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Lightroom’s AI-Powered Denoise Tool: A Hands-On Review

A review of Lightroom's AI-powered Denoise tool

Looking to get the most out of your high-ISO photos? Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise is a brand-new feature that uses the capabilities of artificial intelligence to reduce noise and grain while simultaneously keeping details intact. And it’s all through a simple and straightforward interface that’s easy enough for beginners to handle but powerful enough for professionals.

In this article, I offer a deep dive into Lightroom’s most effective noise-reduction tool to date, and I offer my thoughts on its benefits and drawbacks. While there are a few caveats to bear in mind, it’s certainly worth trying and could easily become a central component of your post-production workflow.

Let’s dive right in.

What is Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise tool?

Longtime Lightroom users might be feeling a bit of déjà vu right about now; after all, hasn’t the program had the ability to remove noise from high-ISO images for years? And it’s true: Tucked away in the Details pane of the Develop panel, a half-dozen sliders let you take manual control over your noise reduction using options like Luminance, Color, Detail, Contrast, and Smoothness.

But though it’s possible to get decent results with these sliders – with enough practice and a healthy dose of patience – they take a fair amount of time to master, and they certainly don’t offer a streamlined workflow. Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise, on the other hand, gives you great results by doing most of the heavy lifting for you – all while adding some benefits you can’t get with the program’s traditional tools.

Standard noise-reduction techniques smooth out the specks and grain associated with high-ISO files at the cost of fine detail. Textures lose their crispness, intricate color gradations become muddy, and skin takes on an artificially smooth appearance. By adding the power of artificial intelligence, Lightroom is able to reduce noise artifacts while preserving details that would be lost using simple slider manipulations.

Lightroom's AI-Powered Denoise Feature: toy train and truck on a table surface.
Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise made this photo – shot at ISO 6400 – look like it was taken at ISO 100.

Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise tool: How it works and ease of use

The best part of Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise feature is how simple it is to use. All you have to do is navigate to the Detail panel in the Develop interface and click the Denoise button:

Lightroom's AI-Powered Denoise Feature: Denoise button in Lightroom

Lightroom then displays the Enhance Preview dialog box with the Denoise option selected:

Lightroom's AI-Powered Denoise Feature: Denoise dialog panel
This is the same dialog box that appears when you select Enhance… from the Photo menu in Develop mode. The only difference is that Denoise is preselected. Un-selecting Denoise lets you perform other operations (e.g., enhancing details of RAW files or creating a Super Resolution image).

You can use a slider to adjust the intensity of the AI-powered Denoise operation, or you can set a value manually. Regardless, you can use the preview window on the left to see what the noise-reduced result will look like. You can also click the preview window to see a before-and-after view of the original and Enhanced images.

Then, when you’re ready to proceed, you should then click Enhance in the bottom right-hand corner of the window.

Note: You can check the Create Stack option to make the final image thumbnail appear on top of the original in Lightroom, but I recommend leaving it unchecked so you can see thumbnails for the original and the Enhanced images side by side.

Lightroom's AI-Powered Denoise Feature: stuffed bunny
This ISO 12800 photo was enhanced using Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise.

In keeping with Lightroom’s non-destructive methods, the original file remains completely untouched and intact. Lightroom creates an entirely new DNG file with the Denoise operation applied, and you are free to share that file, edit it in Photoshop or another program, or remove it from Lightroom if you don’t like the results.

Now, there are a few caveats to the process that might affect how and when you choose to use it. First, Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise tool only works on RAW images shot with Bayer or X-Trans image sensors. This covers most cameras from major manufacturers, but if you shoot with something a bit less popular, you might want to check on Adobe’s website to see if your model is supported.

Additionally, the Denoise operation can only be performed on one image at a time, and it takes anywhere from several seconds to a few minutes to complete. That makes it impractical for photographers who have dozens or hundreds of high-ISO shots to process, and while it’s far from a dealbreaker, it is something to keep in mind.

Finally, each DNG file created with Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise operation will be four to five times as large as its original unaltered counterpart. While this is fairly inconsequential for photographers who don’t use the tool very often, shooters who regularly apply it to their images will quickly find themselves running low on storage space. Again, this isn’t a reason not to use AI-powered Denoise, but just make sure to adjust your expectations – and your file storage options – accordingly.

Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise tool: Performance

I was consistently impressed with the performance of Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise feature, especially when compared to the program’s traditional noise-reduction sliders.

It did an admirable job of removing high-ISO artifacts such as unsightly speckles and grain, and its simplicity makes it easy for anyone to use. However, I did encounter some issues that, while not insurmountable, do need to be pointed out.

To illustrate the performance of the AI-powered Denoise, I enlisted my shaggy-haired son (along with some sweets as an incentive to sit still). Both of the following images were shot with the same camera and lens but at vastly different ISO values:

Lightroom's AI-Powered Denoise Feature: two images of a child's haircut, side by side.
The left image was shot at ISO 800, while the right image was shot at ISO 12600.

When viewed as small-sized thumbnails the differences are not significant or even noticeable, but everything changes when you start to zoom in close.

Lightroom's AI-Powered Denoise Feature: close-up showing the details in a child's haircut.
The same images as above but viewed at 200%. The image on the left was shot at ISO 800, while the image on the right was shot at ISO 12600.

The ISO 800 image is relatively clean and you can easily see each individual strand of hair. Color gradations are subtle and fluctuate nicely throughout the image, and hair is still very visible in the dark top-right corner. In contrast, the high-ISO counterpart is a photographic travesty. Whole swaths of hair are nothing more than a muddled mess, while colors are splotchy and the top-right corner looks as though petroleum jelly was smeared across the lens.

Under normal circumstances, I would immediately reject the image on the right. However, Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise was able to salvage the file and transform it into a photo you could practically print and frame. Check out this next comparison, which shows my ISO 800 image (left) next to the ISO 12800 image after I applied some AI Denoising:

Lightroom's AI-Powered Denoise Feature: close-up showing the details in a child's haircut.
The high ISO image on the right has been processed with Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise feature.

After I performed the Denoise operation (leaving the Amount slider at its default value of 50), I had to double-check that I didn’t make a mistake somewhere in the process. The AI-processed file looks even better than the ISO 800 shot: colors are rich and detailed, hair is distinct, and that troublesome top-right corner is entirely usable.

The results are even more impressive when you compare them to what you can get with the traditional noise reduction sliders. While the sliders do an admirable job of reducing noise and grain, they often remove fine details and colors at the same time. This can be mitigated somewhat by refining the slider values, but at the end of the day, AI-powered Denoise gives significantly better results in almost every scenario. Here is that same ISO 12800 image, but processed using Lightroom’s AI Denoise feature (left) and the standard sliders (right):

Lightroom's AI-Powered Denoise Feature: close-up showing the details in a child's haircut.
Left: ISO 12800 image processed with Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise feature. Right: The same image, but processed with Lightroom’s Noise Reduction sliders.

The image below of a toy lawnmower on a bed of pine needles offers another example of how useful Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise tool really is. I shot it with an old Nikon D200 at ISO 3200, which – as you can see – is well beyond that camera’s usable range. The picture is filled with unsightly high-ISO artifacts and is completely unsuitable for printing or even sharing online.

Lightroom's AI-Powered Denoise Feature: toy lawnmower on a bed of pine needles.

Lightroom’s noise reduction sliders don’t help much, since they take away the noise but remove almost all of the detail of the pine needles. The result isn’t terrible, but it’s also not that great. Some careful work with masking and targeted noise reduction could help, but those operations take time and can be tedious and painstaking.

Lightroom's AI-Powered Denoise Feature: toy lawnmower on a bed of pine needles.
The file processed with Lightroom’s Noise Reduction sliders. The noise is not as prominent, but much of the detail and texture are gone, too.

Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise does a phenomenal job of removing noise while preserving virtually all of the detail and texture of the pine needles. It accomplishes in seconds (or a few minutes, depending on how fast your computer is) what would normally take much longer, and it gives better results, too.

Lightroom's AI-Powered Denoise Feature: toy lawnmower on a bed of pine needles.
The image is significantly improved with AI-powered Denoise. Noise and grain are gone, the pine needles are detailed, and the toy mower looks brand new.

Let me be clear: For all its power, there are some cases in which Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise does more harm than good. The AI algorithm can end up removing noise so well that the results look fake and take on an artificial, plastic appearance. This can be mitigated somewhat by adjusting the Amount slider to a lower value, but there are certainly times when you just get a better image by sticking with the grainy original.

For the image below, AI-powered Denoise was able to clean up the noise but with some unfortunate side effects. The boy’s skin looks as if it’s made of plastic, and the fence behind him has lost its rich texture. The grass is improved, as is his shirt, but I actually prefer the unmodified original.

Lightroom's AI-Powered Denoise Feature: close-up of a boy holding a football
The image on the right is the same as the image on left but processed with AI-powered Denoise .

It’s also important to understand that, while Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise feature does an outstanding job of removing noise while preserving detail, texture, and color, it can’t create something from nothing. If the original high-ISO image doesn’t have usable data to work with, the artificial intelligence can’t do much to help. Take a look at the picture below, which was taken at ISO 100 and shows fine details across the entire shot:

Lightroom's AI-Powered Denoise Feature: a large lawn with pine trees, a shed, and a chain-link fence at sunrise.

A 100% crop is displayed below. Notice how even in the shadowy areas on the left, you can still discern plenty of color gradations and fine details:

Lightroom's AI-Powered Denoise Feature: a large lawn with pine trees, a shed, and a chain-link fence at sunrise.
The 100% crop shows the benefits of shooting at low ISO values!

An identical composition – captured a few seconds later but shot at ISO 12800 – reduces the beautiful scene to a muddy mess. The individual pine needles are obliterated, the red Castilleja flowers are all but gone, and the large bush on the right is mostly just a gray blob:

Lightroom's AI-Powered Denoise Feature: a large lawn with pine trees, a shed, and a chain-link fence at sunrise.
The 100% crop of my ISO 12800 file illustrates the downsides of using such a high ISO value.

AI-powered Denoise does an admirable job with some parts of the image, but there’s simply nothing to work with on the right-hand side. The unsightly noise and grain in the 100% crop are gone, but in their place is a dark void with no color or texture at all:

Lightroom's AI-Powered Denoise Feature: a large lawn with pine trees, a shed, and a chain-link fence at sunrise.
100% crop of the ISO 12800 image after processing with Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise. The noise and grain are fixed, but the low-ISO image is still far superior.

There is one additional caveat worth mentioning that might render this entire feature moot for some photographers. You see, all the pictures used in this article were taken with older cameras that don’t do well at high ISO values.

Therefore, perhaps the biggest drawback of Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise is that it’s simply not as relevant now as it once would have been. Modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras handle ISO 6400 and even 12800 with relative ease, and most people rarely use values that high under normal shooting conditions.

However, even though the need for this feature might not be as great as it once was, it nonetheless offers impressive results and is an outstanding addition to Lightroom’s extensive toolset.

Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise tool: final words

Despite some limitations, I am very impressed with Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise. It does an amazing job of removing noise while preserving details, texture, and color. Its capabilities far surpass those of the traditional noise reduction sliders in Lightroom, and it can resurrect near-unusable images from the Rejected graveyard.

While you will still get better results at lower ISO values, it’s not always possible or practical to shoot that way – and in those cases, Lightroom’s AI-powered Denoise is a lifesaver.

Now over to you:

What do you think of this new tool? Are you impressed? Disappointed? Will you use it regularly? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Simon Ringsmuth
Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

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