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.

First Shots – Canon 90D

A new toy! My primary camera body for 6+ years now has been a Canon 70D. It’s been a great camera, but…it’s time for an upgrade. I’ve been waiting (not so patiently!!!) for either a Canon 90D or 7D Mark III to be announced, as I wanted an upgrade, but wanted to stay with APS-C and the crop factor (handy when birds are your primary target). It was the 90D that was announced a few weeks ago. It started shipping Thursday, and I got mine from B&H the next day (awesome service as always, B&H).

I was anxious to give the camera a whirl this weekend, and was able to get out for a little bit this morning. As always, I had birds on my mind, but with a very strong south wind and generally non-cooperative birds, I set my sights on other quarry. Just a few photos below if you’re interested in the 90D and what it can do. All were taken with the Canon 100-400mm II lens.

Before the pics, just a few notes on my impression of the 90D. In terms of the nuts and bolts of the body, it has a very similar layout and will feel familiar to any Canon 70D shooter. While both have the same rubbery-coating in key areas of the grip, the rest of the body on the 70D is smoother and feels more “metallic”. The 90D surface has a consistency that feels like powder-coated metal is and is more matte in appearance than shiny. I appreciate the joystick on the 90D, and the fully articulating screen is great. The screen swings out, but also rotates. You can position it with the screen locked and facing back towards the shooter, as if it were a 70D. It’s nice for taking a shot and quickly reviewing (again, as you would with a 70D). When you’re done for the day, you can rotate the screen so it’s “face-down” towards the camera, protecting it when not in use.

There’s little doubt auto-focus is better on the 90D. I was frustrated quite a bit trying to shoot birds in flight with my 70D, in that it often had trouble “holding on” to a target. In my limited shooting this morning, it seemed MUCH better. There were a number of Franklin’s Gulls flying over, and I tried locking onto a bird and shooting, and it did a good job maintaining focus as I tracked the bird in flight (using AI Servo mode).

Note I also did a bit of shooting with an old 1.4x Canon teleconverter I have. I think the newer Canon teleconverters have more capability than the 15-year old teleconverter I have(?). But even with my old 1.4, the 90D will autofocus with an (effective) f/8 lens, meaning I was able to use it with my EF 100-400mm IS II USM and maintain autofocus with the center point. That’s a capability the 70D doesn’t have (although the 80D does). There’s no doubt the images when using the 1.4x were a touch softer than those without, but I’ll have to do more testing to check the capabilities with the 1.4x.

10-frames a second on the 90D…damn. I usually don’t shoot in that mode, as it just means I’d typically end up having to filter through even more shots to settle on my “keepers”, but it’s a nice option and a big upgrade over the 70D.

Of course one big improvement is resolution, where I’m going from 20 MP in the 70D to 32.5 MP in the 90D. A lot of pixels, and a lot of detail. For a guy who shoots primarily birds and often has to crop, those extra pixels are most welcome.

A few shots from this morning are below. Note I am NOT a pixel-peeper who is going to analyze every single element here, nor am I really one to give you a rigorous test. No, what follows are basic shots from the camera, shot RAW, and processed through Canon’s Digital Photo Professional with default settings to produce the JPEGs below. Each are the full-res versions (click to see full-res file). Just a few for now, including some at low ISO and one at quite high ISO. My first subject for the day…a farm cat that was hunting in a grassy field! In all the years I’ve been shooting, that this is probably the first cat photo I’ve ever taken!

CLICK ON THE 800pixel version below to load the original full-res images

Canon 90D, EF100-400mm f/4.5-4.5L IS II USM, 1/320 sec, f/9, ISO 200
Canon 90D, EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, 1/8000 sec, f/9, ISO 8000
I wanted to take something at high ISO. Not exactly the world’s best test of high ISO, in such bright light, but I was pleased with the performance at ISO 8000. Note this again is default settings convert from Camera RAW, and the default is more aggressive at noise control at ISO 8000 than for the ISO200 shot above.
Canon 90D, EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, 1/200 sec, f/9, ISO 200
Canon 90D, EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, 1/320, f/8, ISO 200
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