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Smooth Nights

Posted by briandh on October 21, 2006

Introduction

I promised in my Menorcan Memories post to let you know how I got on smoothing out some of my night shots taken from my balcony. Jumping straight to the answer – pretty well, I think.

There were six shots I put up on Zooomr that, whilst OK from a distance, were very grainy close up. There are two reasons for this:

  1. My camera isn’t that good in low light long shot conditions without a flash.
  2. I don’t own a tripod.

The following shows you the sort of problems I get in these types of photos:

Moon-Before

As you can see there is not a lot of definition in the moon and the surrounding night sky looks terrible. Actually, if you look at the whole picture and at this size, you can see from this shot that it isn’t that bad from a distance:

FullImageBefore

Not bad – but not good enough. So I picked the worst four of the images and played around in Paint Shop Pro 8 (PSP) with lots of different options until I settled on a few filters which, when combined in different ways and with slightly different settings, produce some good results. I’m not saying these are the best choices just the ones that worked for me this time round.

A quick aside: I tend to try the “One step photo fix” on most of my photos at least to see if I think it helps. Increasingly I am coming to the conclusion that it doesn’t and I am ending up using my own combinations of adjustments. “One step photo fix” has never worked on night time shots.

The Process

The first thing I did was to think about what the fundamental problems with these photos were – graininess and lack of definition. Well, another word for graininess is noise and PSP has a whole sub-menu dedicated to noise.

I had used the “Edge preserve smooth” option in the past to clean up pictures, it does a good job of removing rubbish without blurring or removing detail in the photo, unfortunately this didn’t work too well on the night time shots. No matter which options I chose, it simply could not cope with the graininess in these pictures – it seems that the “grains” are too coarse and it tends to make them stand out rather than removing them.

I played around with various other filters in here, including the seemingly obvious “Despeckle” option, with no luck until I tried the “Salt and pepper” filter. I tried numerous settings before settling on the following:

  • Speck size: 9
  • Sensitivity: 5
  • Include all lower speck sizes: ON
  • Aggressive Action: OFF

OK, my image now looks a lot better than before but there was a problem. Look around the moon in this shot:

Moon-SaltAndPeppered

I have some ugly blotches and banding creeping in, especially in the clouds and there are some nasty dark bits around the moons edge. For this I resorted back to the “Edge preserve smooth” at a fairly low level to smooth things out like so:

Moon-EdgePreserveSmoothed

This helped quite a bit but the blotches have turned into bands and the “edge preserving” has brought the graininess back in a little. I am also not happy with the clouds, they just don’t look natural. After some experimentation I found that a tiny amount of “Gaussian blur” reduces these problems down to manageable levels:

Moon-GaussianBlurred

Conclusion

And there we have it. I have removed the graininess whilst not losing too much detail – in fact I believe that the detail is improved in many areas. Here is the final before-and-after:

Moon-Before Moon-GaussianBlurred

Before you rush off and attempt to follow the above instructions rigorously I must point out that the above is just a rough guide. Each of the four photo’s I tackled was treated differently using the preview feature in PSP to check results before accepting them. The order you apply filters makes a huge difference, I always started with the “salt and pepper” filter but shuffled things around a lot after that. Finally, if your images are JPEG’s, don’t forget the “JPEG artifact removal” filter – I use the lowest JPG compression settings but artifacts still creep in – especially in night time shots.

Check out the full images in Zooomr – to really appreciate the difference you need to look at the full size images from the “All sizes” option above the photos. Let me know what you think – or if you have any better techniques.

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