Science to the rescue! Saving the day on high ISO images

I’m not fond of processing all the photos I take. That could be why that up until 3 months ago, I had unprocessed folders of bird photos corresponding to trips going all the way back to 2014! Thousands of photos, taken and never processed, witting there waiting to see the light of day. In some ways it has been fun over the last 3 months, going through those photos, finding hidden treasures of things I don’t remember even taking. However, it’s also been a royal pain in the butt to slog through them all.

The light is at the end of the tunnel though! In another month, month and a half, I’ll have caught up! The last thing I thought I needed though was another step in the process of processing a RAW digital file into the final polished form. I try to keep my workflow very simple, with a basic RAW conversion and subsequent simple things in Photoshop (which typically for me is just some cropping if appropriate, and adding metadata about where the photo was taken). However there are always some photos that require a little bit more.

Photos that require “more” often include those taken in low light, whether it’s early in the morning, late in the evening, or due to cloudy or shady conditions. In those cases, to get enough shutter speed for me to hand-hold the camera (which I almost always do), you have to bump up the ISO setting. That does help getting a photo in low-light, but at the cost of a noisy image, and image that also seems to lack detail. Given how picky I am about my photos, I thus typically don’t shoot much in low light situations, unless it’s a rare bird or something else I really want to document.

Science to the rescue! Yesterday I was poking around Twitter, and came across someone posting a before-and-after of a really grainy, high ISO photo that had then been processed through “Topaz DeNoise AI” software. I’ve seen ads before for noise software like that. I have always been…skeptical…to say the least. What you see on those ads often seems too good to be true, turning a crappy, noisy picture into award winning material. But this wasn’t an ad from a company, it was a regular joe who was really pleased with the result and was sharing.

OK, I thought, what the hell, I’ll give it a whirl. I downloaded the software on a 30-day free trial, and was looking for an unprocessed, high-noise photo try it out with. Given my pool of unprocessed photos was much smaller than 3 months ago, I didn’t have much, but did have a photo of a Barred Owl from the state park across the street from just a few weeks ago. Barred Owls are quite rare in South Dakota, thus my using high-ISO in really bad lighting just to record the event.

I opened one of the owl photos in the software, and let it do it’s thing. Pardon the language but HOLY. CRAP. The software was showing a preview of the output at a 100% crop, showing the center of the image that was focused around the owl’s face. What was a recognizable, but noisy mess had been turned into something that was completely noise free. That part doesn’t shock me, as you can ALWAYS easily remove noise…but typically at a cost to image detail. Here, the opposite occurred, with feather detail around the face of the owl suddenly showing up, information content I thought didn’t even EXIST in the original image.

Topaz DeNoise AI software is something that may not only change how I process photos, it may change my birding habits themselves! I rarely go out with the camera is light is poor (which given our gloomy, often cloudy winters, is a lot!). I’m looking forward to experimenting with more high-ISO photos and seeing just what the DeNoise AI software can do! Even imagines with much more modest noise seem to get a nice “kick” in clarity and sharpness, more so than what I can typically get out of Photoshop. The only downside I’ve noticed is that depending on how aggressive you get with pushing the software, the image can start to turn into something that looks more like a painting than a photograph, but that’s just when I bump up the default “auto” settings where the software determines the appropriate level of correction, and instead push a maximally aggressive processing.

Cool software! Not an “ad” or anything for this software, as yesterday was the first day I even knew it existed, and I’m not getting reimbursed or anything for “endorsing” it with this post! Just passing along the info for photographers who want a potential solution to high ISO, noisy images.

Before and after photo using Topaz DeNoise AI software
Click on the image and look at full resolution to see exactly what the Topaz DeNoise AI software can do. A very noisy image, in both the background and the plumage on the owl’s face, is suddenly COMPLETELY noise free on the right, but what shocked me the most is the plumage detail that was ‘recovered’ by the software.

Audubon artwork free for download!

Audubon Plate 186 - "Pinnated Grouse"

John J. Audubon’s “Pinnated Grouse” (Now called Greater Prairie Chicken). An example of the gorgeous artwork he created in the early 1800s.

John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America” was originally printed between 1827 and 1838, and included 435 hand-illustrated pieces from Audubon, a representation of the knowledge of America’s bird life at the time. Audubon’s work is clearly iconic, both from the bird and birding perspective, and from an artistic perspective. He certainly had his own style, definitely not photo-realistic, yet nonetheless, incredibly beautiful and representative of each species.  What I find so cool about them isn’t just the birds, which by themselves are gorgeous, but the settings in which Audubon often placed the birds. The Birds of America pieces also often included representative habitat, represented in the same fluid style. Regardless of the content, they are timeless, gorgeous works of art that stand on their own.

Audubon’s work at the time was definitely considered unique, as he developed his own technique using watercolors and sometimes pencil, pen, or pastel crayons).  The work at the time was very difficult to reproduce. Copperplate etching was used to reproduce the prints, with watercolor added by hand. He sold his prints through a subscription process, with subscribers receiving 5 prints every month. Less than 200 of these original sets were ever produced. Other editions were issued through the mid-1800s, but no edition produced more than 1,200 copies.  Needless to say, these 1800s editions are extremely valuable today.  The Economist in 2010 published a list of the most expensive books ever sold at auction, adjusted for inflation.  They had to adjust their list to avoid repeats of the same title, because 5 of the top 10 most expensive book sales EVER were copies of Audubon’s Birds of America!

As I was wasting time on Twitter earlier today, I saw a little blurb about “free Audubon prints”. I clicked on the link, and found that the Audubon site does indeed have digital scans of all the John James Audubon artwork from his famed “Birds of America”. Given their date of production, they’re obviously past copyright and considered public domain. Here’s the link on the Audubon site.

John James Audubon’s Birds of America

This is so cool!  Not only can you view each of the plates, you can download your own digital copy!!  Best of all, they’re NOT small files with limited resolution, they are very incredibly detailed, very large digital scans of the Audubon print.  Downloading “Plate 77 – Belted Kingfisher”, for example, gives you a file that roughly 6,500 by 7,900 pixels, better than image resolution provided by the vast majority of digital cameras, and capable of supporting prints of up to 2 feet by 3 feet in size! The detail is amazing, with absolutely nothing lost.  Every brush stroke, every tiny bit of feather detail is provided in these free downloaded files. The detail is so amazing that  you can see some of the tiny “flaws”, such as where some of the water-coloring goes “outside-of-the-lines” of the underlying etchings.

Do you want your own copies of Audubon’s gorgeous artwork on your wall?  You can do so very cheaply!  Download the free digital files, then go to a site like If you upload your Audubon file download to mpix, for example, for a mere $20 you can have your very own 16″ x 20″ copy of an Audubon print.

After downloading a few, I have noticed there are some issues with the quality of the scans. For example, when downloading the “Black-winged Hawk” (what’s now called a White-tailed Kite), it appears that some of the details in the brighter white areas are “washed out”, as you would get if you overexpose a shot on your digital camera. That’s likely an issue with the way the images were scanned, but it appears in many of the plates where white or brighter areas are evident.  Overall the scans appear to be brighter (and thus washed out in some areas) than I’m sure the original images were.  My guess is this was done during efforts to correct for white balance, to ensure that the background of some images was a perfectly pure white color.  I actually prefer the plate at the top of this post, of the “Pinnated Grouse”, as it maintains the older yellowish, warm tones of the background (as you might expect from an older print).  I hope they keep working on the digital scans, working to make them as representative of the original colors and tones as possible, but overall the scans are really beautiful and wonderful to look at.

These are SO incredibly cool. It’s also so very cool to see the history in these prints, from the standpoint of what species were called back then.  I love seeing a “Foolish Guillemot” (now Common Murre), “Rathbone Warbler” (Yellow Warbler), or “Great Cinerous Owl” (Great Gray Owl).  Wonderful history, and wonderful pieces of art to enjoy.  THANK YOU AUDUBON!  It must have been an extraordinary bit of work to scan these, and clean them up to provide such gorgeous, flawless, massively sized digital files! Here are some more examples of Audubon’s work that you can download (these are just a fraction of the original image size).

Audubon's Plate 236 - Night Heron

Audubon's Plate 366 - "Iceland or Jer-Falcon"

Audubon's Plate 12 - Baltimore Oriole

Audubon's Plate 397 - Scarlet Ibis

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