Ways to Edit Milky Way Photos in Lightroom

There are so many ways to edit a Milky Method photo in Lightroom it can be tough to know where to begin. That’s particularly true should you be after maximum image quality, because some of Lightroom’s sliders can cause unwanted noise or halos that are difficult to remove.

Here, I can go through my step-by-step procedure in Lightroom to help your own Milky Way photos pop without losing image high quality. This is the photo (unedited shown below) that I’ve chosen to process for the tutorial:

Unedited, Uncropped Milky Way photo
NIKON Z six + 20mm f/1. eight @ 20mm, ISO 6400, 20 seconds, f/2. 0

From a composition standpoint, it lacks a good subject other than the particular Milky Way, so it isn’t really my favorite photo ever. However it works well for this tutorial since it’s simple: a silhouetted foreground and a clear Milky Way in the sky. It’s a very common situation in astrophotography, and learning how to cope with photos like this is important prior to working with more complex images.

I’ve divided our process into 12 tips that you can see below.

Table of Contents

1 . Form a strategy

Before you begin doing any edits in Lightroom, it helps to have a plan. Here’s the order I would recommend for your edits: Global > Local > Spot > Photoshop.

  • Global:   Start by performing as many slider adjustments as you need. This includes everything from the fundamental Panel to the sharpening plus noise reduction sliders, along with cropping the image.
  • Local: After you have gotten a good base, begin dodging and burning your photo or making nearby color adjustments using the gradient, radial gradient, and brush tools. I recommend starting wide (gradients) and working your way down to finer adjustments (very small brush edits).
  • Spot: Go spot healing in locations that need to be fixed, like unwanted airplane or satellite trails in the sky.
  • Photoshop: If you will find edits you can’t do in Lightroom, open your photo in Photoshop after completing all of the steps in this article. Soon, I can publish a separate post about editing Milky Way photos in Photoshop.

I recommend trying to visualize the edits you’re going to make rather than shifting sliders randomly.

2 . Set the Right Defaults

A number of Lightroom’s default settings aren’t optimal for astrophotography. Listed here are the ones I recommend changing:

  • Set the Profile at the top of the Basic Panel to Adobe Standard, or, if it comes up as an option, Adobe Regular V2. We’ll come back to this particular in a later step.
  • Switch off the sharpening and noise reduction settings for now; Lightroom’s defaults aren’t great for Milky Way photography.
  • Make sure “remove chromatic aberration” is selected in the Lens Corrections panel.
  • Click “enable profile corrections” in the same panel, but feel free to reset the Bias slider to zero plus lower the Vignetting slider substantially. Lightroom often overdoes the vignetting correction, and the distortion correction isn’t necessary for a lot of Milky Way photos.

Furthermore, crop your photo prior to doing the rest of the steps beneath.

a few. Find a Neutral White Balance

It’s a good idea to find a relatively neutral white balance before performing any other edits. Milky Way photos tend to have very poor white balance settings automatically, because the camera’s Auto white-colored balance doesn’t do well within low light, and other choices like Daylight or Tungsten white balance are usually too yellow or blue.

While you could try using Lightroom’s white balance selector eyedropper tool, I’m not really a big fan for this kind of photography. It’s too easy to fool by clicking within slightly different areas of the body. Instead, I recommend boosting vibrance and saturation all the way in order to +100, then adjusting colour temperature and tint till there’s a good balance of colours in the sky.

Set Neutral White Balance in Lightroom by Boosting Vibrance and Saturation
Get normal colors by environment crazy colors

After you’re performed setting white balance plus tint, reset the vibrance and saturation sliders back to zero.

4. Make Global Edits in the Basic and Firmness Curve Panels

The next step is to do your own most important brightness and contrast edits using the two best panels (Basic and Develop Curve). There aren’t any kind of set values here which are good or bad. It depends entirely over the photo at hand. I would, however , caution moderation.   For example , the Texture and Clearness sliders can crunch in the stars in a way that really springs out, which may look okay at such an early phase of editing, but often looks grungy and unclean later. I usually recommend reducing these sliders a bit instead of boosting them.

If I had to give some general recommendations, here’s what they are:

  • Don’t brighten matters too much. It’s nighttime!
  • Work with a slightly lower texture plus clarity to give a subtler, more refined feel to the stars. About -5 or even -10 is usually good.
  • The between vibrance and vividness is especially apparent in Milky Way photography. Vibrance impacts the whole image, while saturation primarily affects areas which were already saturated. Be deliberate about which of them you use.
  • Within the Tone Curve panel, the particular Highlights slider is a very fine edit that only impacts the brightest stars. I like to decrease it a bit, maybe -10, to keep that refined feel.
  • My favorite way to increase contrast is to decrease the Exposure slider in the Simple Panel while increasing the Lights slider in the Tone Curve panel correspondingly. It’s not just for astrophotography; that’s one of my go-to edits for almost any landscape shot.
Basic Panel Edits for a Milky Way Photo in Lightroom
My Basic Panel edits in Lightroom
Tone Curve Panel for Astrophotography
My Shade Curve Panel edits on a single photo

5. Use Color Grading More Than HSL for Color Edits

Although I like the amount of control that Lightroom’s HSL (hue, saturation, lightness) sliders offer for color modifications, they aren’t perfect. Especially, if you push the sliders too far from each other, you are able to increase the photo’s color sound significantly.

Instead, for Milky Way pictures, I recommend using the Color Grading panel. It’s Lightroom’s alternative to the Split Toning screen, and it’s well-suited for this type of photo. My usual preference is to make the shadows bluer and the highlights oranger.

However , the particular “Highlights” color wheel is not the one I recommend for Milky Way photography. As you can see, it targets the brightest superstars a bit too much:

Bad Colors When Choosing Highlight Color Grading Adjustment for Milky Way Photo
Note the bad colors in the highlights here

Instead, the brighter areas of the skies tend to look better in case you adjust the “Midtones” color wheel instead. Here’s the result:

Midtones Rather than highlights for Color Grading Panel in Adobe Lightroom
Much better!

six. Pay Close Attention to Color Noise Reduction

I’ve written before about how color sound reduction in Lightroom harms low-level color detail. That’s very true for Milky Way picture taking, where even Lightroom’s arrears color noise reduction damages a lot of the color around superstars. Take a look at the following crops, where one can see less color details with Lightroom’s defaults in comparison to zero color noise decrease:

Lightroom Color Noise Reduction Default vs Zero Color Noise Reduction

The issue is that the second photo clearly has too much color sound. So , our goal is usually somewhere in between: retaining the particular colorful stars without excess color noise. Here are the particular settings I recommend for your Milky Way shots (assuming high ISOs rather than using a tracking head or image stacking ):

  • Color sound reduction:   Approximately +10 to +20
  • Color detail: Roughly +60 to +80
  • Color contrast: +100 every time

This is the outcome:

Lightroom Color Noise Reduction Default vs My Preferences copy

That’s what I’m after. They have much more color detail than the default settings without going overboard on color sound. (Click to see larger when the differences aren’t clear. )

You may be questioning about my sharpening plus luminance noise reduction configurations. Those are always a managing act, and my configurations for this photo are demonstrated here:

Sharpening and Noise Reduction settings in Lightroom
My sharpening plus luminance noise reduction settings

But I’m prioritizing a deconvolution sharpening algorithm (Radius associated with 0. 5 and Fine detail of 100), whereas you may prefer something more intense. I normally don’t like to increase the Masking slider a lot, but for Milky Way photography at high ISOs, it’s worth doing because of all of the shot noise .

7. Use Range Hiding for Local Adjustments

We’re mostly done with global adjustments at this time. It’s time to do local adjustments on areas of the particular sky or foreground to make them stand out how you would like.

Personally, the majority of the local adjustments I do are what’s known as dodging and burning – AKA, brightening and darkening certain places in order to emphasize and de-emphasize them. But before I enter into that process, I want to mention an useful tool in Lightroom called Range Masking.

Range Masking is a way to apply your local changes only to certain areas of the photo in Lightroom, such as bright areas, dark locations, or blue areas. It is very useful for something like Milky Way photography. Say that I would like to create a gradient of highly saturated blue in order to get rid of light pollution along the horizon. A preview of the gradient mask is proven below (with my edits affecting anything in red):

Gradient Filter on a Milky Way Photo in Lightroom
Gradient examine in Lightroom

As it is, the edits I make will not only impact the light pollution but also the foreground. I don’t want to include a bunch of blue saturation towards the foreground, so I can use Lightroom’s luminance range mask in order to exclude any dark regions from the mask. This new gradient looks much better:

Gradient Filter in Lightroom with Luminance Range Masking
Same gradient, but with luminance range masking to exclude the dark foreground

I can edit the colors as I wish without worrying about bleeding into the foreground. This can help avoid halos, which can be the nuisance for Milky Way photography.

If you’re wondering, Range Masking is also superior to Lightroom’s “Auto Mask” option within the brush device, which frequently mistakes sides and adds a lot of sound. Range Masking isn’t perfect in that regard, but it’s substantially better than Auto Face mask (especially if the Range Mask’s “Smoothness” value is set relatively high).

8. Make the Milky Way Pop by Editing Everything Else

At this time, you could start doing some brush or radial gradient adjustments on the Milky Way to improve contrast, increase the brightness, and generally make it pop. Or even, you could do the opposite: Darken and de-emphasize the sky  surrounding the Milky Way core for a similar result.

I usually prefer this process because the Milky Way could get too bright otherwise. But you may also want to do a combination of the 2. Here’s how my radial gradient looks as I select the non-Milky Way parts of the sky:

Inverted Radial Gradient Filter in Lightroom for Darkening the Sky Astrophotography
A radial gradient (plus luminance range masking) allows me to select the sky on either side of the Milky Way

I then decreased the lighting and made a few other edits to the surrounding sky, as well as the result is a Milky Method that pops much more:

Make the Milky Way Pop by Darkening the Areas Around it in Post-Processing
Make the Milky Method pop by darkening anything else!

9. Dodge and Burn the Small Details of the Milky Way

To bring out the structure of the dust clouds within our galaxy, I like to do some dodging and burning with little brush adjustments. Here’s how my mask looks for the burn (darkening) adjustment:

Brush Tool Mask for Dodging and Burning in Lightroom
A mask of the areas I’m about to darken

Then, by decreasing exposure, maximizing contrast, and increasing dehaze, I can emphasize the shape from the Milky Way:

Darkening Local Areas of the Milky Way Core
Burning dust in the Milky Way… it sounds very poetic

Exactly the same can be done to areas which you want to brighten/dodge, although We didn’t need to do any within this photo.

I recommend using a very soft clean with a low flow so as not to overdo these edits. It’s easy to get an outcome that looks fake or even crunchy by overdoing points. Local adjustments almost always take advantage of a light touch.

10. Spot Cure Any Small Areas That Need It

I’m not normally a fan of spot-healing details that were before me when I took a photo, but if it’s not something you mind, this is the right time to do it. Spot healing can slow down Lightroom quite a bit, specifically if you need to do a lot of it on a particular photo. You can reduce frustration by saving this for late in the process.

In this case, let’s declare I want to get rid of those lamps in the foreground, as well as some hot pixels that Lightroom missed. Lightroom’s spot recovery isn’t nearly as good as Photoshop’s, but it’s perfectly fine for basic Milky Way photography needs:

Spot Healing Milky Way Photo in Lightroom
Place healing to remove those lights in the foreground

11. Add Any Profiles That You Want

Lightroom’s user profile browser isn’t for everyone. I’ve seen it compared to searching Instagram filters, and not within a good way. But I confess to liking some of the users, especially since it’s easy to decrease their intensity because needed. I like doing this action near the end, after all other color and contrast changes are done. Here’s just how Lightroom’s profile browser appears:

Lightroom Profile Browser
Lightroom’s Profile Browser

For what it’s really worth, this is the reason why I told you to select “Adobe Standard” or “Adobe Standard V2” as one of the initial steps in your editing procedure. For whatever reason, all of Adobe’s unique profiles are based on Adobe Regular as a starting point. In other words, if you slide the “Amount” slider on any of the Artistic/Modern/Vintage single profiles down to zero, it looks almost identical to Adobe Standard/Adobe Standard V2.

In this case, I like the way the Modern 04 profile appears with the slider decreased to 35.

12. Check Your Edit Simply by Switching the Background to Dark

In Milky Way photography, it could be difficult to tell if you can find strange colors in some from the darkest areas of the photograph. Switching Lightroom’s background to black can make it easier to determine.

Lightroom Black Background Preview
Dark mode

This photo has some dull shades along the edges that I didn’t notice before, so I additional a couple more radial gradients to the sides of the image for minor adjustments. The ultimate photo is shown below (click to see larger):

Milky-Way-Photo-Edited-in-Lightroom
NIKON Z six + 20mm f/1. almost eight @ 20mm, ISO 6400, 20 seconds, f/2. 0

Plus here’s a before and after:

If you think it’s overdone, you can always decrease the sliders a bit. Or, if you think it is underdone, there’s still room to boost them. The final appearance is up to you.

Conclusion

Milky Way photography is at its best when you put your personality into your post-processing. Sometimes, I’ll return to a Milky Way photo years later and check out a more colorful, interpretive edit – or, just the opposite, trying to make things appearance more lifelike.

You can also go beyond Lightroom’s editing capabilities by using Photoshop or even other software to do specific things you have in mind. Post-processing is quite a flexible field, and also the steps in this article are intended to be a jumping-off point rather than a rigid structure you have to follow. But if you were trying to figure out an easy process to follow that keeps your image quality whenever possible, hopefully this gave you some good ideas.

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