In this tutorial, I show many techniques to enhance your Milky Way images. As with any image there are many ways that you can achieve your desired outcome. There are many ways to achieve outcomes in post processing and this tutorial is a guide only. The steps don’t necessarily need to be used on all images and there isn’t a set order things need to be completed. This tutorial will give you tips and tricks to achieve certain effects in your Milky Way images, we suggest you try them and modify them to suit your style of imagery.
In this tutorial, we use Photoshop for greater control. We also use Luminosity Masks for much greater control over the areas we are effecting.
To follow along you can download the video and the RAW file using the links below.
Link to download video: https://vimeo.com/250034514
Link to download RAW file: Milky Way Tutorial Raw File
Note: you don’t require a Dropbox account to download the RAW file, just click the option to continue without signing up for Dropbox.
Step 1: White Balance Adjustment
Start Time: 01:12
The white balance you choose can vary depending on your personal taste or to match the foreground that you have with your Milky Way image. In this tutorial, we are only showing the editing of the Milky Way as foregrounds are typically handled independently. The original RAW file has a strong magenta cast, and was shot with an Auto White Balance.
Our cameras have a difficult time determining accurate colour temperatures in very low light, but it’s very easy to modify in post.
In this example, we use Camera Raw as our Raw processor, but you can use any RAW processor you prefer. The RAW image has a very strong magenta cast, we remove this by countering the magenta in the Tint, by sliding the tint towards the green (-40) giving a much more natural white balance. You can also adjust the warmth of cool in the image by adjusting the temperature, in this example we warm the image slightly (+5).
There is no such thing as a perfect white balance with these types of images, therefore be as creative as your heart desires.
After you have completed the White Balance adjustment, open the image in Photoshop. You can open it as a smart object (Shift + Open Object) if you’d like to be able to return to Camera Raw to modify any adjustments you have made.
Step 2: Brighten Stars
Start Time: 05:15
We wanted to make the core of the Milky Way be the main feature in the image. To add greater, emphasise to the core we darken the sky around it, which helps the Milky Way stand out more. Before we go through the steps of darkening the sky, we want to make sure that the duller stars throughout the image are not going to be effected by any darkening that we do. To prevent this, the first step we take is to lighten the stars.
In order to make sure that we are only lightening the stars in the image and not the other areas we use Luminosity Masks to restrict the areas affected. We also want to be careful not to select the bright areas of the gas clouds, as these can become much to bright and creating solid blocks of light, which can be distracting. Selecting the Lights 3 Luminosity Mask we’re able to eliminate the gas clouds and the rest of the sky, allowing an adjustment of the stars only. This may not always be the case with all images, you will need to experiment to get the right selection for each image.
Using the Lights 3 selection we create a Curves adjustment layer and brighten the stars significantly. This may not be overly evident when you make the adjustment. Zoom into the stars and turn the layer on and off to get a better view of the adjustment that has been made.
Step 3: Darken Sky
Start Time: 06:55
Here we make a global adjustment to all the darker areas in the image, but not darkening the gas clouds or stars. To avoid darkening the gas clouds or stars we use a Luminosity Mask to select the dark areas.
With each image, this selection may be slightly different depending on the conditions and setting you used at the time of taking the image. Having said that the process for making the selection would be the same. Start by making a selection in the dark areas of your image with a Darks 1 Luminosity Mask. You now want to look to see if there are any areas in your image that you don’t want effected, included in the mask. If there are you will want to restrict your mask by either using the Levels Adjustment Layer or selecting a more restrictive mask. In this example, we ended up using a Darks 4 and then restricted the blacks a little further to ensure that the gas clouds would not be darkened.
Once the selection is complete, create a curves adjustment layer. Pull down on the curve until you have achieved the desired darkening in your image. Again, this will be different depending on your image and your desired result.
Step 4: Darken & Remove Light Pollution
Start Time: 09:01
The need to remove light pollution will not be common in all images of the Milky Way. Due to the light pollution in the bottom of this image, we apply further darkening and colour removal to bring greater balance to the image and ensure the viewers eye goes to the core.
Using the same methodology as we used in Step 3 we make a Darks Luminosity selection to ensure only the dark areas of the sky are effected. We then apply the luminosity mask to a curves adjustment layer and darken the sky further. During this process though we end up darkening areas of the sky that we don’t want affected.
To prevent the other areas of the sky from being darkened, we put the curves adjustment into a group with a black mask and paint the adjustment back into the areas we desire.
By darkening of the bottom half of the image we are not able to remove all the colour that was present in the light pollution. To remove the colour, we apply a Hue & Saturation adjustment layer and drop the saturation in the colours that are present, in this case reds and magentas. We also drop the lightness in those colours to remove some of the lightness left behind. By placing this adjustment layer inside the same group as the curves layer, it is also restricted to working in only the areas within the group mask.
Step 5: Noise Reduction
Start Time: 14:40
One of the big issues that we face when shooting the night sky is noise. This is caused by the high ISO’s that we need to use to expose for the stars. This can’t be completely avoided, but can be reduced by using prime lenses with wider apertures. With wider apertures (i.e. f1.4, f1.8) we can reduce our shutter speeds and ISO’s which will give us cleaner images.
There are other techniques we can use to reduce noise as well, and I’ll cover these in a tutorial on shooting the Milky Way at a later date.
When we apply noise reduction in our Milky Way images we also want to make sure that it’s only effecting the areas we want. We don’t want to apply noise reduction to our stars and possibly our gas clouds as it will soften them. Using the noise reduction tool in ADP Pro v3 it will apply a global noise reduction in our images, and it applies a black mask to the layer, hiding the noise reduction. Then we can paint on the black layer mask to bring in the noise reduction where we want it. This is difficult with a Milky Way image as there are stars throughout the image that we don’t want to effect. Instead of painting on the mask, we’ll apply it by putting a luminosity mask on the noise reduction layer and applying it to only the dark areas.
With the Noise Reduction layer selected, press the Apply – Adjust – Replace button in ADP Pro v3. What this will do is replace the black mask on the layer with a Luminosity Mask. You can switch between the mask and image view to make a mask and view the effect. In this example, we use a darks luminosity mask to ensure only the dark areas of the image are effected.
Step 6: Enhance Colour in the Gas Clouds
Start Time: 18:00
It may not always be evident from your Raw files, but depending on your location and time of year, there can be a significant amount of colour in the gas clouds of the Milky Way. In this step, we draw out the colour that exists in the gas clouds. We’ll use two different methods for adjustment to give you multiple options.
The first method we use is creating a Hue & Saturation adjustment layer. With this layer we choose the blues, which are present in the outer areas of the gas clouds. We increase the saturation in the blues, beyond our desired result. Then invert your layer mask to black, hiding the effect of the saturation. Using a soft edge and low opacity brush we paint the colour back into the areas of the gas clouds we want to enhance.
The second method we use is the Saturation Painting tool built into the panel. This is a very effective method when working in areas that have low colour and would not be impacted through saturation sliders. Using a very low opacity brush, 1% to 3%, and the red brush, paint in the areas you want to increase saturation. This will not paint red onto the image, it will only increase saturation in the areas that you paint.
Step 7: Dodge Gas Clouds
Start Time: 24:00
In this step, we’re going to lighten the gas clouds throughout the core of the Milky Way. There are many methods for lightening an image, in this case we’re going to use dodging with colour. By dodging with colour, we can maintain the colours that already exist within our image without washing them out.
The first thing we want to do is ensure that we are only dodging within the gas clouds, and other areas of the image won’t be adjusted. In this example, we use the restricted tonal masks within the Quick Masks. The restricted masks in quick mask are a little more restricted in their selection, with smoother transitions between tones. Opening the quick mask panel, select the restricted tone picker and select the gas clouds. This will create a luminosity mask based on the tones that you select. You can then adjust the mask to further be restricted the tones of interest. In this case we darken the blacks off to ensure that only the gas clouds are effected.
After we have completed our selection, we now want to apply the mask to a dodging layer. We have three options (Transparent, Middle Grey & Curves), the transparent method allows us to dodge or burn our images with coloured brushes. Once you have chosen the method, transparent, press the dodge button and a new layer with your luminosity selection is created. Now you can dodge with a white brush, or choose a colour directly from your image, so choose the blues in the gas clouds. To dodge, you want this to be a light colour, so if your choice is in the darker tones of that colour, just move your selection up to the brighter versions of that colour. Using a low to medium opacity soft edge brush, start to paint the lightening into the areas of interest. You can also use the layer to paint in with other colours, as we do in this example, also using the same layer to paint the reddish colour into the core of the gas clouds.
Step 8: Burn Dust Lanes
Start Time: 28:30
If you look closely at the core of the Milky Way you will notice that there are a lot of channels of darkness throughout, we call them dust lanes. If we darken these, we can create a lot more detail and interest in the Milky Way.
Using the same method that we used above to dodge the gas clouds, we can darken the dust lanes. In this case we want to work in the dark tones. Selecting the Quick Mask Luminosity Mask, you can work in the dark tones, or select the tones directly from your image with the Restricted Tonal Picker. Modify the mask until you have restricted the mask to work in just the dark areas of your image and the gas clouds are not affected.
To darken the dust lanes, we’re going to burn. In this case we don’t want colour to be affected, so choose curves as the burning method. This will set the burning layer to a luminosity blending mode, which means that colour will not be effected. This will create a burning curves layer and hide that layer inside a group with a black mask. Using a white soft edge, low opacity brush, start to paint in the darkening throughout the dust lanes until you have reached your desired result.
Step 9: Add Glow to Stars
Start Time: 33:30
This technique is a fun tip and not necessarily something that you will want to use, but can add some interest to your images. We add a glow to a few of the stars throughout the image to add some points of interest.
Create a transparent layer, by selecting the new layer icon at the bottom of your layers window. Change the blending mode of the layer to Soft Light, this will allow us to lighten areas of the image without painting with a solid colour. Now you want to select a colour from your stars, this will keep consistency in your colours in the image. Stars typically have a slight blue colour, so press on your foreground colour and zoom in and select a blue from your stars.
With your paint brush, set it’s opacity down to 10% – 15% and make the brush size slightly larger than the star you want to add a glow to. Click on the star once, then increase the brush size with your square bracket keys, and press again. Repeat this process, increasing and decreasing your brush size until you have added your desired glow.
Step 10: Sharpen
Start Time: 37:05
We have many methods that we can sharpen our images built into ADP Pro v3. One of the most effective way to make stars sparkle is to apply High Pass sharpening. Open the sharpening panel at the lower right corner of the panel. Using the Auto Web Sharpening section, select High Pass as the sharpening method, and then choose the size you want for your finished image.
As with most things, we don’t want to apply them globally at the same strength throughout the image. In the case of images of the stars we don’t typically want to sharpen the dark areas of the image or even the gas clouds. Instead, we want the stars to be pin points of light, and are the areas we typically only want sharpening applied.
Exit from the sharpening, by pressing close at the top, and enter the Apply – Adjust – Replace, so that we can modify the mask on the High Pass layer to only effect the stars. Select Mask View, so you can see the mask and apply a Lights mask. Restrict this mask to only effect the stars in the image, this will likely be a Lights 3 or 4. When you’re done, press close on the Apply – Adjust – Replace and you are finished.
We hope that you have found some useful tips in this tutorial that you can apply to you own images. Feel free to leave us a comment below.