this testing). I will happily go to ISO 3200 and even ISO 6400 before I start worrying too much about noise with ISO 12,800 being my ceiling.

To make the visual analysis of the RAW files I used two different high end displays. I used the BenQ SW271C I reviewed HERE and an Eizo Colour Edge CG318. Both displays are Adobe RGB, 4K (although the Eizo is DCI4K so slightly higher resolution) and were optimally calibrated to D6500K with a setting of 80 candelas; which is an appropriate setting for the light levels in my viewing studio.

Noise Reduction and ETTR: When setting the sliders in the Detail panel for sharpness and noise reduction I erred on the side of caution and was very deliberately cautious and judicious in the amount being applied. The primary reason for this is I did not want overly aggressive noise reduction in these pre-sets. Since exposing to the right (ETTR) is optimal in the field (without clipping the highlights) and then tweaking the exposure down in Lightroom during post production results in lower levels of noise than under exposing or even exposing ‘meter as read’. In other words, the pre-sets are optimised for RAW files that were optimally exposed in the field. If you are applying these pre-sets to an under exposed photograph that you are ‘brightening’ considerably in Lightroom you may well need to apply additional noise reduction. Thus the pre-sets will work optimally when you have exposed optimally in the field.

Problem Files: If you have a particularly noisy and problematic file you may be better off using a third party Noise Reduction program in addition to the ISO specific pre-sets I have created. Personally, I am currently using Topaz De-Noise for any file that is particularly problematic in addition to the ISO specific pre-set. Think of the ISO specific pre-set as a starting point for problem files. Don’t try and apply them to a file you have already processed and expect a magical result.

Camera Profiles: I am told Adobe ran into some difficulties with the process of building camera specific profiles for the recent Canon models (including the EOS 1DXMK3 and R series cameras) because of the switch over to the new CR3 file format.  They are working on it and I am informed that they have made good progress recently. They are hopeful they may resume offering camera specific profiles later this year. For these pre-sets I used the Adobe Color profile. If I get time in the next few days I may make my own and compare it to the Adobe defaults.

Sharpening Amount: The pre-sets do obviously vary from ISO to ISO, and some of the ISO pre-sets include a component of Sharpening above the default setting of 40. Since Sharpening and Noise Reduction are interactive and affect each other (thats why they appear together in the Detail panel of Lightroom) it is necessary at some higher ISO settings to add additional sharpening to counter the ‘digital smoothing’ of the RAW file that results from higher amounts of Noise Reduction. This additional sharpening kicks in from ISO800 in the pre-sets. The sharpening amounts applied in the pre-sets are a cautious baseline. In other words, where sharpening has been applied at a given ISO pre-set it is only enough to counter the digital smoothing applied by the noise reduction algorithm. You will still need to add additional capture sharpening to your file. The amount of additional capture sharpening you will need to apply will vary depending on the quality of your lens, the sharpness of the capture and the atmospheric conditions at time of capture.

Sharpening Radius: None of the pre-sets alter the Radius, since the correct Radius setting will vary depending your particular capture. Photographs with a lot of high frequency information will generally want a lower Radius (less than 1) and photographs with mostly low frequency (think portraits) will necessitate a higher Radius. The default setting of 1 is a good general setting and thus is not touched in the pre-sets.

Sharpening Detail: Sharpening detail is quite a complicated slider so it requires a little more explanation. When adjusted to the left toward 0 the Detail Slider applies halo suppression that limits how strong the halos are in your amount settings. Moving the slider past 25 (the default) causes the slider to change its behaviour and apply a type of deconvolution sharpening similar to the de-blur tool in Photoshop. Deconvolution sharpening attempts to de-blur an image based on what type of blur it detects in an image. The thing to keep in mind is that excessive use of the sharpening detail slider will substantially increase the sharpening of the noise. Generally speaking, if you set the amount and radius correctly there is little need to change the detail slider and the default setting of 25 is appropriate.

Sharpening Masking: None of the ISO specific pre-sets include any component of masking. Sine masking is image specific you will need to apply this based on the requirements of your specific image.

Luminance Noise Reduction: Lightroom applies no Luminance Noise Reduction by default, so the pre-sets mostly optimise the Luminance, Detail and Contrast sliders. There is no luminance noise reduction applied below ISO 800 in the pre-sets. It simply is not required in 1DXMK3 RAW files.

Luminance Noise Detail: This control sets the noise threshold. Dragging the slider to the right will preserve more detail; however it does cause some noise to be incorrectly detected as detail and therefore will not be ‘smoothed’. Decreasing the slider will increase ‘smoothing’ but does cause some detail to be incorrectly detected as noise and smoothed out. The Luminance Noise Detail slider is only activated when some Luminance Noise reduction is applied. The default value once activated is 50 and setting this slider optimally for high ISO images is a bit of a balancing act. Luminance Detail kicks in at ISO6400 in the pre-sets. A lot of testing and a lot of care went into the amount applied in the pre-sets. This is where a lot of high magnification zooming (up to 800%) was used to discern differences in the settings.

Luminance Contrast: Like the Luminance Noise Detail slider, the Luminance Contrast slider is only activated when some Luminance Noise reduction is applied. Dragging this slider to the right preserves image texture and contrast but does result in the potential for mottling in high ISO images and re-introduction of noise. Leaving it at the default setting of 0 helps with fine-grained smooth results. Like the Luminance Noise Detail slider, setting this slider optimally at higher ISO images is a bit of a balancing act between adding contrast, enhancing surface texture and avoiding mottling and more noise. Luminance Contrast kicks in at ISO3200 in the pre-sets. Because of the tendency for mottling and additional noise at higher ISO’s the Luminance Contrast is actually used more sparingly at the extreme high ISO’s. Again, a lot of testing and a lot of care went into the amount applied in the pre-sets.

Colour Noise Reduction: Lightroom does apply a default Color noise reduction of ’25’. What is critical to understand is that the default of 25 for RAW files is a baseline of colour noise reduction. You should think of the value of 25 not in an absolute sense, but in an ISO-normalised sense.  What this means is that for a very clean image, like an ISO 100 RAW file from the Canon EOS 1DXMK3, the Colour Noise Reduction slider in general is doing very little, because the image is so clean to begin with.  On an ISO 6400 image from the same camera, though, Color Noise Reduction of 25 is going to do quite a bit more.  In other words, how much work goes on under the hood for “Color Noise reduction = 25” depends both on the camera model and the ISO, because Adobe calibrate each camera model and ISO, and the Color Noise Reduction slider is “aware” of this. This means that even on a very clean image like ISO 100 from a Canon EOS 1DXMK3, you don’t have to worry about damaging the image quality by leaving Color Noise Reduction at 25, because Colour Noise Reduction will do very little in this case. Since the Colour Noise slider at its default setting of 25 is applying adaptive noise reduction that is both camera and ISO specific it is not altered in any of the pre-sets from its default setting. I did spend quite a lot of time trying to tweak this slider at various ISO settings, but came to the visual conclusion that the results are optimal at the default setting of 25 (Adobe have done excellent work in this area). Applying more than 25 very quickly results in colour bleeding that is sub optimal. Be very careful if you start tweaking this slider.

Colour Detail: The colour detail slider is most useful for extremely noisy images. It allows you to refine colour noise reduction for thin, detailed colour edges. In essence at very high settings of 75+ Lightroom tries to retain colour edges but at the expense of colour speckles. At lower settings the slider works to suppress colour speckles but thin features may become desaturated (colour bleeding). In order to see the effect it is really necessary to zoom into at least 200% or 400%. Colour Detail kicks in from ISO 12,800 in the pre-sets.

Colour Smoothness: The colour smoothness slider defaults at 50 and at moderate settings above 50 can be used to suppress colour blotching or colour mottling. At very high settings it may cause some desaturation of colour at the edges and thus a lot of care needs to be taken when setting this slider. Colour smoothing kicks in only from ISO 51,200 in the pre-sets.

Lens Corrections: No lens corrections are applied in any of the ISO specific noise pre-sets.

Canon EOS 1DX MK3 Comments: With the ISO specific noise reduction pre-sets applied; between ISO 50 and ISO 800 there is no appreciable difference in noise in real world RAW files – they are identical. Between ISO 800 and ISO 3200 there is only the faintest hint of difference barely discernible at 200% in the ultra finest surface texture (You would never ever notice this in real world captures). By ISO 6400 the tiniest ultra fine surface textures are just starting to disappear from the RAW file when viewed at 100% or more on screen (again, you will never notice this in real world captures). At ISO 12,800 the finest surface textures continue to disappear and ultra fine detail is starting to disappear. Fine hairs are still clearly visible and look good, but the finest minute detail is now obscured. Again, you would likely not notice this in real world RAW captures (You really have to look for it in a test image at 100% or more magnification). Nevertheless, my recommendation is that ISO 12,800 is a realistic workable limit. Above ISO 12,800 both texture and detail continue to disappear as the ISO increases. At ISO 25,600 the finest surface textures are all but gone. Fine hairs are still clearly visible, but are starting to break down with the increased grain structure. By ISO 51,200 we have lost the fine surface texture and the fine hairs are continuing to break down. At the top end at ISO 102,400 we have lost all surface texture and almost all fine hair detail. ISO 102,400 is an absolute last resort and to be avoided at all cost.

Demonstrable Visual Results: In case you are wondering why I have not dotted this long post with visual examples comparing various ISO’s pre and post ISO specific noise pre-sets it is because the images, once converted to jpeg and resized for the web are not representative of the RAW file results. Conversion to jpeg and downsizing to something suitable for the web has a very significant effect on the visual noise in an image. Downsizing removes visible noise and thus distorts the visual results significantly. However; I have included a copy of all 12 RAW files I photographed of the X-Rite Color Checker in the creation of these pre-sets from ISO 50 to ISO 102,400; so you can visually see the differences yourself. Just import the RAW files into Lightroom, apply the pre-sets and do a before/after comparison. You may need to zoom in to 200%, 400% or even 800% to see differences.

Conclusion: Taking the time to create these ISO specific noise reduction pre-sets for the Canon EOS 1DXMK3 was absolutely a worth while investment in time and energy. It has been very educational (although time consuming) and It should considerably speed up anyones workflow who is shooting with this camera as the pre-sets can be applied on import. As they are ISO specific Lightroom will then apply them correctly to each different ISO file you import. Since significant time and effort went into optimising these pre-sets you will not have to worry about wether you are setting your noise reduction optimally. Just make sure you expose optimally in the field, apply the pre-set on import into Lightroom and you can then focus on processing your photograph. Just remember, you still need to apply an appropriate level of capture sharpening for your RAW file in addition to the ISO specific sharpening that may be being applied in the pre-set. Happy processing!

3 thoughts on “Adobe Lightroom ISO Specific Noise Reduction Pre-Sets

  1. What a lot of work, helpful detail, and insight into the complexities of getting the most out of Lightroom. Do you think your presets would be a starting point for Canon R5 presets? Or would it be better to start fresh with your procedure?

    Also, your Abode colleague’s comments on the challenges of making camera matching profiles for .cr3 files are the first I have heard that accounts for the long delay in these being made available. It would be interesting to know more about that.

    Thanks for all of this, Josh.

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  2. Hi Dan, yes it was definitely quite a lot of work – but it was very much a worthwhile exercise.

    I dont think the pre-sets I have made will be a good fit for the R5. Its a totally different sensor with very different noise characteristics.

    I cant shed much more light on the difficulties they are having with .CR3 files, only that its a colour issue and they are working on it.

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