Big Noise from Winnetka

“Big Noise from Winnetka” is a jazz song co-written by composer and bass player Bob Haggart and drummer Ray Bauduc, who were members of a sub-group of the Bob Crosby Orchestra called “The Bobcats”. They also were the first to record it, in 1938.

The other night I was watching one of my favorite movies, Three Days of the Condor, for maybe the fourth time and was struck by one scene showing a series of photographs that were made by Faye Dunaway’s character. The camera does a close up of her prints and the first thing I noticed about them was the grain. And then it hit me: Grain was an integral part of the images made with film but when it comes to digital noise photographers complain about it and try to eliminate it from their images. Isn’t digital noise a natural part of the process, just like film grain. And everybody knows where noise in digital image files comes from, don’t they?

Accumulative noise increases with long exposures that are made under low-light conditions and high ISO settings, a typical night photography scenario as with the above image made in a Ponce, PR marina at night. Noise is spread across the frequency spectrum but is more obvious in areas of underexposure. Noise varies with color and brightness and  is different for every digital camera but blue-channel noise is usually higher than in other channels. 

Digital noise has internal causes too. Dark noise is produced by heat from the camera’s sensor during capture and is collected along with the data from light passing through the lens. Random noise is created by fluctuations within the camera’s circuitry or even electromagnetic waves outside the camera. Signal noise is caused by fluctuations in the distribution of light striking an image sensor. Amplified noise is caused by using high ISO settings and is the digital equivalent of pushing film to achieve greater sensitivity. There also several sources of external noise, including “pixel death” that’s more pronounced at higher altitudes.

Factoid: Sunspots are an intensely magnetic area on the Sun’s face that is slightly cooler than the surrounding photosphere. It may be because the magnetic field interferes with the outflow of solar heat in that region that it appears a bit darker or maybe not. Sunspots tend to be associated with solar outbursts and the number of spots varies on an 11-year cycle. Scientists analyze hot pixels to measure the effects of solar particles and cosmic rays on digital images and based on this, you could extrapolate that sunspots indirectly cause hot pixels due to the solar particles and cosmic rays they generate. Ask Stephen Hawking, not me.

You can still see Three Days of the Condor on Netflix (I think) or pick up a DVD from Amazon. Barry Staver and I are co-authors of Better Available Light Digital Photography that’s out-of-print with new copies available from Amazon for $19.95 (non-Prime) or used copies for giveaway prices, only $7 as I write this.

Author: Joe Farace

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