A little history about grain

Discussion in 'Nikon' started by sjmurray, Nov 13, 2009.

  1. Lately there have been a lot of posts about people’s digital cameras having “unacceptable” noise at various iso’s, depending on the viewpoint of the poster. Usually the level of noise being complained about looks pretty good to me. I’m posting this in the Nikon forum because I used Nikons in the examples.
    You see, I used to shoot black and white film, such as Tri-X, and did my own enlarging for many years. 35mm Tri-X developed in D-76 has a certain amount of expected grain. Sometimes it is minimal, and sometimes it is rather pronounced, depending on amount of exposure and development. In any case, if printed well, the resulting prints are beautiful in their own way. The texture of the grain is part of the look. 35mm with Tri-X as used in countless images in Life and Look magazines and newspapers, and in fine art documentary images, are accepted as they are, with the typical gradations and textures we’ve come to expect and love in these types of images.
    I have found that even with my D80 I can shoot at 1600 iso or even higher and the “noise” or “grain” is still no worse than typical Tri-X developed in D-76 at iso 400, and often much better in terms of texture. So, what is all the fuss about anyway? I’m posting an image taken about 1969 with Tri-X and developed in D76, and scanned at about the same ppi of the 10 mp image of the D80, and another image taken in 2007 with my D80 at iso 3200 for comparison. No sharpening or noise reduction was done on either image. You can see maybe why I am not so unhappy with the results of the D80. Both shots were taken with a Nikkor 50mm MF f1.4 lens.

    Now, some of you younger folks will be horrified at the “grain” in the D80 shot. But look at the Tri-X shot that was the standard for decades and try to understand why us old timers are not so bothered by some texture in our digital shots. In the final prints the grain will look much smaller than in these 100% “pixel peeping” crops anyway. Before digital, we used medium and large format cameras if we wanted to eliminate grain completely. But that’s another story.​
  2. I think I like the film grain better, but that's just me. Anyway, I think you're right, people are being awfully picky about their digital noise. I think it's a combination of a few things:
    -People take digital shots and view them at 100% on their monitors, which is way more magnification than they'd see on a typical print from film.
    -People have their expectations raised by seeing amazing shots taken by very skilled photographers with very expensive cameras under studio lighting or with much more thought to lighting and exposure than most people use.
    -People leave the dynamic range adjuster (e.g. Nikon "D-Lighting") in Auto then shoot either scenes with a lot of contrast, or poorly exposed shots. DR adjuster applies highlight/shadow adjustment to make histogram look good, and that amplifies noise.
  3. Good points, all. It's definitely a matter of elevated expectations.
    My D2H is very noisy above ISO 800, but still equal to any film I've used and better than many. So for my purposes it's still acceptable. And the noise can be easily fixed - it's tedious but not difficult.
    Let's not forget that during the height of the film era photographers argued endlessly about the merits and flaws of every popular type of film. And like today, many of them were more concerned about "image quality" in terms of grain, tone and color, and less concerned about image content. That hasn't changed. The same debates have shifted to another target.
  4. I used to shoot GAF500 color slide film, even pushed; and I find the noise of ISO 3200 of modern digital to be more than acceptable, even charming on occasion. ;)
  5. Great point Lex. I agree that pixel peeping and "image quality" arguments continue to dominate the landscape along with the various opinions about bokeh and which lens is the sharpest. Image content is a more elusive beast and has much less to do with things you can purchase, and more to do with talent.
  6. I'm a youngin' and I love b/w film.
    Noise isn't bad and actually is slightly better than an image that is too flat.
    I liked 1600 on my D2H when I exposed it right. With Nikon at least, I've noticed that when shooting at higher ISO's, it's good to overexpose your shots to +0.3 or +0.7, because noise is much more prominent in darker areas.
    I read people all the time complaining that noise is noticeable and unacceptable in their newer cameras at 800. If you're really unhappy with noises levels at 800 or lower on say the D300, get a new hobby. Heh.
    Heck, Sports Illustrated made a cover shot at 6400 ISO on the D3. Granted they shoot RAW and have great software, but the point is made.
  7. I've been experimenting with the D2H at 3200 and 6400, where the luminance noise resembles the fluffy popcorn grain of Delta 3200. The tricky bit has been mimicking the tonality of Delta 3200 in my monochrome conversions. The monochrome conversions look good, but not quite like Delta 3200.
    Getting some pepper into the salt is another tricky difference between digital noise and typical film grain. One of those things we notice without necessarily recognizing why the two look different.
    Another tricky bit is the banding with underexposure. To avoid objectionable banding above 1600 I need to blow the highlights in contrasty shots. So I usually set the exposure comp to +2/3 EV and meter normally. Works well enough for moderate and low contrast subjects.
    Anyway, I wouldn't mind having less noise at high ISO's, but in this case I'm hoping to mimic a very grainy film so it's practically an asset.
  8. Grain is not noise, and noise is not grain. Grain has a purpose in the art form and is an element of the wonderful creative control film gives us. It is a choice that you make based on your vision before you make the image.
    With digital imaging, noise is the result of signal gain and enhancement circuitry. It is not distributed equally throughout the tonal range nor does it manifest as a consistent pattern or shape.
    Here is an analogy to sound. Grain is to the sound of a bow over a cello string ...as Tape hiss is to an analog tape playback. Very different.
    That said, noise is an area of only moderate concern in digital imaging at this point, certainly not as much a part of the creative process as grain has been. Attaining a linear response to image sharpness (resolving power) and smoother gamma (overall tonality and color depth) is the bigger concern in digital developments for the future. Canon has determined that more pixels (resolution) increases noise as each pixel must get smaller to fit on the chip real estate and are putting R&D $$$ into the areas mentioned here, better tonality and color depth.
  9. I’m posting an image taken about 1969
    Therein lies your problem. People have moved on. Expectations are relative to contemporary peers' work, not what was done in 1969. Also, people with expectations of high quality used slower film than Tri-X even in 1969. The scan looks like it's a scan from the negative and the darkroom print probably looks a lot better than that.
  10. I love film grain personally. I think it gives some photos more personality. My sample.
  11. Dale: good points. Grain is not the same as noise. I have found that with careful raw conversion particularly with no sharpening, the higher iso digital images can look more film-like, especially in the print. Adobe ACR 2.4 actually does this better because it seems to do less aggressive sharpening with sharpening turned off compared to the latest version of ACR with CS4. My main point here is that some texture in a print when tastefully done doesn't have to be an over-sharpened digital mess.
    Ilkka: yes, the Tri-X image is from a negative scan, and it is about what Tri-X grain looks like in a 20 power "grain focuser" like we used to focus our prints in the darkroom. Certainly, the finished print looks fine and nobody would see the grain like this without using a magnifying glass.
    I think many of my friends in the street/doc world would disagree with you that "people have moved on." Many people are still experimenting with Tri-X and developers like Diafine, Acufine, Rodinal, and home made soups to achieve the classic "look" of Tri-X. In the 70's I used medium and large formats to get a smoother look to my prints, but the 35mm available light work using Tri-X and fast lenses allowed a certain intimacy because no flash was needed. People barely knew you were taking pictures. Yeah, you can do this now with a D3 or D700 and achieve very low noise, but not all of us can just run out and buy a new camera every time a new version comes out. Another point is that professional photographers have different demands on them than amateurs. When I did studio work I used a 4x5 and medium format all of the time. I also preferred the 4x5 when doing landscapes, for obvious reasons.
    Again, my main point is that most current digital cameras can be used at higher iso's to get attractive prints if the post processing is done carefully. Some texture in a print is not necessarily "bad" and one does not have to limit one's self at base iso in other words. If you are a pro or doing landscapes for large prints certainly the investment in a full frame digital or even medium format digital camera would be warranted (or just scan large format film!).
  12. Here's another example, shot with the D80 at iso 1600 and acr 2.4 used for conversion and desaturation. At 8.5 by 13 inches this image prints very much like a similar shot done with Tri-X.
    here's a 100% crop to compare to the Tri-X example above. How's that Lex? As Dale pointed out, digital grain is not consistent across different tonal areas, but in a print this is less noticeable.
  13. Look, most pixel-peeping is perfectly pointless :) I remember getting a lecture on noise from some peeper who said (I am not making this up) in answer to my 'How big do you print?', "I don't usually 'print out' my pictures."
  14. Les, that's my main point! Make a print and enjoy it! 100% crops don't exist in the real world outside the computer screen.
  15. Some how - people hate noise because that's mean it will be harder to manipulate it in Photoshop. How can you get a good selection or do this and that in a bumpy ground?
  16. Since when is grain to be compared with noise? It's just not the same.
  17. I've always wondered about all the fuss made about noise. I can only assume that their must be a lot of people out there making huge prints or doing some pretty serious selective cropping. Most of the DSLRs that have been made have generaly produced cleaner images than 35mm film of the same ISO. In terms of clean images photographers have never had it so good.
  18. BITD, we tolerated film grain (particularly Tri-X) because that was as good as it got. No one I know liked it - we lived with it because we had to. Digital noise is an image quality flaw. Why not get completely rid of it if that's possible? I could sell my D700 kit and use my G10 all the time. To paraphrase Nancy Reagan, just say 'shhhh' to digital noise.
  19. Now that the movie industry is busy remastering their back catalogue for Blu-ray, it's common to see a review that praises the transfer for minmising digital noise and other artefacts so that we can finally see the film grain. Although grain was for many photographers a necessary evil, for others it soon became part of the language of the medium, with (e.g.) grainy Tri-X suggesting gritty realism. Emulsions and processing which emphasise grain have often been a deliberate choice.
  20. Noise in current digital cameras is not an issue with prints. The bigger problem with noise is that, when it is visible, it is not attractive. It is like a badly tuned TV.
    Grain on the other hand, you can either seek or try to avoid with you selection of film, chemicals, exposure and development. It can be attractive. It is like a message written on the sand with a stick. You just want to touch grain. (you don't want to touch noise - you'd rather feel like tapping the top of that badly tuned TV.)
  21. As an example of pleasing grain. This is a 100% crop of 35mm TMAX 400 pushed one stop to ISO 800. Scan is a 21MP 4000dpi capture with Coolscan 9000. No processing.
    And to see this (depending on your screen) on a print, you need to make a 4 foot print.
  22. And this link is a crop of Kodak TMZ 3200 at 100% exposed at 25,600 (developed at 12,800):
  23. This link is 35mm TMAX 100 pushed to ISO 800:
  24. This is 33mm TMAX 100 develop at nominal speed (or 200...):
  25. This is TMAX 100 pushed over the edge:
  26. This is 35mm TMAX 400 pushed one stop.
  27. "The bigger problem with noise is that, when it is visible, it is not attractive. It is like a badly tuned TV." (Mauro Franic)
    Mauro, the point of this post is to challenge that idea. Noise in some higher iso digital images can be carefully processed such as in a raw conversion to be visible as "texture" in a print and not appear unattractive. It is obviously not the same thing as grain in film, but the print can have a pleasing texture, not unlike some types of film grain. Not all noise is equal! At 400 and lower iso even the D80 has negligible noise/texture at print sizes under 11x14. This post is about the rumors going around about all high iso digital images being ugly.
  28. Dale, digital noise is not like hiss, it's actually photon noise. Only in the lowest tonal values it is due to signal gain and enhancement circuitry.
    D.B., you can't get around noise in high ISOs, today's sensors are actually good enough to actually count the photons collected at each sensor's pixel. At night there are just,... well not that many photons :) If you have 10 photons here and 15 there, what can you do about it?
    See http://www.clarkvision.com/imagedetail/digital.photons.and.qe/index.html
  29. Something tells me that Steve posted mother and daughter pictures.
    Mother in her early teens and daughter that's what? 10?
  30. Dan, a very creative idea, but there is no relationship between the two girls in my examples. Sorry :>(
  31. Therein lies your problem. People have moved on. Expectations are relative to contemporary peers' work, not what was done in 1969.
    Speak for yourself.
  32. Steve,
    Noise forms at a pixel level. Data also is contained at same the pixel level. They are bound together with no physical separation. It is also random at the pixel level and does not have an independent structure.
    There is detail within grain though , same as there is when you carve a message in the sand. They are not fully dependent.
    Practically, one can hide noise by adding a grain-like texture. But this is no different than applying a watercolor effect in photoshop. It has no relation with the original image. It sits on-top of the noise.
    Can you please share an example of carefully processed noise that appears attractive like the ones I posted from grain (i.e. 21 megapixel sample of 35mm at 100%)?
  33. In the first examples I prefer the Tri-x to the D80. I also second the motion on pixel peeping. Don't do it. A while back I compared a D200 file and a 35mm plus-x scan of the same scene at 100%. The plus-x looked bad in comparison but printed 8x10 the plus-x was every bit as sharp and related or not I liked films tone and texture better. For what it's worth.
  34. Mauro, I don't have a 21 megapixel camera, so I can't duplicate your scan of a 35mm neg at 21 mp. Upsizing a D80's 10 mp image would not be the same thing. I did provide at the top of this post an example of a 10 mp color image shot at 3200 iso. My point of this post is to show that a high iso digital image printed at a native size (at 300 ppi) or 8.5 x 13 inches for 10 mp, can result in an attractive print with some texture and not an unattractive amount of "noise." At lower iso's such as 200 or 400 iso the D80 doesn't show much noise, so that is not the issue. I am sure you can make a nice print using t-max pushed to 3200 and printed at 9x13 as well. Will it look much different from my D80 print at that size?
  35. In my earlier years, right after college, I worked in broadcast television for a number of years. At that time the vast majority of programs were still in black and white and television receivers were crude, at best. Edge enhancement or 'contouring' as it was commonly called in those days, was used by broadcasters much the same way and manner in which sharpening is used today to increase the apparent detail of digital files. Edge contrast added a sense of additional detail and along with that was a ever so slight injection of electronically generated granular noise. The belief being that a very slight sense of graininess, not to be confused with the noise of a weak or 'snowy' signal, added to the perception of sharpness. So grain, noise, whatever, is not always a bad thing.
  36. Michael, I've shot and developed a lot of Plus-X over the years. I used to buy both Tri-X and Plus-X in 100 foot rolls. It's great stuff. Slightly finger grained than Tri-X. The tonality of both films is wonderful and a challenge for digital to match. Check out my 70's folder: http://www.photo.net/photodb/folder?folder_id=405901.
    The point of this post, however, is about high iso digital images (1600 iso or above) being very printable in color and black and white with careful post processing and kept at native (not upsized) print sizes.
  37. Charles, yes. The late Barry Thornton in is book about black and white (film) photography talks about acutance: "Acutance is the contrast of the edges between distinct tones in the print, and this becomes critical in the edges of fine detail. . . you can see that the sharper looking picture, picture 4, has visible grain, while the corner of picture 5 (same image) is grainless." (p 23-24, The Edge of Darkness , 2001 Amphoto Books, NY,) Thus "acutance" accentuated by "grain" gives the eye the impression of more sharpness.
    In digital images too often sharpening is done too aggressively, and the pixels become distorted, making the image unattractive and unnatural looking. Thus, a careful balance much be achieved to match the sharpening of the image to the print size so that pixels are not visibly distorted in the print. When this is done the image looks more "film like" as well, with the pixel noise more evenly distributed and providing a "texture" more like film grain.
  38. Steve,
    I'm impressed with your record-keeping - that you know what lens you used for a shot taken 40 years ago!
  39. I'm impressed with your record-keeping - that you know what lens you used for a shot taken 40 years ago!​
    Doesn't surprise me. Up until the 1990s I never had more than three lenses for any camera system. I tended to keep the same camera and lens(es) for 10 years or so.
  40. funny how the 1969 shot has depth in its rendering, and three-dimensionality - while the 2007 one looks flat, lifeless, amd wishy-washy. people have indeed 'moved on' - lol!
  41. Steve, If you look at the images you posted, they are a good example of how noise corrupts an image vs grain is just a feature of the canvas used to capture the image.
    You Trix example is gorgeous. The D80, on the other hand is not - even the pupils no longer look black.
    In my humble opinion, digital noise must be avoided on a print (which is not hard to do in most situations considering how good digital cameras are).
  42. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    I am closing this disucssion. First of all, it has little to do with Nikon specifically. Initially the OP was comparing ISO 400 B&W film grain from 1969 vs. ISO 3200 color noise from a now slightly out-of-date D80. Not that it is the OP's fault, but that is a hard-to-quantify apples vs. oranges comparison to begin with. Whatever useful comparison and discussion should have already been covered in the last day and half.
    And of course the thread drifts into the usual useless film vs. digital debate and other off-topic discussion about the subjects and technique.

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