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Astrophotography Workflow Example: How I Finish Milky Way Photos

I’m often asked what camera settings I use when I shoot, or which technique I follow to finish off my astro photos. Here it is!

While every photo is different, I pretty much stick to the same adjustment routine most of the time (ok – all of the time). Some photos require more editing in selective areas than others, but the end goal remains the same; make the Milky Way pop, keep the stars round, and have just the right amount of awesomeness.

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I make adjustments like clarity, contrast, colour temperature and mid tones (and a whole host of selective adjustments) on a per image basis. I use a mix of Lightroom and Photoshop to do this, and will work on each image individually.

Lightroom is where I catalogue and arrange images, narrow down my edits and do the basic adjustments like:

  • Brightness
  • Contrast
  • Clarity
  • Tonal adjustments
  • Vibrance & Saturation
  • Noise reduction
  • Lens Corrections
  • White balance

Once happy, I’ll export as TIFF and finish off my images in Photoshop.

Why? Because Photoshop is more powerful and versatile. I can edit layers and other more selective techniques can be used here.

Let’s analyse this image…

Deadvlei in Namibia
Photo: Tanja Schmitz

I shot this as a 2 image composite, one exposure for the the stars and another for the foreground lighting.

Why? My foreground is shot at a longer duration but lower ISO to ensure less noise / more illuminated image. The stars have a separate exposure to capture as much light in a short space of time, to reveal as much of the Milky Way structure as possible.

Like I mentioned, I start off by importing and cataloging my photos in Lightroom. Photoshop has a raw editor, but Lightroom is my personal preference and is more powerful for this step.

Lightroom adjustments

Since we’re working with 2 images, I focussed on the following adjustments.

Sky image: ISO 6400, 14mm, f/2,8, 30 seconds

  • Lens profile corrections
  • Tone & hue adjustments
  • Selective brush adjustments on the Milky Way core
  • Adding clarity and contrast
  • Adding a gradient filter to help with the sky background colour
  • White balance adjustments
  • Noise reduction
  • Highlight, midtone, blacks, and whites adjustment

a_sky_compiled2

Foreground image: ISO 1600, 14mm, f/2,8, 160 seconds

  • White balance adjustment
  • Clarity
  • Noise reduction
  • Midtone and highlight adjustments
  • Lens profile corrections
  • Exposure adjustments
  • Saturation and vibrance

a_foreground_compiled2

Once happy with my general adjustments, I export both files as a TIFF, to finish off in Photoshop.

Photoshop adjustments

The final image was created by using the layer mask technique, which hides / reveals certain parts with masked areas (layers). It’s a versatile way to retain image information if you want to add or subtract from your layer (the foreground or sky layer). Before applying the masks, I ensure that both the sky and the foreground are contained in the same image lined up perfectly.

Adjustment layers can be added on top of the layer mask, which will only affect the selected parts of the image that’s masked. By using clipping paths, you can ensure that these adjustment layers only affect a specific layer.

a_photoshop2

In this image, I used adjustments like brightness and contrast, vibrance, and a photo filter to the sky. I also focus on further enhancing details in the Milky Way core alone, adding warmth and a little more saturation by having an additional layer (the core masked with a layer mask).

For the foreground I used adjustments like levels and another photo filter so that the colour is balanced.

But when you think you’re done, you’re actually not.

I do a final comprehensive edit of the image once I am happy with the individual elements of the image. It’s at this stage that I save the work in layers and adjustment layers as a PSD file (do this so you can go back and edit something at a later stage), but then also flatten my image into a TIFF, on which I will make my final edits.

Why I do this: Flattening the image allows the Photoshop actions to work on the image in its entirety with ease. It also gives me a good fall-back to the PSD original that contains all the layer information, just in case I ever want to go back and edit something more, like add selective saturation.

So, what are the final touches that every photo needs?

Many of the photo’s features were enhanced through the selective Lightroom and Photoshop editing, but I always feel that there is just a little more that can be done before I call it final, to give it that extra professional-looking POP!

For this, I use our own PhotographingSpace.com Photoshop actions (available here!): ClariSKY, MiniSTARS, and EasyNR, in that order.

Local contrast with ClariSKY

A treatment many people add in Lightroom is clarity, or local contrast — which I do as well. But, the problem with adding local contrast is that stars and bright structures are not masked, therefore not protected. And since I only want the extra contrast to effect the other structures in the background and not turn my stars into celestial donuts, it’s an adjustment that I leave to the end after all major adjustments have been made. Which is why this is done in Photoshop as it’s a more powerful selective editing platform, allowing masking to protect the stars, and is made especially easy with our ClariSKY Photoshop action.

Star reduction with MiniSTARS

Every wide field photo I have ever published makes use of star reduction techniques. From mild to aggressive, I think every photo benefits from some form of star reduction. It allows other features of photo to stand out by dimming the dominance of a rich star field. Structures in the Milky Way become more visible when they are not hidden by overwhelming numbers of stars, plus reducing medium and smaller star fields allow the more prominent and noteworthy stars to stand out more (like constellations!). Our Photoshop action, MiniSTARS, accomplishes this in one click, and there’s no guesswork.

Noise reduction with EasyNR

Once all adjustments are made, I add a final pass of noise reduction to the image. But again, masking is required to retain the detailed Milky Way structures and add protection to stars, as we don’t want them getting mushy! I apply final noise reduction only where it’s needed with our EasyNR Photoshop action, it does the trick in one click!

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About the author

Tanja Schmitz

Tanja is the co-founder of PhotographingSpace.com with her husband, Cory. She is also the co-owner of several telescopes and Celestron mounts, too many cameras, and not enough hard drive space.

An internationally commissioned and published astrophotographer, her work has been used in multiple online and print publications. Tanja was also shortlisted for the Astronomy Photographer of the Year award.

2 Comments

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  • Thanks for the post, very clear. Let me ask you a question. How I could find the Milky way if I don´t have photopills? I tried it in a very dark place with a wide angle lens but couldn´t get a clear image of the milky way like yours before editing.

    thanks!

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