Image noise is detrimental to photographs, but it’s even worse when it occurs in video. Even a bit of noise can ruin your footage. I received Photon Pro, a very inexpensive and simple to use Final Cut Pro X plug-in that claims it removes noise from your footage achieving the same quality as much more expensive “professional” denoising products. That’s a pretty hefty statement, so I decided to compare Photon Pro to the Red Giant Software Denoiser II plug-in for After Effects.
Photon Pro presents itself to the Final Cut Pro X user as a single item in the Effects tab under the “fpgarts.com” category. It has no more than five parameters: Luma NR, Chroma NR, Temporal Radius, Spatial radius and Spatial Mask. That’s a lot less to play with than Red Giant Software’s Denoiser II in After Effects. Except for the noise reduction sliders, the two radius sliders serve to increase the area Photon Pro will take as its pixel base for determining how noise reduction should be applied.
Spatial Radius will determine the size of the window around each pixel used for noise reduction, while Temporal Radius will determine how many frames before and after the current one are used for noise reduction. Setting the former at a high value will result in a more blurry effect, while setting the latter at a low value may introduce flicker. The Spatial Mask setting affects the edge sharpness of the results. Disabling this parameter will result in blurrier results or a ghosting effect.
Photon Pro, unlike other plugins, doesn’t implement its own sharpening filter. For my comparisons below, I did not sharpen the clip after having applied Photon Pro. In a real-world workflow, you should sharpen afterwards to ‘bring back the punch’ in the edges. Final Cut Pro X includes its own sharpening filter, so you can use that downstream of Photon Pro.
Now that we’ve got the technical details out of the way, it’s time to see how well a plug-in that costs just shy of 24 Euros will stack up against a plug-in for After Effects that costs about 77 Euros. I used two clips for my testing: one that was shot indoors with the shades down, and one shot in a supermarket. The first one was totally unusable — lets’ call it the “garbage clip”. The other one was a good example of what you’d get when shooting without added light. A broadcast company would find such footage unfit to use “as is”.
I first tried out Photon Pro — as with other effects in Final Cut Pro X, you drag it to the clip you want to fix — with its settings as set out-of-the-box. That didn’t do much as the sliders have been inspired by the ‘denoiser’ slider in Adobe Lightroom and have no specific effect in their default position. I left the two Radius settings at their lowest feasible value. Some AMD cards have a buggy OpenCL driver which forces you to set the Temporal Radius setting to at least 1, so with such a card inside the iMac mid-2011 I’m still using, I set the slider at 1.
While leaving the radius settings at their lowest, I decided to set the Luma NR at 50 and the Chroma NR (there wasn’t much chroma noise as far as I could detect) at 20. That did the trick on the supermarket clip, which now looked pretty much noise-free with no visible loss of detail. I could have reduced noise further, but I thought it was OK. The garbage clip remained unusable as I expected.
I then turned my attention to Denoiser II inside After Effects CS6. I left the Denoiser II plug-in at its default settings. The only thing I changed was the frame Denoiser II takes to calculate its automatic denoising settings. The garbage clip faired a bit different with Denoiser II than it did with Photon Pro: it actually got worse, with more blotching and mottling. The supermarket clip looked close to identical as the Photon Pro version. In this first test, both plug-ins performed equally well.
As it is now, however, the Denoiser II plug-in cost me a lot more time in order to get to an end-result, which was a noise-free ProRes 422 clip on a Final Cut Pro X timeline.
With my second test I made a brave attempt to save the ugly garbage clip. I increased the Temporal radius in Photon Pro with a factor one — I based my decision on the noise in the clip; a bigger radius would only have made things worse. I cranked up the Spatial Radius to 3 and the Luma NR slider all the way to max setting. I left the Chroma NR at 50.
What I observed with Photon Pro was that the image sort of looked “liquified” — a combination of blur and blotchiness — with details sacrificed to a better noise reduction. By playing with the parameters of Denoiser II, I could get a slightly — really slightly — better result, with a little less loss of detail. Turning down the Spatial Radius slider in Photon Pro reduced the liquification considerably but also reintroduced noise. Neither plug-in was capable of saving this clip and restoring it to acceptable quality.
Photon Pro did a great job at a third of the cost of Red Giant’s Denoiser II. Only in extreme cases — cases in which you really shouldn’t be using the noisy clip in the first place in my opinion — would Denoiser II offer a slightly better chance of restoring detail. The question then is how much you’re willing to pay extra for the word “slightly”.