Is Adobe Lightroom Classic's New AI Denoise Up to Scratch? We Review


Lightroom Classic is playing catch-up. AI-based masking had been around for a long time in programs like ON1 Photo Raw, but has only recently been released in Lightroom. Now, Adobe has turned its hand to noise reduction. Does it stand up to scrutiny?

There is already an array of AI-based noise reduction programs; Topaz DeNoise AI, ON1 NoNoise AI, and DxO Deep Prime all performed much better than Adobe’s appallingly bad muddy noise reduction results. Those applications worked well as plugins for Lightroom and Photoshop. In the case of DXO PhotoLab 6 and ON1 Photo Raw, they have also integrated AI noise reduction into their own asset management and raw development software. Even camera brands’ proprietary software provides its own AI noise reduction; OM Workspace, growing in popularity with OM System users, has AI noise reduction built in.

All those programs work well. In the past, I’ve run numerous tests, running the same raw files through each, and every one of them does a more than adequate job. Some are slightly better than others, but those differences were more to do with speed and usability than noise reduction performance.

I’ve just tested Lightroom’s new AI-driven noise reduction alongside other programs to see how well that would do compared to the other tools.

A Worry About Monopoly

Given that many people use these AI-based programs as plugins for Lightoom and Photoshop, there is concern that Adobe is creating a monopoly, as these third-party plugins will become redundant.

However, there’s more to processing than noise reduction. The other standalone programs, like DxO Photolab 6, ON1 Photo Raw, and Capture One, are considered with high regard by their users, as they produce very different development results that many of their users prefer.

Meanwhile, Topaz Denoise, which is not an integral part of an asset management and raw development suite, is not the only tool in that company’s arsenal. Moreover, it will still be a popular plugin with Capture One owners even if it becomes redundant for Lightroom users; Capture One does not currently have AI-based noise reduction.

Closing the Stable Door After the Horse Has Bolted?

Please excuse the mixing of metaphors, but Adobe’s horse is not only escaping from the stable, but people stopped watching the race it should have been running in.

My first DSLR I could use up to ISO 400 without the photos becoming too noisy to use. With my second, that leapt to ISO 800. I swapped to mirrorless Micro Four Thirds, and that doubled again to ISO 1,600, and then to ISO 3,200. I can use my OM-1 at ISO 6,400 or even 12,800 without thinking of applying noise reduction.

Even increasing shadows by two stops, noise is not an issue for me. Furthermore, with my newest camera, I can shoot long exposures without having noisy images.

Modern cameras perform better than I ever need, and I suspect that is true for many others too. The advancements in sensor technology mean noise reduction is becoming redundant for photographers.

Adobe should have introduced this feature three years ago. Nevertheless, it will be a welcome addition for those who use Lightroom, especially if they use older cameras and shoot moving subjects in low light.

Performance of Lightroom’s Denoise

There were a couple of issues I found. Firstly, I was disappointed that the preview image did not fill the entire screen, something that does happen with ON1 and Topaz, although it is a complaint I’ve heard with Deep Prime. Worse than that, though, Lightroom’s preview was unclear, so it was hard to judge the final outcome after processing. All the other programs I have used give a clear and precise preview of the final image.

Secondly, I have an old computer; I built it about eight years ago. Nevertheless, it has a quad-core Radeon R7 processor that runs at 3.4 GHz, 32 GB of RAM, and solid-state hard drives. Despite its age, it runs pretty quickly for most tasks. ON1 applies noise reduction almost immediately, DxO PhotoLab 6 Deep Prime takes a little longer, Topaz Denoise longer still, but they still work in seconds. Lightroom took 14 minutes to denoise some of the images. Those with newer machines will cut this time down considerably, but it shows that the Adobe noise reduction engine is slower than others I use. Photographers with older machines might think twice before employing it that often.

The Tests

My tests were shot using different ISOs, conditions, and exposure settings, so I would get a variety of images to try. I’m using one image to illustrate my findings. It was shot at ISO 6,400, 1/12,800 second, at f/5. I used aperture priority and dialed in -1 EV.

Before noise reduction, I first zoomed in to 100% in Lightroom and then cropped it to about the same dimensions, I then applied Lightroom’s Denoise at the default values.

At first, I had turned off sharpening because I always found Lightroom’s algorithm to be far too aggressive. But I thought the AI’s result looked a bit soft. So, I increased the sharpening to 40, yet still, the result looked overly muddy. By turning the sharpening all the way up to maximum and increasing the radius to 1.5, I was able to achieve a more pleasing result, but it was still not perfect.

Here is the same image with noise removed using other programs.

The differences in these results are seen at 100% and are minor. I reiterate that none of the AI programs produced bad results.

Pushing the Noise Reduction to Its Limits

I was eager to push the software further. So, I found the noisiest photo I had in my catalog. It was one I shot for the sole purpose of testing noise reduction software over four years ago, long before I started writing for Fstoppers.

It was an 1,800-second exposure taken at night at the end of an extended long-exposure photoshoot using an Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, which has since had two generational replacements.

Prior to taking this photo, I have been shooting long exposures for over an hour. Consequently, the sensor was warmed up, and there was lots of color noise and plenty of hot pixels too.

The lens I used was an old Four-Thirds lens, which showed more distortion at the edges and was less sharp than the newer Micro Four-Thirds lenses I use now. This would have been a challenging test for any software. Lightroom’s Traditional noise reduction barely touched the color noise and hot pixels on this shot, so I was keen to see how it would perform.

Lightroom Classic AI Denoise did good work with noise reduction. On close inspection, it did remove more hot-pixel artifacts than other programs, but nowhere near all of them. There were many white speckles left on the image that I can see when pixel peeping. It also did a good job of removing the color noise, even if, once again, it left the image looking a bit muddy.

Lightroom wasn’t as good as DxO Photolab 6 at correcting lens distortion, and it lost some of the shadow details.

This was an extreme test. None of the programs were able to transform this very poor-quality image into a wall hanger. But it did give an idea of what could be achieved. Similarly, with all these tests, I was pixel-peeping, zooming in to 100%, something that is rarely necessary. 

A Quick Word about Super Resolution

The Denoise function also comes with a Super Resolution option that allows you to increase the number of pixels in an image. As yet, I haven’t tested that, and that will be a topic for a whole other article.

What I Liked and What Could Be Improved

Lightroom’s Denoise didn’t do a bad job. This new feature be a welcome addition for Adobe’s dedicated users, especially if they own older cameras which are more prone to noise than newer models. It will also please those who habitually shoot at high ISO settings.

I particularly liked that the denoised image is a DNG file. However, this does mean that one cannot synchronize the noise reduction across multiple images.

Something to remember is that this is just one element of an entire package. Lightroom is a great catalog-based asset management program, arguably the best available. It also does a reasonably good job of developing raw images, and it has a superb user interface for doing that.

However, although its raw development results aren’t bad, they are also not always the best available. This is, of course, a subjective point of view and you are welcome to disagree with that opinion. The inclusion of AI-driven noise reduction makes the program better than it was before. Nevertheless, I find DxO Photolab 6 development results and noise reduction to be better in most circumstances. But I am unsure whether there is a big enough difference to entice users who are happy with Lightroom away from it.

But for those who have invested in other programs, this new feature is unlikely to entice them back to Lightroom. For example, for the last few months, I’ve adopted DxO Photolab 6 into my workflow, and am unlikely to switch back to Adobe because it has AI Noise reduction.

Lightroom Classic’s noise reduction was very slow compared to other programs, but this may be less of an issue for those with new turbocharged machines.

In short, it will be a welcome addition to those dedicated Adobe users, but the question remains whether it is necessary. On the following cropped image shot at ISO 2,500, can you tell which has noise reduction applied and which hasn’t?


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