Night Noise

You can reduce the noise in low light photography by taking multiple images and merging them to extract the statistical mean or median value. These statistical operations are available in Photoshop’s Layers > Smart Objects > Stack Mode menu. Here is a clear example of the effects of the mean and median operations on a stack of four similar images.

three images showing noise reduction by mean and median operations

Original, mean, and median images compared

The leftmost image is one of four similar images that were stacked into a smart object. In the middle image, the mean value (average) of the four images is used as the value of at each pixel position. In the right image, the median value (midpoint of the range of values) is used. You can find the full median image here.

The noise reduction is pretty dramatic (you’ll have to click on the image and view it full size to see what I mean). I find the mean image somewhat smoother, visually, than the median image, but the median image has some advantages over the mean.

A man in a yellow rainjacket walked across the view while I was shooting. You can see four images of him in the mean image: logically, one fourth of the pixels  in the stack at those points belonged to the moving man, so he has a ghostly presence. In the median image, he has practically disappeared: the influence of details or noise that appear in only one of the images is much less marked than in the mean image. The median operation is particularly useful for removing momentary details from a statistical composite.

Of course, the reason the original images were so noisy is that I was shooting hand-held at a high ISO (1600). If I had used a tripod and lower ISO with time exposure, I would not have had to resort to statistical operations for noise reduction. Knowing that the image would be noisy, I shot multiple images and used Photoshop’s File > Automate > Photomerge… command to position the images in layers. Details of how to do this can be found in an earlier post, Statistical Blending.

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