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Review of Nik Dfine V2
Nik software's noise reduction plugin for Photoshop / Aperture / Lightroom
Keith Cooper has been looking at the current version of Nik Dfine (V2.0).
Now that in-camera JPEG noise reduction and RAW image processing tools are so much better, is there still a place for a separate software package to look after noise reduction? Dfine 2 lets you fine tune noise reduction, does it make a worthwhile difference?
I'm looking at the software working as a Photoshop plugin on a Mac in this review, but it works just fine under Windows.
The software works as a plugin with the following applications
The software installation provides a good overview of the plugin functionality and covers all aspects at a moderate depth. There is a full user guide and some tutorials are available on-line.
I'd note that the on-line user guide, although downloaded to my browser, is not in a form you can save and read off-line (such as a PDF)
Any digital photographic image has an amount of noise superimposed on it. This takes a number of forms, but is essentially variations in the value of each pixel, both in brightness and in colour.
With increases in computing power, both on your home computer, and the ones in your camera, more and more processing power can be applied to images to reduce this noise.
This comes at a price though, since eventually it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the difference between image detail and noise. This leads to some of the horrendous mush you get in images captured with small sensors at high ISO and processed into JPEG images.
In noise reduction, if you want the best looking results, then a one-size-fits-all approach is not always going to work. You might not want to use additional software like Dfine for all your images, but sometimes a customisable approach may be very useful.
Using Dfine 2
The plugin needs an image to work on - in this example, I'm opening one in Adobe Bridge (CS5) from a set of RAW format images.
I remember taking these particular shots after I'd been at a meeting at the local rugby club - the stand is one that I'd taken numerous photos of during the construction process, for the company in charge of the building work.
This time however I was just experimenting with the 14mm lens I had with me - that and setting the ISO to the highest 3200 setting on my Canon 1Ds Mk3. Not too bad for 1/4 second hand held...
I'm opening the image in Adobe Camera RAW (ACR), which of course has its own noise reduction.
A 100% crop shows the results of typical settings I might use - note the speckle pattern, in what is actually a very uniform (and damp) sky.
Turning off all noise reduction in ACR shows colour noise that I remove with my normal settings. For particularly noisy images I may well use DxO Optics pro for processing my RAW files - I like to have a choice of RAW converters when I'm working on individual images for large prints, but ACR is fine for much of my 'everyday' commercial work, where I'm shooting at 100 ISO.
Down in the stand, the difference between noise and image detail is much more difficult to spot.
I can run the plugin in a number of ways.
The simplest, which is what I'll concentrate on here, involves just selecting it from my normal Photoshop filters menu.
Alternately I can use the Nik Selective Tool, which shows all my installed Nik software.
If I select Dfine 2.0. then the plugin launches normally.
If I select one of the options, then the filter is applied to the whole image with a particular collections of settings, via a 'noise brush' (i.e. paint in the effect).
As I'll show later, much of the power of using selective noise reduction is that you decide which parts of your image need the noise reduction, and what sort they look best with.
Once the filter has worked, you can just apply it to the whole image or choose to paint in the effect, as needed.
I use the software to create a new layer with the filter output on it, but there are a number of other modes of working (including 'smart' filters) which may better suit your workflow and application (I don't personally use Lightroom or Aperture).
The plugin can also be included in actions, if you want to automate the process for a collection of images.
Anyway, here's the normal plugin screen, after opening it.
The software first analyses your image to work out just how the noise is affecting it.
Every camera has different noise characteristics, and these vary with exposure length, white balance, ISO settings and even temperature.
The software selects areas of your image to use for generating a 'noise profile'
You can save your own noise presets, either those detected by the software, or if you wish manually selecting the areas to base the profile on.
The little squares in the image below show what the software thought were five appropriate areas.
Once the noise has been measured, you switch to 'Reduce' mode to kill off some of that noise.
The default setting is not at all bad, but a look at the dark grass, shows that fine shadow detail at high ISO doesn't always mix well.
The loupe view shows the noise reduction applied to only the right hand side of the 100% image.
The loupe view follows your cursor, unless you 'pin it' in one place.
The main view can also be zoomed and split or viewed as side by side before/after versions.
There are some other global adjustments of note, such as removal of JPEG compression artefacts and the slight banding that some camera sensors can show.
The real power of the plugin though, comes from being able to selectively increase and decrease noise reduction intensity and type in different parts of the image.
There are two different methods of selecting where you wish to adjust the noise reduction.
You can either select particular coloured areas of your image, or use control points, which base the alteration on the image content at arbitrary points you select.
The simplest to understand is selection by colour range.
Whatever areas of the image I select can have two aspects of the noise reduction process modified.
There is noise in contrast, and noise in colour.
Both affect images in different ways, as you could see in my default ACR settings earlier, where I concentrate more on removing the rather courser blotchy colour noise.
The colour selection method works well, when your image has big areas of colour, such as the orange sky here
This is also shown for a green grass area below
As I said, you can have lots of colour selections, but remember that they affect the whole image, so whilst I've returned some detail to this brickwork (mouse over image to see), it also affected parts of the sky.
A more localised approach involves using control points - these also select for colours and image similar to the area at the control point, but can be localised.
You can add control points at zero and 100% default - they are actually the same points, but at different starting settings.
I've added one below at zero and you can see from the loupe view that there is now no noise reduction at this point.
In the image below, you can move your mouse over it to see the difference between altering colour and contrast noise reduction for the grassy area. The named variation is the reduction that is being applied at 100%
I did find the naming and defaults for control points potentially confusing, however I note that the Dfine plugin is one of the older ones in the Nik collection and that usability issues have been a regular point of improvement with the plugins - this was particularly noticeable when I recently looked at Nik HDR Efex Pro 2. If you get the full set of plugins, then do be aware of these changes and expect some minor inconsistencies between plugins, in defaults and types of settings.
The area of effect of the control point is set via a circular indicator, but this is a very soft edge.
There are a number of modes for looking at the image that can be of help in deciding where to apply reductions. You can use the control points and colour selections to apply more reduction than the suggested default if desired.
In an image like this, I might want a lot of reduction applied to the sky - which is flat and featureless, and much less contrast noise reduction applied to the grass. With care it's quite possible to avoid the 'painterly' results often seen from standard noise reduction (or 'mush' depending on your POV).
In the example below, I've added a second control point in the bottom left hand side to retain detail in the brickwork.
There are many more examples of the use of Control Points in the other Nik plugin reviews I've written.
The noise reduction in Dfine is good, but with ever better noise reduction appearing in RAW file converters it's quite reasonable to ask why you'd need it?
The key is that you can apply it selectively to different areas of your image, and indeed I picked the example above because of the differences between what I wanted for the sky and for the grass.
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If you add to this the fact that the default settings are more attuned to your individual image than that in many RAW file converters, then you have a useful tool.
But where do I actually use this software?
It turns out that for myself, it's most effective for some of my big B&W prints, often taken in quite challenging lighting.
When converting to black and white, there can be quite a lot of noise in parts* of some colour channels, and applying many adjustments in a package such as Nik Silver Efex pro 2 can easily lead to unwanted noise in skies, or even suggestions of banding if I've pushed things too far.
I don't need it often, but when I do, it can make the difference between a 26"x17" print I'm happy with and one I'm not.
You might think that shooting at 100 ISO as I often do, not much noise reduction would be needed?
However I've found that emphasising the flatness of areas of sky in a big print, can give a perception of more sharpness in areas of detail. Combined with selective sharpening for printing, selective noise reduction is an important option in my workflow. It does however need thinking about - top notch print quality is about knowing your options and planning which work best together, and realising that the whole process from lens choice to print output is a chain, not just pressing the print button for something that looks fine on your screen.
If you regularly shoot at high ISO, then Dfine 2 may well save a few shots for you - or perhaps allow you to go one or two sizes up in the maximum print size you can offer from an image.
Having both colour selection and control points, but only being able to use one at a time seems a bit clumsy in parts, until you realise that the colour selections are effectively control points that cover the whole image.
The software is showing its age a bit, from an interface and usability point of view, compared to some of the more recently updated Nik packages, but it still works fine...
There is a fully functional 15 day demo version of the software that is available.
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Software plugin for applying customised noise reduction to images. Works with Photoshop, Elements, Lightroom and Aperture. Can be used within actions.
There is more information at Nik Software.
The views in this article represent those of Keith Cooper.
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