Today's Guest Blogger Steve Brazill Says: "Ignore the Noise"

Thanks, Rick, for the opportunity to do a guest post. As a long time fan of you, and your work, its an honor to be able to contribute here.

[Steve, you rock - in more ways than one! I encourage my readers to check out your work and site. - Rick]

When I met Rick recently at one of his seminars, he told a story that really resonated with me - a story about noise. As a concert photographer, I deal with noise every time I shoot, lots of noise - due to shooting in relatively low light. 

Generally speaking when it comes to noise, it shows up mostly in low light, in shadow and out-of-focus areas of a frame, at high ISO settings (but with high-end cameras, low noise is getting better and better) and with cropped sensor cameras, but that's getting better, too.

Sometimes, the worst noise isnt even in the photos.

What Noise?

WhenI say "Ignore the Noise," what does that mean to you? Take a second and think about it, I'll wait.

The obvious choice, at least for us photographers, is digital noise, so lets start there. The opening shot above, of the band A Day To Remember, was shot at ISO 5000, 24 mm, f/4, 1/200 - with my Canon 7D.

My Photos Have A Lot Of Noise

I can't tell you how many times I've heard the desire for good High ISO Performance referred to as a religion. Is it? No. Plain and simple, we as photographers, as creatives, want the best image quality we can possibly get. Thats not a bad thing, and digital noise does have a number of negative impacts on a shot, from loss of detail, to color and contrast issues.

The shot above, of Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson, was shot at ISO 2000, 24 mm, f/4, 1/500. I needed a fast shutter to freeze Nancys hair, and I was already wide open on the Canon 24-105 f/4, so the ISO was sacrificed. Oh yeah, the drummer is Jason Bonham.

If you shoot photos at high ISO, you've seen noise. And, if you shoot at really high ISO, like 3200, 6400, or higher, you've been disappointed when what could've been a great shot becomes just okay (again, depending on the camera). For many people, that means avoiding high ISO at all costs, but does noise really matter, and if so, is it ever OK?

As I mentioned, I shoot with a Canon 7D. Images shot at ISO 1600 on my camera do have noise, yet I shoot at that setting far more than I shoot at 100 - 400. I often shoot at ISO 3200 - and on occasion I even hit 6400! At 100% zoom (which is often recommended for accurate noise reduction) those images definitely have noise. Still, I do it. Why would I choose to shoot at such a high ISO knowing it will produce noisy images?

Photography is an art of compromise, and in live music photography your choices limited. Concerts can be one of the most difficult lighting situations you will ever face - fast moving performers, fast changing low light, and extreme dynamic range. Your choices are: A) Take a blurry shot of a fast moving artist, or a hair whip; B) Crank the ISO to get a shutter speed fast enough to get a sharp shot

You should always choose B, because a sharp noisy shot is always better than a blurry clean shot. There are tools to deal with noise in post production (Rick reommends Topaz DeNoise), but a blurry shot is always blurry. I will use a touch of noise reduction in Lightroom when needed, and on a rare occasion I will pull out Nik Define - which I almost always apply selectively using the brush feature, or masks. (Rick also and always recommends working selectively.)

This shot, of Korn guitarist Brian Head Welch, was shot at ISO 3200, 45 mm, f/4, 1/400, and it was flat and noisy. After a little Lightroom work, a little Nik Define brushed on the smoke, and a Pro Contrast pop from Nik Color EFX Pro 4 it came back to life.

Oh yeah, and I always check any noise reduction at 50% zoom too.

Another consideration is intended output. My work is generally used on the blog of the radio station I shoot for, and the images are exported at 1024px on the long side. The noise just isn't as visible at that size. Ive seen people use so much noise reduction that healthy people look like they've had plastic surgery - and then they post low resolution copies on social media. At that size no one would have seen the noise, but they'll notice the plastic skin.

Don't misunderstand me, would I love a gift of a Canon 1DX, with its great high ISO performance? Heck yeah! But the bottom line is I get by just fine. This shot below, of Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian, is one of the highest scoring images Ive had in an image competition, and it was shot at ISO 3200, 35 mm, f/4, 1/320 on a Canon 7D. Dont avoid high ISO, embrace it.

Here is some food for thought when it comes to noise: If people notice the noise in your image, then your image may have bigger issues. Think about that for a second. Some of the most iconic photos of our day are noisy, and we don't even think about it.

Just ignore the noise.

Noisy People

High ISO isn't the only noise issue. Everyone has an opinion, and sometimes it seems everyone on the Internet is an expert. Ignore that noise too. I'm not saying don't listen to valid criticism. For all you know the person giving the critique may have grown up surrounded by talent. Their father or grandfather may have been one of the great [your type of photography here] photographers, and their opinion may have a strong foundation behind it. But don't let internet comments dictate your work. Listen to it all, but put more weight on those people whose work you respect, and less on those you dont. You're the one telling the story, your vision of the story, and some people just won't get it. In the end, it's your shot, so be true to your vision.

Take the shot above as an example. I actually pre-visualized it, and it is almost exactly what I wanted. I say almost because in my vision the hand wasnt there. I was behind five rows of standing people upstairs at the House of Blues, shooting a great 16 year old performer named Gabbie Rae when she opened for Great White.

I was holding the 7D, with a 10-22mm, over my head and trying to get leading lines from the side balconies going into a blown out stage. After a few shots, I was getting close to the angle I wanted, and then this guy put his hand up. In my head I screamed NOOOOOO - but then I saw the shot and actually thanked the guy. I love this shot, but not everybody sees it the same way. I entered this shot in an image competition where one judge commented its just the back of a bunch of heads." That kinda hurt, until another judge came to the shots defense. To him, this was every concert he had ever been to - captured in one shot.

I think the second judge was right.

One of my favorite tech writers, Andy Ihnatko of the Chicago Sun Times, once tweeted: "Self-criticism is useful until it impedes your ability to identify a success"

Ignore the noise and let yourself succeed.

If you would like to check out more of my photography, drop by my web site. 

Thanks again, Rick!

• • • • •

Rick here - I agree 100% with my friend, Steve. Above is a photograph I made in Myanmar with my Canon 5D Mark III set at ISO 6400. Yes, the image has a bit of noise (easily reduced with Topaz DeNoise), but as my dad used to say, "If a picture is so boring that you notice the noise, it's a boring picture.