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In the early days of digital cameras, noise was a much bigger problem than it is these days. DSLRs routinely top out at high ISO ratings that film shooters and early DSLR users could only dream of. In those early days (the early 2000s), when ISO 800 was typically the upper usable limit of high ISO, noise reduction software became a must-have for those of us who were post-processing our files and wanted them to look less like sandpaper and more like something we’d be willing to display. Neat Image was one of the first noise reduction applications I used at that time.
While it did a nice job, at that time, all noise reduction software was problematic in that it tended to give images an overly smooth, almost plastic or painted look that did a lot of damage in the fine details of an image. Neat Image was no exception in this regard, so I used it sparingly. Over the years, I found myself gravitating to other noise reduction plugins and applications, such as Nik DFine, Topaz DeNoise, and more recently, Macphun’s Noiseless. When I saw that Neat Image had recently been updated to version 8, I was excited to give it a try and see how it stacked up against the others. While Neat Image 8 is available as a standalone app or a Photoshop and Lightroom plugin, I will be focusing on the plugin version, as that suits my workflow better.
Neat Image 8 is a fairly simple software to use, although upon first opening the plugin it can appear a bit confusing. You will be presented with multiple views of the image you are working on; a full-color preview, and the R, G, and B components of the image. There are four buttons at the top left of the screen; Auto Profile, Load Profile, Auto Match, and Auto Fine Tune. In the center are two tabs, Device Noise Profile, which is the tab the plugin starts in, and Noise Filter Settings.
Once the plugin is open, you’ll see the four different versions of your image. The easiest way to get started is to simply click “Auto Profile” and let Neat Image analyze the image. Once complete, a box will highlight the area that Neat Image has selected to use for noise analysis. Neat Image looks for an area with minimal detail for best results. If you select your own area to analyze, make sure it’s an area that contains minimal detail.
Now that you’ve analyzed the noise levels in the image, you’ll want to click on the Noise Filter Settings Tab. The preview will switch to the full-color image in the center and the R, G, and B channels will disappear. At the bottom left is a zoom toggle to zoom in or out of the image as desired. You’ll also have the ability to change the preview to various other options, including the RGB preview, a Luminance and Chrominance preview, as well as individual channels. Neat Image will then apply the noise filter settings based on the analysis as done above.
You can tweak the settings using the sliders at the right side of the app window. You’ll have the ability to adjust quality, the noise reduction amount, recover detail, smooth edges, sharpen, and fine tune the filter itself. In addition to the sliders, Neat Image comes with some presets, such as Recover Fine Details, Apply Less Noise Reduction, Apply More Noise Reduction, Reduce Noise and Sharpen, and more. You can also create your own presets for future use. These settings put Neat Image among the most customizable noise reduction applications I’ve used.
For me, noise reduction has always been a love-hate relationship, always battling with a balance between preserving detail and reducing unsightly noise. One of my favorite things about Neat Image is the software’s auto profiling ability, customizing the noise reduction to each image as needed. While Nik Collection’s Dfine 2 also does its own image analysis, it doesn’t offer the customizability that Neat Image does. And Neither Topaz’s Denoise 5, nor Macphun’s Noiseless offer any kind of image profiling, with both requiring you to simply select a preset on your own and go from there.
Neat Image 8 does an excellent job of maintaining detail while reducing noise in an area with little or no fine detail, such as skies.
Ultimately, the ability to auto profile an image, adjust settings to personal taste, and use presets for repeatability of noise reduction, makes Neat Image an excellent choice for photographers who battle noisy images for any reason, including shooting long exposures, low light photography, or high iso photography such as indoor sports, events, or weddings. Neat Image is available starting at $39.90 per license.