How to Sharpen and Reduce Noise in Lightroom With Greg Benz

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon4 Comments

Sharpening and Noise Reduction Options

Greg graciously accepted an invitation to come on the show after I read a July 2019 article on his website called “How to reduce noise in Photoshop”.  I always enjoy the articles Greg posts to his website, but one line in this article caught my attention and made me want to have him come on the show and talk about it:

“There is a lot of debate about which software does the best job of reducing noise. There are many great options, and some of them can outdo Adobe in some  scenarios. But I still prefer using Lightroom or ACR (Adobe Camera RAW in Photoshop) most of the time for a few reasons.”

Should Sharpening Be Done in Lightroom or Photoshop?

Greg is absolutely right, there is a lot of debate on whether sharpening should be done in Lightroom or Photoshop.  Just a couple of weeks ago I had Photoshop guru Aaron Nace on the Photo Taco podcast (Taking the Intimidation out of Photoshop) and his opinion was pretty much exactly the opposite.  Aaron prefers doing sharpening in Photoshop and recommends sharpening never be done in Lightroom.

I don’t bring this up to have a fight or to try and say one way is right and the other is wrong.  I think both views can be right. There are so many ways to accomplish editing goals and it would be pretty arrogant to say “my way is the only real way” to do any kind of post processing.  I love having different photographers on the show to talk through their way of doing things because we have a large audience listening and Greg’s way of doing this vs. Aaron’s vs. how I do things is going to reach different people in different ways.  Hopefully it helps us all improve and result in the ability to realize our creative vision with our images.

Greg can’t speak for Aaron, he doesn’t know him personally, but he suspects that if they got together they would find that they really kind of agree on things more than it seems even though we have said things pretty differently.  There are so many factors with sharpening and noise reduction like how the image was captured, what is the subject, are you going to put it online or printing it really large. So many things that can change where it is best to do sharpening and noise reduction.  Just as we said earlier, there isn’t a single way to go about doing this.

Why Lightroom for Sharpening and Noise Reduction Over Photoshop?

For Greg, the reason he uses Lightroom (really it is Adobe Camera Raw – called ACR for short –  in Photoshop) for sharpening and noise reduction is that he hasn’t found with a lot of consistency that other tools are dramatically superior.  There are some specific images where another tool other than Lightroom/ACR was able to do a better job with the sharpening and/or noise reduction, but not something that is universal.  In general, the results you can get using Lightroom/ACR does pretty consistently provide really good results and it is a tool most photographers already have.

If you are going to another tool to do sharpening and noise reduction in a 3rd party tool there can be a big down side because changes made outside of Photoshop in particular becomes something you really can’t go back and change.  With Smart Objects and layers in Photoshop you can do a non-destructive workflow where you can change things later if further down the processing road you decide you went a little overboard and didn’t apply enough capture sharpening and/or noise reduction.  To Greg, the trade off for an image being a little better in a 3rd party tool occasionally isn’t worth the edit being done outside of the Adobe world.

Greg has tried pretty well all of the 3rd party tools for sharpening and noise reduction, if there was a really compelling tool out there that nearly universally did a better job that Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw then he would be completely open to using it.  At that point the trade-off between keeping all of the edits in Adobe software and going outside of it to a 3rd party tool for sharpening and noise reduction would be worth it.

Like Greg, I also nearly always prefer doing sharpening and noise reduction in Lightroom.  I prefer Lightroom for a lot of the same reasons you provided but the biggest one for me is time.  One of my editing goals is to stay in Lightroom as much as I possibly can. My editing workflow grinds to a halt as soon as I take a photo into photoshop.

Photoshop isn’t a massive time sink for me because it is slow.  On the contrary, nearly everything in Photoshop is lightning fast especially when you compare it to Lightroom.  Photoshop is a time sink for me because I am such a perfectionist that when I have the more advanced tools in Photoshop available to me for working on a photo I go for it and I start changing every little thing in the photo.  That might be great for a landscape photographer who is needing to make sure to work those pixels over to get everything they can out of the shot or for a magazine cover shot where again you need to make sure you have taken care of every little thing possible.  It’s not great for me and my family portraits or volume sports photography.

After I do a big edit in Photoshop I look at the difference in the photo and while I like the results, it was nearly always overkill for a family portrait session.  I tend to waste a ton of time on something that the client will never really notice. I have to take the photos into Photoshop for my volume sports photos, but I MUST get out of there as fast as I can to avoid spending too much time on a single photo.  The more I can do in Lightroom the better I can manage my time and get editing done more quickly.

Do the Sharpening and Noise Reduction That Works For You

If you have a workflow that incorporates a 3rd party tool or an alternative method to doing sharpening and noise reduction in Lightroom/ACR that we are going through in this episode, great!  Keep doing whatever is helping you to create images you are happy with and that your clients are happy with. Again, this isn’t the ONLY way to do sharpening and noise reduction. Just a really good option that likely will work for a really large number of photographers.

Again, there isn’t just one way to process photos.  A portrait photographer has different needs and workflow than a landscape photographer.  We all have different goals and needs. Even though we are suggesting a way to do sharpening and noise reduction in Lightroom, if you use a different method we aren’t saying you are wrong.

Recommended Lightroom Sharpening and Noise Reduction Workflow

Let’s walk through the workflow Greg uses with Lightroom/ACR to apply sharpening and noise reduction to his images.  We want to go as step by step as possible so the photographers can learn and decide if they want to adopt this method for sharpening and noise reduction.  

For anyone photographer who feels intimidated by doing sharpening and noise reduction in general, we have ALL been there.  Every photographer faces that challenge and we hope that this episode may help make a molehill out of a mountain for those that feel that way.  Greg and I have both spent a lot of time using Lightroom/ACR to figure out how to use them. The good news is the Lightroom/ACR tools for sharpening and noise reduction tend to be simpler (though still not truly simple) to use than other tools and methods.

There are three main buckets of sliders in Lightroom/ACR for sharpening and noise reduction.  There are four sharpening sliders, three luminance noise reduction sliders, and three color noise reduction sliders.  It may sound a little overwhelming to newer photographers that don’t have a lot of experience in Lightroom, a total of ten different sliders, but I think we can make it pretty simple to talk through how to use them.

The Four Lightroom Sharpening Sliders

Let’s start with the four sharpening sliders.  One of the things to pay attention to is that the order of the panels and the sliders in Lightroom has been well thought out by Adobe.  Sometimes sliders get moved in the Develop module after customer feedback comes in telling Adobe it doesn’t make sense where it is at. The order of the sliders for sharpening and noise reduction was done on purpose and in general you should go through them in the order they are presented in Lightroom/ACR.

(Sharpening) Amount: Just like the name says, this is the amount of sharpening that Lightroom is going to apply to your image.  The slider goes from 0 to 150. Crank up the amount really high, try hard to ignore how nasty your photo looks, and then tune the other three sliders before taking it back down to a level that looks good.

If you don’t crank up the amount it can be hard to see the effect the other sliders have on the image.  You do sharpening using Lightroom/ACR for “capture sharpness”. There are other kinds of sharpening like creative sharpening and output sharpening that other tools are going to do.  Most photographers do three different types of sharpening in that order: capture, creative, and then output. Capture sharpening is done to overcome softness in the image your raw files (JPEGs have capture sharpening applied in-camera according to an algorithm created by the manufacturer).  

Creative sharpening is done to make it look as good as you possible can on the monitor (hopefully a good one) that you are using.  Then output sharpening is done according to how your are using the image, often to consider how ink spreads out on a page and can soften the image.  We are only covering the capture sharpening here.

In particular we are doing something called deconvolution sharpening (click that link for Greg’s incredible article on the topic).  You don’t have to understand what deconvolution sharpening is, just follow the advice given here and that is exactly what you will get in Lightroom/ACR.  You will get a much better result for large prints if you follow this process as a starting point.  

First step is crank this Amount slider up over 100 and then dial it back down to taste after using the other sliders.  Greg ends up 35-50 for most images, sometimes a lot less.

(Sharpening) Radius:  Radius is how many pixels around edges in the images are going to be changed to emphasize the edge.  The slider goes from 0.5 to 3.0 and if you move it towards the 3.0 side it can make the edges far more distinct but it also can add a lot of halos.  For deconvolution capture sharpening, set the Radius slider all the way to the left, 0.5.

(Sharpening) Details: What most photographers don’t know is that this slider is balancing how two different sharpening algorithms are going to be used.  All the way to left at 0 it is the unsharp mask sharpening algorithm. All the way to right at 100 is the deconvolution sharpening algorithm.  Again, deconvolution is very specifically designed to overcome softness introduced at capture time by defects in the lens and the sensor of your camera.  It makes some assumptions about how a raw image was captured. If you use the slider anywhere in between then you get a blend of the two algorithms.

The more you slide it to the right, the more you see fine details, so the slider is very aptly named.  Greg always puts the detail slider at 100 to get deconvolution sharpening.

(Sharpening) Masking: The masking slider is an attempt by Lightroom/ACR to kind of replicate the layer masking functionality you get in Photoshop.  The idea is to sharpen edges and not the things in between.  Although the masking here is very different from the layer masking done in Photoshop because you are influencing the algorithm and not really defining where the sharpening won’t be applied.  In theory it sounds like a poor man’s layer masking but in practice it tends to introduce artifacts into the image and Greg recommends just turning it off by always setting the slider to 0.

Masking Sharpening Without The Masking Slider in Lightroom

If you end up needing to change the sharpening so that it isn’t being applied to all of the image you can use layer masking in Photoshop so that the sharpening done through ACR isn’t applied everywhere.  You can also do this by using an Adjustment Brush in Lightroom – which brings up a point that needs to be made here.

In Lightroom Adjustment Brushes only have a single Sharpening slider, not all four that we have talked about here.  When you change that Sharpening slider in an Adjustment brush you are changing the (Sharpening) Amount effect wherever you paint on the image.  The other three sliders (Radius, Details, Masking) are still going to be applied based on what you set them to. This is how any of the local adjustment tools are going to work, meaning Adjustment Brushes, Gradient Filter, and Radial Filter.

The way then to make it so that parts of the image won’t be sharpened as much as others would be to dial in the sharpness how you want it for the part where you want the sharpening globally there in the Details panel and then use a local adjustment and move the Sharpening slider to the left where you don’t want it applied.  If you combine range masking to the local adjustment you can get much closer to how layer masking works in Photoshop.

Never Sharpen (or Reduce Noise) at Less Than 1:1 in Lightroom

Another vital tip for doing sharpening in Lightroom, NEVER adjust the four Sharpening sliders without having the view at least 1:1 if not closer on the image.  The Full view does not present all of the pixels of your image and it is impossible to fully judge the effects of sharpening and noise reduction sliders at that zoomed out view.

While on the topic of the view of your photo to best judge the effects of sharpening and noise reduction sliders in Lightroom, you shouldn’t judge where to put the sliders based on a single 1:1view of your image.  You should start at the Full view, find an area in the photo where you want to have the most detail and then zoom in there (at least 1:1 but maybe more like 2:1 or 4:1) and set the sliders as they look good. Then zoom back out to Full and pick another spot where you would like to show a lot of details and zoom back in to make sure the setting of the sliders doesn’t need to be changed.

Why Are There Two Sets of Noise Reduction Sliders in Lightroom?

There are two sets of noise reduction sliders in Lightroom because there are two different types of noise.  Adobe labels them luminance and color. Luminance is the noise that most people think about. Some may call it grain.  Color noise are spots of inaccurate color which is less noticeable and more easily fixed than luminance noise.

Luminance noise comes when there is not enough light for your photos (making you use a high ISO to get a good exposure). Color noise comes in part because of the way most camera sensors produce color utilizing a color filter array.  Images taken with more light (and therefore needing less ISO) tend to have little luminance noise that needs correction, but pretty well EVERY image has quite a lot of color noise, you will really notice it if your turn off the color noise reduction.

The Three (Luminance) Noise Reduction Sliders

Luminance:  Very similar to the Amount slider under sharpening.  How much of the luminance noise reduction do you want Lightroom to apply to the photo.  We wish Adobe had labeled it Luminance Amount, but you don’t really have the room in the application to put text that large.

Just like with Sharpening, you should crank up the Luminance far to the right so that you can see the full effect of the other two sliders and then dial it back when you are done to your taste.

(Luminance) Detail: Like the masking slider in Sharpening, only here it is actually useful and don’t recommend turning it off.  When you slide Detail to the right you let the luminance noise reduction to apply to the image as possible but it will still avoid certain things.  Like applying it to a Milky Way image. If you zoom in 4:1 you can see that even with detail all the way to the right, the luminance noise reduction isn’t going to touch the edges of the dark sky near the edges of stars.  You would also notice that the secondary or dimmer stars will show through better in the image as you move the slider to the right.

The problem is that it can really start to look fake and noticeably edited if you have the Luminance and Detail sliders all the way to the right.  You need to find a happy middle ground for the Detail slider where you can bring out as much detail as possible but still not have there be spots where it is clear that noise reduction is being applied.

(Luminance) Contrast: As you move the Detail slider to the right, the noise reduction will make some of the contrast go away in the image.  The darkest parts of the photo become lighter and the lightest parts of the photo become darker. If you move the contrast slider to the right, Lightroom will try to bring back some of that contrast that was taken away with the Detail slider.

Notice that there aren’t suggested values for setting these sliders.  It is really specific to every image on where these sliders should end up.  Some photos have far more noise than others. Some photographers want to get rid of that noise even at the cost of detail because it really bothers them.

You should always apply the noise reduction after you get Sharpening where you want it, but don’t be afraid to go and change the Sharpening amount slider a little based on what you see with the noise reduction sliders – especially the Luminance noise reduction sliders.  A good balance needs to be struck according to your objectives of getting as much detail through sharpening as possible without having such a large job for noise reduction that you can’t actually control the noise to your liking.

Also remember that just like was recommended with Sharpening above, you need to zoom in at least 1:1 and move around the image to several spots to make sure you have the sliders dialed in to where you want them to be.  The local adjustment tools in the Develop module also have a slider labeled Noise, and like was the case with Sharpening it means that as you move that Noise slider to the right Lightroom will increase the Luminance value (adding more noise reduction) wherever you paint that local adjustment.

The Three (Color) Noise Reduction Sliders

The Color noise reduction sliders are the least important of the sharpening and noise reduction sliders in Lightroom/ACR.  In many cases you can leave these sliders at their default and have everything look really good as long as you do a good job of dialing in the right amount of Sharpening and Luminance noise reduction.

If you are working on an image where the fine details are really defined by their colors, then it is worth investing some time in getting these color noise reduction sliders set at optimal levels.  Color noise comes up in high ISO images and in something like a flower in the distance where those flowers are only as big as a single pixel.

Color: Use the same approach with these three sliders as was recommended with the three Luminance noise reduction sliders. Rock the Color slider all the way to the right, adjust the other two sliders, and the come back and lower it until you are happy with the image.

(Color) Detail: Just like the Luminance Detail slider, this Detail slider controls the masking of the effect.  As you add more color detail it is going to allow more of the color noise through. The more you take it to the left the more Lightroom will try and make pixels match the color of their neighbors.

A little different from the Luminance Detail slider, this is one where you probably want to end up something kind of in the middle.  Generally 25 to 50 or so. If you take it to the max you end up removing color where you really don’t want to. Like say a traffic light where there is a red glow around it, take the Detail slider too far to the left and you may eliminate the glowing part of it outside the light.

(Color Smoothness): Instead of Contrast slider with Luminance noise reduction, you have a slider labeled Smoothness that goes with color noise reduction.  It is a little bit harder to explain, but it controls how smoothly colors are changing from one area of an image to the next, not down to the pixel level like Color Detail functions.  Larger areas where Lightroom is going to try and make the colors blend together the more you take the Smoothness slider to the right or make them more distinct if you move it to the left.  

If you find you have some blotchy areas in your photo you can try and even that out by moving it the right.  If you have a neon sign in your shot this is something to play around with and see if you can emphasize that glow.  Or maybe the gases in the Milky Way and get them to show.

Take It Slow With Sharpening and Noise Reduction Sliders in Lightroom

I have been doing a lot of testing of the sliders in the Develop module in Lightroom to see how they impact the hardware of your computer.  Which sliders need more processing power, which may benefit from graphics acceleration, and which use more memory. It is really early on in this testing I am doing, far from done, but I can say that these sharpening and noise reduction sliders REALLY need processing power.

I have seen the processor go to 100% used in using these sliders and you don’t have any evidence that Lightroom is having a hard time keeping up, but it is.  You have to move these sliders slowly. More slowly than others so that you can have the view update. You may even want to move the slider and then wait for about a second for Lightroom to catch up.

In the early testing I have done, these are the only sliders that made the fans come on to cool the computer down because it put so much load on the processor.  If you feel like you don’t see a difference in the image as you are working with these sliders, you need to use them more slowly and you need to be zoomed in at least 1:1.

If you are doing a batch of editing where the conditions were the same you should dial things in on the first shot and then copy and paste the settings of these sliders to the other images.  That will save you a ton of time.

Lumenzia Difference Masks to Help With Sharpening

Greg has an incredibly useful plug-in (really an extension panel but everyone calls them plug-ins) that can help with a pretty unique feature it would be tough to duplicate any other way.  When the Lumenzia extension panel is open in Photoshop you can use a tool in the panel called Difference Mask to select the brighter parts of an image, or the inverse to select the dark sky and create a layer mask that gets applied to the ACR layer on your smart object image.

We won’t go into any further detail here on that, but if you are interested check out Greg’s post linked at the top of this article.

Doodads

Jeff: Microsoft NTFS for Mac by Paragon software ($20).  For those of you who may use both Windows and Mac like I do, this is rock solid software that allows your Mac to read/write to hard drives formatted for Windows computers.  I can use large external hard drives with both my Windows and Mac this way.  

Greg: StarAdventurer Star Tracker ($400).  Having fun with this going out to shoot the Milky Way and stars at night.  The device moves your camera in sync with the stars moving because the Earth is rotating.  Enables you to shoot far longer shutter speeds and lower your ISO to get really nice night sky images without the noise.  Can go up from about 13 seconds on a pretty wide angle lens to several minutes. Little bit of a technical curve, but very worth it.

Reminders:

Comments

  1. This was a big help. I tried the sharpen and luminance sliders on a recent real estate image i took and the increased quality of the image was noticeable. Thanks.

    How much effect does increasing the sharpness setting in the camera do what the sharpen sliders do?

    Thanks again,
    Kirt Germond

    1. Author

      @Kirt, so glad you found it helpful! The sharpening settings in your camera only have an effect if you shoot JPEGs. Camera settings other than aperture, shutter speed, and ISO don’t change anything with raw files.

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