Have you ever noticed that your photos seem to look grainy, noisy, or pixelated?! Today, we’re breaking down the reasons why!

I totally get it, I’ve been there, and it’s frustrating! You see all these pretty photos everywhere and they look so nice!  The colors pop and they are simply beautiful and “clean” looking.  But for some reason, your photos always come out grainy and lack color and vibrancy. This begs the question, “why are my photos always grainy?”

Well…it’s your lucky day, because I am going to not only tell you the exact answer you need but also give a super awesome tip that’ll help you have great looking and clean photos (even when shooting in less than ideal conditions). Let’s get down to business and answer your question!

What is grain?

Grain, also known as noise, is the wayward pixels you see in an image.  The pixels aren’t representing the true color or exposure of the of the scene.

What causes grainy photos? The Problem Child – ISO

Perhaps I shouldn’t divulge the answer too quick or you might leave, but I am a “to-the-point” kinda guy. ISO is the culprit here. Are you familiar with what ISO and what it does exactly?  If not, skip over here to my tutorial on understanding ISO and then jump on back.

Just as a friendly reminder, here is an excerpt from my understanding ISO tutorial:

ISO (or ASA) is a term originating from the film photography days which referred to film sensitivity to light.  The lower ISO film number (100,200,400 etc…) the lower film grain or noise one would get on their final quality image.  The exact same idea applied today, in the digital world. The only difference is, instead of light sensitivity of the film, it is how sensitive to light the camera’s imaging sensor is. The lower ISO number (100,200,400 etc…) the lower film grain or noise one would get on their final quality image.

So the key to understand is ISO simply is a reference, and unit of measure, as to how “sensitive” your camera’s sensor is to light. The lower the number, the more light, and the less grain. With higher ISO, you have low light, and more grain!

Since ISO plays a vital role within the exposure triangle (how ISO, aperture and shutter speed interact with each other to make each exposure), your “proper” ISO ranges will change based upon many factors. However, one thing is certain, the higher the ISO number, the more grainy your photos will become.

In addition, your photos will not only have more grain than you want, but your photos will also have a less dynamic range as the ISO number is higher.

…But one thing is certain – the higher the ISO number, the more grainy your photos will become.  

Grainy Photo of Girl Dancing

To capture the above photo on the dark party bus I had to use ISO number 8063 at f/1.8 and 1/200th

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How do you stop a picture from being grainy?

The first and most obvious way to lower the grain in your photos is to shoot with a lower ISO setting.  Sometimes we can lower our shutter speed or raise our aperture a little and lower the ISO.  Another option may be to switch to a faster lens in your kit that allows you to lower your aperture and shutter speed, thereby lowering your ISO. For example, I have to shoot my 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at 1/200 of a second to avoid camera shake.  But I could switch that lens out for a 50 mm f/1.8  lens and use my feet to zoom.  Then I could potentially lower my shutter speed to 1/50 of a second (assuming all other things being equal).

The most common thought would be to simply always shoot with the lowest ISO setting. This would minimize grain in your photos. But there will be times when you really do “need” to raise your ISO. If some unwanted grain comes along with it then so be it!

Here are two real-life examples so you can see how I handle my ISO…

⬥ Scenario 1:

An outdoor wedding with plenty of daylight. Lots of sun and daylight means I am getting plenty of light through my lens and into the sensor. This means I’ll be using fast shutter speed (to prevent overexposure) and I can and should keep my ISO as low as possible (like ISO 100). This will give me the greatest dynamic range, which is the range of tonality in a sharper image. It will also produce the best color in the photo. It will also virtually be completely free of any grain.

Photo of a Bride and Groom

The photo above: ISO 100, f/4.o, Shutter Speed 1/1600th

⬥ Scenario 2:

A wedding sparkler bride and groom exit at night outside and choosing to shoot with no flash. With this scenario, I have no light except the ambient lighting from the sparklers. The first thing that pops in my head (and should pop into yours too) is the need to have a fast enough shutter speed to prevent a blurry photo as well as other low light settings.

As soon as you ever think of needing a fast enough shutter speed to avoid having photos grainy or a blurry photo, and you aren’t using flash, you need to automatically know to raise your ISO. You’ll also need to shoot at as wide of an aperture as possible to allow in more light to the camera sensor.

Photo of Bride and Groom Leaving Their Wedding

Photo above: ISO 6400, f/2.0, 1/200th

From these two examples, you can now understand that selecting your ISO will always change depending on the situation you are in.

Always keep this in mind: Use the lowest ISO required to get you a fast enough shutter speed.

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The High ISO Reducing Grain Trick!

Sometimes you are going to have to shoot at really high ISOs and we have to learn to deal with it.  But when you do, one trick to keep in mind is to slightly overexpose the photo in your camera while shooting and that will drastically reduce the amount of grain you will see.  The reason why is that grain is more pronounced in the darker, shadow areas of a photo. If you underexpose in camera and then correct in Lightroom when editing you will actually introduce more grain, whereas if you do the opposite and overexpose by a tad you will effectively reduce some of the excessive noise and grain. Try this trick and you’ll see what I mean.

Using Flash To Reduce Grain

Another option you have to reduce grain in your image is to introduce additional light into your scene through the use of flash.  We don’t recommend using the pop-up flash on your camera body because it often causes red-eye and is usually much too harsh for your subjects.  But a flash mounted in your hot-shoe or mounted on a light-stand off camera is an effective tool for adding light to a scene.  Wedding photographers, for example, sometimes use an on-camera flash bounced off the ceiling or wall when shooting dark receptions or even to capture detail shots.  The extra light from the flash allows you to lower your ISO, reducing grain in your images.

There might be very specific reasons why you can’t or don’t want to use a flash.  Birth photographers, for example, don’t want to be popping a flash in the delivery room.  And some venues, such as churches and museums, don’t allow flash photography.  We understand that.  But know that is another tool available in some situations to reduce the grain.

3 Tips on Getting Started with Flash

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Why are my night photos grainy?

Do you find your night photos are consistently grainy, even when shooting at ISOs your camera normally handles well? You aren’t doing anything wrong – this time your camera really may be to blame!  During a long exposure, the camera sensor can heat up.  This overheated sensor causes pixels to go rouge, giving you incorrect colors and exposures.  Sometimes adjusting your camera settings to decrease the exposure time slightly can improve the results.  As counter-intuitive as it might seem, raising your ISO and lowering your shutter speed may help produce a cleaner image!

Some cameras have a tool that helps with long-exposure grain.  Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) or High ISO Noise Reduction works inside the camera as you are shooting.  When LENR is enabled, your camera records the long-exposure image using your chosen camera settings.  Then the camera records another darker image, almost as if the lens cap was on.  Then the camera compares the two images and subtracts the noise from the dark image from your original image, reducing your long exposure noise.

There’s a catch, though.  Enabling LENR takes the camera time, sometimes up to double the amount of time of the original exposure.  If you’re taking 30 second exposures, it can take a minute or more for the camera to process the image using LENR.  If you’re taking a 10-minute exposure, be prepared to wait a while.  The extra time can make in-camera noise reduction impractical for really long exposures.  You might not have 20 minutes to spend on every shot.  Or you might be shooting star trails and the gap in time will throw off your results.  But if you can afford to double your exposure time, it’s a tool worth trying.

Test out your camera’s noise-reduction tool well ahead of an important shoot, however.  Some photographers don’t like how their LENR works, feeling like reducing noise actually causes some blur or fuzziness.  But test it and see how you like the results.

Can you fix grainy photos in Lightroom?

You’ve done everything you can to minimize grain in camera but you’re still left with noisy photos.  Now what?  Both Lightroom and Photoshop have tools to help you reduce the noise in an image.

In Lightroom’s Develop Module, use the Luminance slider in the Details panel. Simply move the slider to the right to reduce noise, using caution to not take it too far. Too much noise reduction can result in loss of detail in your image, giving them a “plastic” look.  So be sure to keep an eye on the overall appearance of your image when using this feature.

How to Reduce Noise in Lightroom

Adjusting the color sliders under noise reduction can also help reduce color noise.  Adjusting color, detail and smoothness in different combinations can help reduce the grain and still give you an image you like.

Unfortunately, there are no standard noise-reduction settings in Lightroom that will work for every photo.  It is simply a matter of using the sliders to get the result you want.  Some Lightroom preset packs come with noise reduction presets, but you might need to adjust those as well for your specific image.

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Can you fix grainy photos in Photoshop?

Adobe Photoshop has a specific filter for reducing noise in an image.  Choose Filter>Noise>Reduce Noise.  You’ll see a pop-up window giving you the options of Strength, Preserve Details, Reduce Color Noise and Sharpen Details.  Adjust these sliders until you get reduced grain and achieve your desired quality.  As in Lightroom, sometimes you can go too far and the image stops looking realistic.

My Checklist for Minimizing Grain in Your Photos

Now that we know WHAT causes grain in your photos I want to give you a checklist of HOW you can minimize or even correct grain in your photos after the fact.

  • Lower ISO = less photos grainy
  • When shooting at higher ISOs, slightly overexpose in camera.
  • Understand that while editing the photos, raising the shadows or increasing the exposure to a photo can introduce or even magnify grain.
  • Within Lightroom, in the develop module, utilize the sliders in the Noise Reduction section to quickly and easily reduce visible grain. Or use reduction filters in Photoshop.

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