I know we can also use the word grain which conveys the same meaning and which makes more sense in my opinion. But I noticed photographers have a preference for the term 'noise'. What's got the word 'noise' to do with something that is visual not aural. Interestingly, same thing in French - the grain is called 'bruit' (noise).

A google search wasn't much helpful.

Also, is the term specific to digital photography (actually where I encountered the term) or film photography as well?

Any idea?

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    Actually, the word grain makes less literal sense now that most photography is digital. – Peter Shor Dec 21 '15 at 12:56
  • My ears still hear noises and my eyes see grains even in the digital age! – user15851 Dec 21 '15 at 13:17
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    @misensalem But it's not grain. Grain refers to the individual grains of crystalline material within the photographic film. In black and white film, each grain is either black or white, meaning that the image is composed of tiny dots; the dots are larger on more sensitive film, which is why you can see the textured appearance of "grain" in the image. Digital noise is a rather different phenomenon and, while it's not unreasonable to use the same word to describe both, you're not seeing "grains". – David Richerby Dec 21 '15 at 14:39
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    @David Richerby I heard some professional photographers use the terms alternately. Actually, it's a photographer who told me you can say either noise or grain referring to digital photography. – user15851 Dec 21 '15 at 14:45
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According to Wikipedia the term is used by analogy to acoustic noise:

Image noise:

  • is an undesirable by-product of image capture that adds spurious and extraneous information.

  • The original meaning of "noise" was and remains "unwanted signal"; unwanted electrical fluctuations in signals received by AM radios caused audible acoustic noise ("static"). By analogy unwanted electrical fluctuations themselves came to be known as "noise".Image noise is, of course, inaudible.

The expression "image noise" appears to have been used from the late 60's early 70's according to Ngram.

Early usage example:

  • Some workers have judged gains over unaided photography in terms of the relative rates of photographic blackening. Image noise has often been ignored. Image resolution has either been quoted as an independent parameter, or it has been ....From Advances in Electronic & Electron Physics 1969.

enter image description here Noise clearly visible in an image from a digital camera

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    Also, in scientific photography, such as astronomy, the term noise is a technical term, which they use to precisely measure the signal-to-noise ratio, both in analog and digital photography. It can be measured and described accurately. It's simply a re-use of the technical term, without all the math, and not really a metaphor or borrowed term. – user1359 Dec 21 '15 at 14:40
  • The original meaning of noise doesn't relate directly to AM radios. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary it's a 13th century word, and meant "loud outcry, clamor, shouting,". – bdsl Dec 21 '15 at 14:43
  • I'm familiar with the metaphorical meaning both in English and in French (noise in the sense of rumour), it's the technical meaning that is rather new to me. – user15851 Dec 21 '15 at 15:14
  • Did you intentionally write "to be been used" or did you mean to write "to have been used" instead? – Andriy M Dec 21 '15 at 16:25
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    FWIW, it's not just scientific photography. It's digital photography (early scientific photography using large format films still used the word "grain"). The word noise specifically refers to the thermal/radio/electrical noise entering the system as the image signal travels down the wire to be captured. This is the meaning of "noise" in the signal-to-noise ratio sense. The term "signal-to-noise" was coined some time in the 1940s from the work of Claude Shanon et. el. at Bell Labs. They were trying to improve telephone networks but ended up with a general theory for data transmission. – slebetman Dec 22 '15 at 4:29

Noise is a noun whose principal meaning relates to sound.

But it also has many extended meanings e.g. concerning scandal, rumour or report.

And it is used to express importance (Hoggett is now a big noise in the dental-supplies industry) and many other things.

But the extended use you are asking about relates to sense 11a in the OED.

11.a. In scientific and technical use: random or irregular fluctuations or disturbances which are not part of a signal (whether the result is audible or not), or which interfere with or obscure a signal; oscillations with a randomly fluctuating amplitude over a usually continuous range of frequencies. Also (in extended use): distortions or additions which interfere with the transfer of information.

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    OK. But how about photography and when did the term first start to get used in photography? – user15851 Dec 21 '15 at 12:20
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    @misensalem Could you say what research you have done so far, please, so that I don't duplicate your own efforts. – WS2 Dec 21 '15 at 12:28
  • No deep search so far; just a random google search but didn't find any info about the use of the word in photography. I'd be interested to know when did the term start to be used in photography. Also, is it specific to digital photography (actually where I encountered the term) or film photography as well? – user15851 Dec 21 '15 at 13:11
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    It is specific to digital photography, as the 'noise' in question is signal noise, and the 'grain' is found on photographic film. – Roaring Fish Dec 21 '15 at 13:36
  • @Mari-LouA Done! – user15851 Dec 21 '15 at 13:49

The phrase "noise" was non-existent in photography until the video/digital age. Since much of the signal processing conundrums involves the introduction of "bad stuff" during transmission, and transmission is essentially a signals domain, the word "noise" stuck.

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