There is no right way or wrong way when it comes to Milky Way photography post-processing. At MilkyWayPhotographers, we aim to teach various post-processing techniques to help you achieve the look and feel you want for your Milky Way photography art. After all, the artist’s vision is the driving force behind the look of the final product.

There are numerous techniques when it comes to post-processing a Milky Way image. In a previous article, I covered a basic post-processing technique. The methods presented here, while aimed at beginners, are suitable for even the most seasoned photographer.

MY PROCESS

My post-processing journey has gone through a lot of changes over the years. When I first started photographing the Milky Way, Lightroom was the workhorse.

Lightroom is still in my workflow. I import images into LR and apply some simple, global adjustments. I usually like the White Balance to be at 3800 Kelvin and +20 Tint. From there, I often add a touch of contrast and vibrancy. I will hit the Exposure, Shadows, and Highlights if needed. Then I will scroll down and click on the Lens Correction. You can read more about my beginner Lightroom process in this article.

From that point, the exposure process I use in the field will determine my overall post-processing workflow.

LOW-LEVEL LANDSCAPE LIGHTING

I will not go into detail on how to use Low-Level Landscape Lighting (LLL) in the field; you can read about it at LowLevelLighting.org. I do have a specific process I use with Milky Way photographs. Some of these steps are the same with all my images. But when I use LLL, I will take several shots because I will stack them in Sequator for noise reduction purposes.

I started using this technique while using the Pentax K-5 II. Stacking for noise reduction can be a game-changer for crop sensor images. It does take a little bit of extra time, but it works. I still use it with my full-frame Nikon, but I am at a point that I am not “forced” into using it if I do not want or need to.

WHY STACK IMAGES? NOISE REDUCTION

The stacking technique is pretty simple. While on location, you take a series of shots, say 5-10. Instead of keeping the shutter open as long as possible and the ISO down, I do the reverse. I will go from 20 seconds down to 10-13 seconds and double my ISO setting from 6400 to 12,800.

At first, I was using the median noise reduction technique in Photoshop. I was not happy with this, though. The lower-left corner of the sky in my images, the stars would be blurred by this technique.

I then stumbled across Sequator. Sequator is a stacking software package that is free to use. Gone were the blurred stars.

EXPANDING MY HORIZONS

Over time while studying the images of other photographers, I developed a yearning to get clean foreground shots just by using long exposures.

There are several reasons why I started using this technique. The first reason is I really like how the final image looks. Second, I moved up to a full-frame body. Last was that there were times that I would not want to pull out my artificial light setup, or would not be able to use LLL.

The issue that I have run into is the final image is not quite ready to be used. The camera exposure, while on the mark, it ends up too bright. And color-wise, the long exposure for the foreground does not work well with a night sky image. That is where color grading or the use of COLOR LOOKUP adjustment layers in Photoshop have stepped in.

COLOR LOOKUP LAYERS

Color Lookup adjustment layers are used in Photoshop to give a particular “look” to an image. This look happens because the colors of the photo are modified by remapping them using a Lookup Table (LUT). LUTs have been used primarily by the film industry. Applying a LUT to an image is a form of color grading an image, which is popular these days in some segments of photography.

Over time, I have spent many hours learning Photoshop. For those that are familiar with more of my work, I do sports composites from time to time. This journey has allowed me to learn different things in the program. One of these was the utilization of LUTs.

Several months ago, I was surfing YouTube, watching videos about turning daytime shots in nighttime shots. I found one video that simplified the process by the use of Color Lookup Adjustment Layers. I messed around a little bit, and the light in my head lit up.

APPLYING LUTS TO MILKY WAY PHOTOGRAPHY

When I came home from a recent Chase The Milky Way Trip, I decided to try applying a LUT to a foreground image. The particular LUT used is called NIGHTFROMDAY.CUBE. This particular LUT will give an image the appearance¬†of “nighttime.”

You can see the process in action with this video:

Using Color Lookup Adjustment Layers in Photoshop.

One word of warning, though, as with anything photography-wise, the lighting in a given scene can make or break this look. If you shoot a scene in the middle of the day while the sun is out and there are harsh shadows, forget it. Your image will not work. This technique works great with a photo that has even and diffused light. It also works for long exposures taken at night. The opacity needs adjusting as 100% will be way too much.

LRGB PROCESSING

If I were to describe the science behind LRGB, I will bore people to tears. Here is how I would describe it in layman’s terms:

LRGB Processing is the process of adjusting the colors of an image by using luminosity adjustments for the RED, GREEN, and BLUE color channels.

Why use this method? In the astrophotography world, different shooting and post-processing techniques will yield different results. In informal surveys, these techniques have been ranked according to the final visual appeal.

Tracked images tend to be the most visually appealing to most people. These types of shots usually have the most color detail of most Milky Way images. That is because a tracker allows the sensor to stay open for long periods. As we know, the longer the exposure, the more light it gathers. It also allows the photographer to lower the ISO, which adds to image degradation.

BUT I HAVE NO TRACKER

This approach is where LRGB processing comes into play. Once I learned the process, I started going back through some images. The final results convinced me and fell in line with what I was reading online. Using this post-processing method tends to fall right behind tracker Milky Way shots in visual appealability. But if you have a tracker, yes, you can still use this method, and your work is going to stand out.

Instead of writing out all of the steps of this process, I created a video that covers most of my post-processing workflow. It demonstrates stacking the images in Sequator. Then it is off to Photoshop, where I used a star reduction technique as the first step. I then show the LRGB processing, and I close it out by using an Orton Effect that I learned courtesy of Nick Page as the final polish.

Milky Way Post-Processing Tutorial

CONCLUSION

Milky Way photography allows several approaches when it comes to post-processing. You, the artist should let your vision and your mindset dictate how you approach your work. Your work, your rules, and let your creativity shine!

The retired Navajo Bridge in northern Arizona.
The retired Navajo Bridge in northern Arizona.

MY CURRENT GEAR LIST

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