Fujifilm X-Trans III Sharpening & Noise Reduction

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About 11 months ago I published an article entitled Fujifilm X100F Noise Reduction & Sharpening, which detailed my opinions on these two features. I felt like this topic needed a quick refresher, but I didn’t want to rehash what I’ve already said. I think I came up with a good way to approach this topic while not repeating myself.

All Fujifilm files, whether RAW or JPEG, have some level of sharpening and noise reduction applied to them. The options found in the camera for sharpening and noise reduction are specifically for in-camera JPEGs. If you shoot RAW you apply whatever sharpening and noise reduction you’d like with the software of your choice in post-production. If you shoot JPEG you decide this using the options that Fujifilm provides inside their cameras. You cannot turn these off, and the lowest setting, -4, still applies some sharpening or noise reduction, even if a tiny amount.

I don’t think Fujifilm named the setting levels very well. It should be +1 through +9. Naming it -4 through +4 just causes confusion. Instead of thinking of 0 as zero, think of it as the middle option. 0 is really 5 on a scale of one through nine.

Sharpening and noise reduction are great because they make your photographs crisper and cleaner. They help give your images a polished look. However, too much of a good thing is not good at all. Apply too much of either and weird things start happening to your pictures. It’s a balancing act, and it’s easy to go too far.

How far is too far on Fujifilm X-Trans III cameras? That’s up to you to determine. I will give you my opinion, and you can take that for what it’s worth. I will say that for internet use or prints no larger than 8″ x 12″ it really doesn’t matter what settings you choose because it’s difficult to notice the difference between -4 and +4 when viewed that small. If you don’t pixel-peep or print large, using the default settings of 0 are a perfectly fine approach. If you do pixel-peep or print larger than 8″ x 12″ you may want to more carefully consider your choices.

Sharpening:

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Sharpening -4

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Sharpening 0

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Sharpening +4

What can be determined from the three crops above? Not much, because to notice anything you have to look much closer. If you do take the time to study them you can spot the differences. The change from -4 to +4 isn’t especially obvious, so, as you can imagine, a plus or minus of one is very difficult to perceive. My opinion is that anything from -2 to +2 sharpening is where the best results are found, and I stay in the -1 to +1 range for my own photography, which I believe is the sweet spot. I used to use +2 all of the time but I haven’t used that high of a sharpening setting in probably a year.

Noise Reduction:

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Noise Reduction -4

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Noise Reduction 0

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Noise Reduction +4

By looking at the three crops above it might seem as though there’s not much of a difference between -4 and +4 noise reduction, and you are correct, but it’s actually a bigger difference than you might initially think. In my opinion, the noise reduction setting is a little more critical than the sharpening setting as Fujifilm applies it a little heavy-handed on X-Trans III cameras. I think the best results are found between -4 and -2. In my opinion -2 can be marginal sometimes so I typically use -4 or -3.

If you aren’t pixel-peeping, and you are just sharing to Instagram or Facebook, none of this matters. Worry about sharpening and noise reduction if you like to zoom way in on your pictures or if you like to print them large. I personally worry about it, but I take great care with all of the settings so that I get exactly the results that I want. Just because I worry about something or like things a particular way doesn’t mean that you should, too. Find what works best for you, even if it’s unconventional or goes against popular opinion.

The Noise Reduction High-ISO Curve

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Snowfall – South Weber, UT – Fujifilm X-A3 & Jupiter 21M with 2x teleconverter

The noise reduction that Fujifilm applies to their JPEGs increases in strength as the ISO increases. The idea is to get pleasing results at ridiculously high ISOs. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, and I think it is true of all camera brands. I call it the noise reduction high-ISO curve.

Even if you set Noise Reduction to the lowest setting (-4 on my X100F and -2 on my X-A3), the camera is still applying some noise reduction. There’s no way to turn it completely off. I believe even in RAW there is a small amount of noise reduction that’s automatically being applied. As ISO increases, the noise reduction is applied more aggressively.

Digital noise is the modern equivalent of film grain, except that film grain is aesthetically far superior to noise. Fujifilm has programmed their cameras in such a way that the digital noise looks less digital and more analog-esque, and so it is more visually pleasant than what you find with other camera brands. Still, you don’t see very many people purposefully including noise in their photographs because they like the look of it (which you might see with film grain). Instead, most people try to eliminate it as much as practical.

The problem with noise reduction, whether on the camera or via software on a computer, is that it softens the image as a whole. You lose a little crispness. Applying noise reduction becomes a balancing act. Too much noise reduction and the image will look clean but soft, too little and it will look very noisy but crisp.

I don’t mind some digital noise, especially if it’s from a Fujifilm camera because it looks a little more like film grain. I tend to lean more towards sharpness over cleanness. I’ll put up with more digital noise in a black-and-white image than a color image. For monochrome, I typically don’t mind going a stop higher in ISO.

The issue is that pesky noise reduction, which becomes stronger at higher ISOs, and it makes images softer, sometimes too soft. But I’ve found a simple workaround. The picture at the top, Snowfall, was purposefully underexposed by two-stops. I did this so that I could keep the ISO down to where noise reduction isn’t applied so heavily (in this case, ISO 3200). I used the camera’s built-in RAW editor to increase the exposure by two stops, and the results were superior to using the correct ISO (it would have been ISO 12800, which doesn’t look very good on the X-A3).

This isn’t a new idea. I used to do this same technique occasionally on my X-E1. Even on the X100F, it’s better to use ISO 6400 and underexpose one stop, converting the RAW file in-camera and increasing the exposure, than to use ISO 12800 and expose correctly. The difference isn’t dramatic, but there is a difference, as one image will be slightly softer than the other.

Understanding the noise reduction high-ISO curve allows you to make decisions to better achieve desired results when pushing the ISO envelope. It might be better to underexpose and then correct the exposure when converting the RAW file in-camera than to rely on the JPEG with the correct exposure. Perhaps you prefer the way the camera handles noise reduction. It’s all situation specific, and everyone has different tastes. Just know that you have options for handling noise reduction at high-ISO, including underexposure, so as to benefit from a less aggressive noise reduction algorithm.

Fujifilm X100F Noise Reduction & Sharpening

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America First Building – SLC, UT – Fujifilm X100F

The Fujifilm X100F has noticeably improved noise reduction and sharpening over the first generation X-Trans cameras. That’s to be expected and may seem like an obvious statement, but it’s important to note because neither were particularly great on the early models. I don’t think it was necessarily a “Fujifilm issue” so much as cameras in general don’t do a great job at those functions, and so many people use software on their computers instead. However, things are better on the X100F, and I let the camera do many things that I wouldn’t have in the past.

I’m not sure if you noticed, but on my early Film Simulation recipes, such as Classic Chrome and Acros, I set Noise Reduction to -2 and Sharpening to +2, while my newer recipes, such as Astia and Acros Push-Process, I set Noise Reduction to -3 and Sharpening to +1. Why the change? What difference does it make?

Noise reduction will make an image look cleaner, but at the expense of sharpness. Digital noise is kind of the modern equivalent of film grain, except that it’s much less aesthetically pleasing, and a lot of people don’t like it. Because of the way Fujifilm programs the X-Trans sensor, digital noise on the X100F (and other Fujifilm cameras) resembles film grain more than typical noise–it just looks better, more analog–and so I don’t mind it being visible in an image.

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Johanna & Santa – SLC, UT – Fujifilm X100F

Sharpening, which (I believe) on the X100F is a combination of an unsharp mask and micro contrast (clarity), makes an image look more crisp, but at the expense of artifacts and occasional weird effects. Apply too little sharpening and an image will look soft, apply too much and an image will look strange.

Noise reduction and sharpening work together to determine how clean, sharp and detailed a digital photograph is or isn’t. There are compromises that must be made, and keeping things balanced can be tricky. It’s important to not under or over do it with either.

After playing around with the settings, I initially determined that -2 Noise Reduction and +2 Sharpening was ideal. Not too soft, not too noisy, and not too many artifacts and such. I felt like it was the Goldilocks settings. But after a few months of use, I’ve refined it just a little.

One thing that I noticed with the +2 Sharpening is an occasional “Lego Brick” effect on diagonal high-contrast lines. Sometimes I’ll see it, and then zoom in and it’s not there. That’s due to the resolution of the monitor that I’m viewing it on, and that’s not an image quality issue whatsoever. Other times I’ll see it, and when I zoom in the Lego effect remains. That’s due to over-sharpening, and it drives me nuts. American First Building has the Lego effect on the walkway railing just above the glass. I dislike it when my photographs look “digital” because it seems unnatural. I’ve yet to see the Lego effect when using +1 sharpening.

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Johanna Out On The Town – Ogden, UT – Fujifilm X100F

Something I’ve noticed with the -2 Noise Reduction is a very slight waxy skin effect at really high ISOs. This waxy skin effect has been a Fujifilm issue for awhile, and it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be (not even close), so they’ve made significant progress. However, it still rears it’s head occasionally, and a simple fix is -3 Noise Reduction. The trade off is that high-ISO images don’t look quite as clean, and I question if ISO 12800 is actually usable or not because of the amount of noise.

I don’t think there’s a huge difference between -2 Noise Reduction and +2 Sharpening and -3 Noise Reduction and +1 Sharpening. It’s very subtle, and the end results are nearly identical. When you make changes to these setting there are some compromises. There isn’t a “perfect” setting. There are positives and negatives to consider. The photograph above, Johanna Out On The Town, has a little more noise because of the -3 Noise Reduction, but the skin doesn’t look waxy.

Playing around with the settings, I find that -2 Noise Reduction combined with +1 Sharpening leaves an image looking slightly soft. I find that -3 Noise Reduction combined with +2 Sharpening seems to be too much. In the middle photograph, Johanna & Santa, the +2 Sharpening is a little too much when combined with -3 Noise Reduction (note, this photo received some minor post processing). I’m being picky, and you may find what works for you is a little different than what works for me.

While on this topic, something to note is that you cannot turn off Noise Reduction and Sharpening. Zero is just the default standard setting. Even at -4 the camera is applying a small amount of noise reduction and sharpening to the images. That’s the lowest setting, and it’s much too low, in my opinion, unless I was planning to do those things myself in post (in which case I would shoot RAW, and none of this would matter).