We really liked the results from v1.x of PictureCode's Noise Ninja noise reduction application for scanned and digital camera images, but despaired the lack of a Mac version while we also hoped it could be made somewhat simpler to use. Version 2.0 of the software, which is nearing release, addresses these two concerns while improving the program in several other areas as well. After working with a not-quite-finished copy of v2.0 of Noise Ninja over the last week, our verdict is in: Wow!
Not only is the Mac (OS X only) version coming together really well, it's rocket-fast on a dual-processor G5 Mac, and acceptably quick even on an older G4/800 Powerbook. Jim Christian of PictureCode says the Windows release of v2.0 has seen a noticeable boost in performance too, on the order of 2-3x faster processing times relative to the current v1.1.2.
Version 2.0 has gone on an interface diet as well, with a reduction in the number of sliders in the new Advanced mode to make it simpler to find the right settings for the picture being filtered, as well as a basic mode that pares down the number of controls even further. Combine the simpler interface with the revamped automatic noise profiling and smart selection of the appropriate noise profile for a given camera/ISO combination, and the net effect is that the new version makes it a lot easier to dial in the amount of noise filtering appropriate for a given photo. The screenshot below, as well as this QuickTime movie, show v2.0 for Mac in action (note that the shrinking and compression of the movie makes it difficult to discern the before/after effect of Noise Ninja filtering).
Noise Ninja v2.0 for Mac takes shape (Zoom | QT Movie)
The biggest changes in v2.0, then, are in usability, in addition to the introduction of a Mac version for the first time. But Noise Ninja remains at the head of the class in noise reduction capabilities as well; only Neat Image v4.0 and Grain Surgery v2.0 offer any real competition, while the various noise removal Actions spread across the Web, and even our longtime favourite Quantum Mechanic Pro, can't really keep up.
In the several dozen files we've processed through an early copy of v2.0 for Mac - mostly ISO 800-3200 sport photos, as well as a handful of low ISO cityscapes - the results have been as good or better than what we've been able to achieve with v1.1.2 for Windows previously. In other words, Noise Ninja's effects are magical: noise in all its forms is muted or eliminated, with side effects such as a loss of saturation in certain colours or a plasticky look to smooth areas are kept to a minimum. While it's possible to crank Noise Ninja's filtering up to the point where images are slippery smooth, what we've liked so much about the program since its inception is its ability to balance the zapping of heaps of noise with the retention of important image detail. In v2.0, finding that sweet spot is even simpler.
Seeing the Big Picture
Showing small snippets of photos processed through Noise Ninja doesn't really do the software justice, so we've opted to make available some full-resolution examples. The links below are to two different EOS-1D frames, shot at ISO 1600 and 3200, both in their original form and after filtering with the upcoming NoiseNinja v2.0 for Mac (v2.0 for Windows will deliver identical results). Download them, open them in Photoshop at 100% magnification, view the individual colour channels, apply noise-revealing sharpening that's typical to your workflow and you'll likely come to the same conclusion that we have: this program rocks.
Note that with both frames, we've selected a combination of settings that reduce noise significantly, stopping short of the point where a plasticky look starts to intrude. In the ISO 1600 frame, that combination was awfully close to the default settings for this camera and ISO. For the ISO 3200 frame, we backed off on the noise reduction a bit to ensure the photograph still looked like a photograph when processing was complete.
We've touched on some of the key changes in v2.0 above. A more complete list of what's new in the upcoming release include:
- A Mac version, complete with optimizations for both single and dual processor Mac configurations. The program should run on OS X 10.2 or later (we've experienced no stability problems in OS X 10.3.3 on both G4 and G5 machines).
- A 2-3x speed increase in the Windows version (with speed ups for both single and dual processor machines), and solid speed in the Mac version from the outset. Processing an EOS-1D ISO 1600 file in 16-bits per colour mode takes less than 4 seconds on a G5/Dual 2.0GHz Mac, while a Powerbook G4/800 crunches through the same operation in about 22 seconds (enabling the software's new Turbo mode, which results in no loss of noise reduction quality that we can detect thus far, drops this time to about 15 seconds).
- Improved noise reduction. We've seen slight differences in v1.x and v2.x processing, all in favour of v2.
- Simplified and renamed controls, a revamped layout, an automatic noise profiling mechanism and a traditional undo/redo control are all designed to make it faster to hone in on the right combination of noise removal settings for a specific picture. The goal is, for most pictures, to have the settings derived from a canned or user-generated noise profile to be just about optimum for that photo (and others from that camera at that ISO), so that little or no manual tweaking of settings is needed.
- A redesigned interface for the Noise Profiler. The geekiest of the geeks will like the new way noise characteristics are displayed.
- An unsharp mask filter, with controls for Amount and, new in v2.0, Radius also. The goal is to make this work much like Photoshop's unsharp mask, though in Noise Ninja the sharpening by default is applied to image luminance only.
- A tool for selecting a band of colour and then adjusting the strength of Noise Ninja's filtering on that colour only. We've already found this a simple way to back off the filtering on artificial turf in football photos, though the Undo brush, which carries through from v1.x, will probably remain our preferred method for tweaking the filtering strength in selected areas of a photo.
- The ability to open multiple photos, each into separate tabs within the application window, or displayed in up to 4 separate panes simultaneously.
- Display of both EXIF (shooting information) and IPTC (caption, keywords and more) metadata, as well as the preservation of both when the photo is resaved after processing. Noise Ninja can interpret about 120 different EXIF, IPTC and other metadata entries, and assemble them back into the file upon resaving. In the early copy of the software we've been testing, the resource fork from Mac files is not kept, and the ISO from most Nikon camera files (and perhaps certain other manufacturers as well) is read from the EXIF MakerNote section but written back to the ISOSpeedRating field. Neither should be a deal-stopper in most workflows.
- ICC profiles are preserved when Noise Ninja resaves files. No other colour management support is planned for v2.0, though a near-term update should add the capability to display photos within the colour space of its embedded profile. In the meantime, expect that the colour in pictures when viewed in Noise Ninja will look different than when viewed in Photoshop. This hasn't hampered our use of the program.
A public beta of v2.0 for Mac is planned for release on the PictureCode web site by early next week. It will be similar in its level of functionality to the early release we've been hammering away on, which should mean it will be stable and have most of the key features implemented.
Update, April 19, 2004: The public beta of Noise Ninja 2.0 for Mac OS X has now been posted for download.
Batch processing, keyboard shortcuts and automatic noise profile selection based on an interpretation of the photo's EXIF shooting information will be absent from the beta release, while the unsharp mask filter's Amount and Radius numeric settings may not produce the same result as corresponding numbers in Photoshop. Even in its unfinished state it will provide an opportunity for Mac users to see what they've been missing since Noise Ninja first emerged for Windows users late in 2003. A public beta of v2.0 for Windows is expected to follow the Mac beta by a few days. A demo key will be required to run the beta.
V2.0 of Noise Ninja is a free upgrade from v1.x. Licensed users of the Windows v1.x version are eligible to upgrade to either the Mac or Windows v2.0 release (or both; PictureCode's licensing policy stipulates only that the software be run by one owner on one computer at a time, but allows for the installation of the software cross-platform on multiple computers used by a single owner).
As with v1.x, NoiseNinja v2.0 will ultimately be available in both a US$34 Home version (a US$5 increase) and US$69 Professional version. The latter version will include batch processing, 16-bit TIFF support and will make use of multiple processors in computers so-equipped.
Also on the drawing board is the version of NoiseNinja we really want: a Photoshop plug-in for both Mac and Windows. Christian estimates that this is about 4-6 weeks from completion. While the price of the plug-in hasn't been finalized, the upgrade fee from the Professional version of the Noise Ninja standalone application to the plug-in has been pegged at US$10 for those who purchase the standalone version prior to the release of the plug-in. After the plug-in is released, the upgrade from the standalone Professional version to the plug-in will be the difference in the price of the two.
Ease of use, cross-platform availability and the power and elegance of its noise filtering make the upcoming PictureCode Noise Ninja v2.0 the noise reduction software to beat in 2004, especially once the Photoshop plug-in hits the streets.