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Getting started editing the Milky Way

Processing astrophotography images is a bit different to the average landscape shot. I’m not the type of person that spends hours and hours editing a single image, I’m just not that patient, so I’ve written this post to outline the basic steps I use to edit a raw Milky Way image in Lightroom to make it pop.

Your raw image straight from the camera is likely to show a low-contrast sky that looks good, but not great. It’s necessary to play with a few settings to bring out the details, increase the contrast and tweak the sky colour. In this example, my image doesn’t have much of a foreground so it keeps the editing simple, but if you have a foreground that is more lit up, or a second exposure for the foreground you’ll likely need to edit them separately then open in Photoshop as layers and mask out as needed.

Typically, my first step is to make some adjustments of the sliders in the Basic panel. I like to adjust the white balance towards the blues so that the sky in the image looks more like what our eyes see. I then play around with bumping up the sliders for Contrast and Whites, and pulling the Shadows down a little.

Scroll down to open up the Tone Curve panel. Click on a point along the lower part of the line (representing the shadows or darker areas of the image) and pull it down to make those tones in the image darker. Click on a point in the top half of the line and pull it upwards to make the lighter areas of the image lighter. You could also use Levels to achieve a similar effect.

Down in the Detail panel, I also increase the Luminance to reduce the graininess in the sky that comes from using such a high ISO.

Back up in the Basic panel I sometimes will bump up the Dehaze slider a little to further increase contrast, and if I want the whole image to look a little brighter, I’ll also increase the Exposure a little.

All of these adjustments are fairly minor and to personal preference, so it pays to play around with them until you’re satisfied with how your image looks. In my opinion the Curves adjustments make the biggest difference in how much the Milky Way stands out.

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