I’ve done most of the work for you; here you’ll find presets for the latest versions of Adobe Lightroom and DxO OpticsPro, that will instantly make your images pop. Do consider these a baseline for your work, as each camera and lens combination renders the night sky subtly different.
The following applications are used to create the image seen at the very bottom of this page. In this guide, we’ll concentrate on the bold applications only. Want more? Drop me a line in the comments to request the Photoshop and Color Efex guide, and I’ll start writing it.
DxO Optics Pro 9 of 10
Adobe Lightroom 6.1 or CC 2015
Adobe Photoshop CS5, CS6 or CC
Nik Color Efex Pro 4
Before you attempt to pull all kinds of sliders in Lightroom and DxO Optics Pro, I want to urge you to hold off for a moment and contemplate the image you’ve shot. What is it that you want to enhance? And what to suppress? What’s the end-result you’re looking for? Should it ooze astronomical merit? Or are you opting for a more artsy look and feel and is post-processing more an extension of your own creativity? I myself love to work on a dreamy nightscape, where lots of little details draw only second attention. The viewer must be guided through the image; that’s something we’ll get to enhance further in post-processing as well.
But, there’s a catch. What wasn’t really there to begin with, we cannot introduce in the image. It’s a bridge I am not willing to cross. I only enhance (a lot!), but never put something in, that wasn’t there. In this post-processing tutorial, I want you to develop your own vision. Feel free to exaggerate any edits. I’ll show you the door, but you’re the one that’ll have to walk through it.
We centre our workflow on Adobe Lightroom. Let’s start by importing the images from the shoot and add some relevant keywords that will help you find your imagers later. Consider adding Milky Way, night, stars, nightscape, silhouette, astro, etc. Anything that, to your mind, makes you find the image.
Version 10.4.1 of DxO OpticsPro is fully compatible with Lightroom cc. What that means is this: We can use any edits we did in DxO Optics pro, and still have full raw capability in Lightroom of all the settings we haven’t touched in OpticsPro, as long as we export the image as a DNG – a Digital Negative. What’s more, is that we now don’t have to leave either of the applications to search our files in Explorer or Finder. Let’s demonstrate. Go to File > Plug-in Extras and select Transfer to DxO OpticsPro 10.
3 Noise reduction and contrast (1)
Now in DxO OpticsPro, the application will automatically open the ‘Customize’ tab for you. Click the corresponding tab on the upper left-hand side of OpticsPro if this isn’t the case.
When we expose an image at ISO 6400, the noise the camera introduces as a result of amplifying the signal, will become very noticeable. As such, noise may be mistaken for stars and stars may be lost in sea of noise. This leads me to explaining why we bother to use two raw-converters. OpticsPro is in my experience very proficient at handling extreme ISOs. Its noise reduction algorithm (PRIME) is the best I’ve tested among a range of noise reduction software. Noise Ninja, Topaz Denoise, Nik Dfine as well as Adobe’s algorithms (Photoshop and Lightroom) aren’t comparable to the results OpticsPro produces. Proper noise reduction software distinguishes between signal and noise, and doesn’t just soften the image. OpticsPro does just that. It just so happens to be another raw-converter, like Lightroom.
In the ‘customize’ tab, configure the settings as I’ve displayed in te following screenshots.
DxO Smart Lighting brings out subtle detail in the shadows, while ClearView is the DxO equivalent to the familiar Clarity slider in Lightroom. The other settings are subtle contrast enhancements that will offer more detail in the shadows, before we apply our heaviest noise reduction.
The most important setting you could tweak at this step, is to enable ‘Noise reduction – RAW’ and selecting PRIME in the ‘DETAIL’ dropdown menu. Make sure you also click ‘Advanced settings’ and copy these settings.
Everything else should be turned off. Click the small white switches next to the settings and make sure they’re switched to the left. Leaving them off will omit changes we make to the image in order to retain raw-editing capabilities in Lightroom.
At the bottom of the list, you’ll notice an option next to ‘Print’, which says: ‘Export to Lightroom’, highlighted in blue. You’ve probably guessed that I want you to click this.
Save the image (with the same name) and select the DNG format. That’s a universal type of raw format that will hard-wire the settings we’ve enabled, but leaves everything else that we did not touch, thus enabling full raw-capability over the settings we’re about to change in Lightroom.
Please note: All of the edits in this tutorial work very well for this image, which was captured with Samyang 14mm f/2.8, mounted on a Nikon D600, under these exact circumstances. While I offer presets for this setup, I must disclaim that these can only be used as a guideline for your work. Your results will vary.
Now, open the DNG-file in Lightroom. I’m using Lightroom CC 2015, but version 6.1 comes with the same options. LR 5/6 users: Apart from the Dehaze filter, they’re pretty much the same as far as this tutorial is considered.
4 Neutral white balance
To bring out as many colours in the Milky Way as possible, we’ll set a neutral white balance as follows:
Set both the Vibrance and Saturation-sliders under Presence all the way to a hundred percent. A ghastly saturated image is displayed. Don’t mind the aesthetic value yet. At the top of the settings, we’ll tweak the Temperature- and Tint-sliders. Carefully move the Temperature-slider around, untill there’s as much blue as there’s yellow/orange in the image. Copy this tweak for the tint-slider and tweak the balance between magenta and green.
5 Contrast (2)
Let’s edit the contrast by drawing an S-curve in the Tone Curve. In my experience, this works a little better at bringing out subtle details than tweaking the highlights and shadows; since this offers a little more control. It also looks like the image is a little too bright to bring out detail in the Milky Way. It’s a good time to address this as well.
Copy the settings to the right.
6 Contrast (3)
Compensating for the vivid band across the sky we’ve just created with the Tone Curve, it’s time to correct this with the highlights and shadows sliders. Setting the blacks slider to 50% will bring back the detail in the foreground. Next, scroll down to the coveted Dehaze slider and set its amount to +15. Its result is best described as a mix between clarity, contrast and colour balance. Bringing it down adds dreaminess to the image, while sliding it up adds contrast.
We’ll have to adjust for the added blue introduced by the dehaze slider. Go back up to White Balance and add a little warmth. Follow the screenshots, top to bottom.
Selectively adding contrast and detail sets apart one part of the image from the rest. It’s especially useful for guiding the viewer’s attention. We’ll add local adjustments in the coming sections in order to retain detail in the parts of the image that we do not want to enhance. I find that keeping to global adjustments, images start to glow, like is often the case on bad HDR processing.
The lower centre of the image deserves the most attention. It’s the part where the sky and path connect, and we want to attract the eye here. There’s no better tool than brightening the part we want the viewer’s attention to wander. Draw an ellipse with the Radial Filter tool and move the Shadows and Clarity sliders apart from each other.
8 Milky Way
The adjustment brush tool works very well in adding just that little extra contrast and sharpness. This will make the image pop and define the gasses and nebulosity in the Milky Way. Select the adjustment brush and copy these settings:
Now, use the adjustment brush to gently brush in more clarity and sharpness on just the Milky Way. Note that you do not overdo this, or your work will look unnatural very quickly.
9 Light pollution
The orange-yellow tint on the horizon, emanating from the city lighting further afield, draws too much attention in this image. Select the radial filter again, and place a new one off-centre on the image:
Before and after:
Mastered these steps? Try to expose another, separate image for the foreground next. Because you’re not limited by the rotation of the Earth, and consequently, the apparent trailing of the stars, you’re free to extend the shutter speed well beyond the minute mark, enabling you to lower the ISO for less noise and record more dynamic range. In short; blending two images will get you more detail in those dark parts of the image: The foreground.
The steps layed out above, produce a solid image to continue working on. Post-processing doesn’t end here. Next, I’m using Photoshop and Nik Color EFEX pro to further season my work. While these next steps fall outside the scope of this article, I will guide you through those steps as well, when there are enough requests:
Interested to see how the final image was made? Request the final part of this tutorial series in the comments below, and I’ll show you how the left image can be turned into the right image in Photoshop and Nik Color Efex Pro.
Don’t have time to fiddle with sliders?
I completely understand. There’s a much quicker method of post-processing. I offer Lightroom and DxO Optics Pro presets. to Save hours of your time and use them as a baseline for your own nightscapes.
If after all this you still feel lost, I recommend you get in touch during a 1-on-1 Skype session in which we will work on your own nightscape images. I'd love to help you further!