Editing the Night Sky and the Milky Way in Lightroom

One of our favorite workshops is the night photography workshop in the Eastern Sierra. There are many things to think about when shooting the stars, and post processing is one of them.

Some of the things to keep in mind:
• Be aware of the correct settings in your camera
• Shoot in an area where the sky is not affected by a lot of city light pollution
• Shoot when the moon is a sliver of a crescent, or none at all
• Have a good grasp on the post processing that will bring out the best in the stars

“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.”
– Ansel Adams

The newer cameras on the market have a much better dynamic range than they did in the past. In low light conditions, the dynamic range (that is the difference between the darkest and the lightest part of the subject) is quite small. As a result with the newer digital SLRs, we are able to shoot in the most challenging low light situations. We are able to produce images which can be adjusted in Lightroom and Photoshop and bring out the beauty of the night sky.

Even with a camera with high dynamic range, it can be a challenge to deal with the noise and color of the sky when post processing.

Keep in mind when you are shooting in dark conditions, the image and the exposure may look great. Once you are out of the dark conditions, you will see that what looked like the perfect exposure , now appears to be extremely dark. The lesson here is to watch the exposure on the back of your camera and make sure that it looks brighter than expected. That way it should look good once you bring it in to Lightroom.

Another helpful note when shooting astrophotography. Check to see how well your camera renders images in the dark by testing your ISO settings on your individual camera before you set out on your night photography expedition.

You need to determine the acceptable level of noise you are willing to see in your images. Test your camera before you go out on your shoot. Take a test picture in natural day light with a string of different ISOs from 100 – 10,000. Monitor the noise level of each picture and see what your camera renders when you bring it back into Lightroom or Photoshop. This will help you decide what ISO will work best with your particular camera in dark conditions.

Here is a basic Lightroom workflow which can be adjusted depending on the image. If you are happy with these settings, you can create your own preset for it in Lightroom. Each camera will render these settings a little differently, so treat it as a preset, a starting point for your digital editing.

Workflow for night photography
• Bring up the exposure and shadows
• Increase the clarity to between +25-30
• Increase dehaze by +18
• Set the color temperature to a color that is pleasing to you. I tend to like the tones in the dark blues the best.
• Open Tone Curve and create a gentle S curve that works with the image. That would generally include an increase in highlights and lights, a decrease in the darks, and a decrease in the shadows. It would look similar to this curve, but make sure it works with your particular image.

Be sure that all of the pictures from the same shoot have the same color temperature and similar noise adjustments if you plan on sharing or printing many different images from the same shoot. You can do this by syncing your settings in Lightroom after you have completed the adjustments to your liking.

Then if you have a particular constellation you would like to highlight (like the Milky Way), use the adjustment brush to paint on a little exposure, clarity and saturation. If you would like to highlight the celestial core of the Milky Way, you can add a touch of peach or red to your brush to bring out the stars. These brush adjustments are very minor and will enhance your image with just a subtle touch.

The last thing you would do is add your noise reduction. This can be tricky, because noise reduction will add softness to your image. Keep your luminance and noise reduction to about 15. Again, this will depend on your camera and how sensitive your sensor is to noise.

Night photography can be fun and the results can be great after a few practice sessions. The Milky Way is still prominent in the summer sky in North America. Give it a try when there is little or no moon to light up the sky. You may get hooked on night photography and editing.

If you would like more help with Lightroom, take our Lightroom Quick Start Class or enroll in our private Lightroom and photoshop tutoring!

If you would like some help with your photographic vision, join us at Jansen Photo Expeditions for one of our private or group workshops in California, Oregon, Wyoming, Iceland, or the destination of your choice. You will have an enriching learning experience and go home with a camera full of prized photographs.

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Holly Higbee-Jansen is photographer, trainer, blogger, and workshop leader who enjoys teaching and the creative process. Her passions include teaching photography workshops in beautiful locations in California, Iceland, Costa Rica and the American West with her husband Mark. Holly also teaches online classes on Lightroom, Photoshop and photographic technique. Get Holly's Free E-Book on "Landscape Photography and the Light" and find out about her newest workshops at JansenPhotoExpeditions.com.


About Mark and Holly
Mark and Holly Jansen
Jansen Photo Expeditions
(805) 701-8807 or

Email: Mark@markJansenphotography.com

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