Welcome to the final installment of our series devoted to beginning Milky Way photographers. In Part One, we covered research options such as apps that we use. Part Two covered the field portion of Milky Way photography. In this part, I will talk about several post-processing techniques that I use.
There are several different techniques that we can use when it comes to Milky Way photography. Ranging from the basic “one-shot” to taking several different shots and stacking them afterward, we will cover them all as we go along. Right now though, this series is devoted to the beginner who wants to learn the basics.
There are different ways to post process, and none of them are wrong. The right technique is what works for you. I will cover the easy-to-do procedures of post-processing in Lightroom and Camera Raw. I will also include a little advanced Photoshop.
Editor’s Note – The technique of adjusting the image color temp as shown here doesn’t produce a scientifically accurate Milky Way color. It’s up to the artist to decide what color they wish to have for their night sky art. If you’d like to learn more about maintaining color accuracy and the natural color of the Milky Way, check out Roger Clark’s excellent page Verifying Natural Color in Night Sky Images and Understanding Good Versus Bad Post Processing.
POST-PROCESSING IN LIGHTROOM
If you want to stick with some simple adjustments in Lightroom and Camera Raw, you will be fine. The best foundation you can start with is an image that has good exposure. Remember, we are at the starting line of our Milky Way photography journey, so use this time to hone your skills and learn.
The first image I am going to showcase is one that I shot several years ago. Everything about the way I shot it is wrong. Shutter speed a tad too long, ISO way too low and I have an image of BLAH. With some quick adjustments in Lightroom though, the BLAH goes away, and now I have a decent photograph!
The first is shadows and how our camera treats them. There is an old saying “you cannot recover highlights.” That rings true for the shadows also to a point. I imagine that a lot of you if you are starting, might not be using the latest and greatest in full-frame gear. The key to creating decent images with lower end gear is knowing the limitations. In this realm, the term ISO invariance can bite you in the rear end.
Without going off the deep too much because ISO invariance stands on its own as a topic, if your camera is not ISO invariant, you are not going to be able to recover very much shadow detail. Add in the fact that we are going to be shooting at high ISO and long shutter speed, which induces noise issues; it is better to crush the shadows until they are solid black. Again, this is basic Milky Way photography. We will cover advanced techniques on how the entire dynamic range of an image will be visible.
Same image. I brought up the exposure and shadow sliders to show the ground. While a lot of people would be happy with this, I prefer crushing the shadows until I have nothing but a silhouette. Doing this is where some advanced shooting techniques, even when used with a lower-end crop sensor, can lift your work.
GOOD EXPOSURE MAKES IT EASY
In the following image, the base image was spot on, exposure wise. I crushed the shadows to get the silhouette, changed the white balance, tweaked contrast, clarity, and de-haze. It would have created a decent photograph if the sky were not blurry.
POST-PROCESSING IN CAMERA RAW
If by chance you do not have Lightroom, but Photoshop and Camera Raw, you can still post-process an image easily. The process is very similar in that you adjust the same settings.
MORE BASIC POST-PROCESSING INFO
Early on, I was using light painting techniques in my Milky Way images. Unlike my light paintings of vehicles, I could not light paint the landscape for my life. Then I found Low-Level Landscape (LLL) Lighting, and it was game on! Since this might be the first advanced technique you learn, I did a quick video edit demonstration in Lightroom.
Without going into too much detail, when it comes to Milky Way photography and the introduction of artificial lighting, you run the risk of creating white balance issues. Using LLL, with the appropriate Color Temp Orange (CTO) filter on your artificial light, you can avoid those issues.
WITHIN THE PHOTOSHOP REALM
I would imagine that a large number of us have Photoshop in our arsenal of post-processing weaponry. With that in mind, I went ahead and did a quick and dirty demo edit in Photoshop. Photoshop being Photoshop, we can either keep it basic or we can deep dive and do some heavy work. With this video edit, I kept things pretty simple. Although I have Lumenzia and use luminosity masking, I stayed away from it for this demonstration.
In these three parts, you have been presented with the foundation to create good Milky Way images. From the tools needed, field technique, to how we wrap everything up with post-processing. Milky Way photography is mystifying to most people, yet it is very straightforward to do. Hopefully, you will be driven to get outside this year and start creating. If you would like to hang out with experts and learn first hand, feel free to check out any of the Photog Adventures workshops.
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