Night Photography

A beginner's guide to shooting the stars. Part II - editing by Hannah Prewitt

Now that we’ve learnt how to take a photo of the stars (see part 1 - shooting), it’s time to learn how to edit your image. It’s likely that when you load your shot to your computer, the image will look really dark. Honestly, mine look almost black. However, there is a lot of data in that image that can be brought out with some careful and simple tweaking in Adobe Lightroom. Let’s get started.

For this example I’m going to show you how to turn this shot straight out of the camera (on the left) to a beautiful processed image (on the right). I love the crazy transformation!

Note how dark the image looks before processing, and how much detail we can bring out in post.

Note how dark the image looks before processing, and how much detail we can bring out in post.

The settings for this shot are: 15 secs, f/4.0, ISO 400. Because there are some artificial lights in this shot, I was very aware of not blowing out these highlights. If the lights were not on, then I would have used a longer exposure time and a slightly higher ISO.

BASICS PANEL

The first thing we’ll need to do in Lightroom is bring up the exposure quite a lot. I’ve brought this up to +4.10. Which tells me that I probably should have exposed my original shot a little more, since I can only bring up the exposure in post-processing to +5, which I’m pretty close to. So I’ll remember that for next time!

Exposure +4.10

Exposure +4.10

Now you can see that the area where the artificial lights have now been blown out so we want to bring down the highlights to rebalance the image. Let’s bring it down to -47.

Highlights -47

Highlights -47

I’d like to bring out some of the details in the foreground so I’m going to lift the shadows a little, to +45. I’m doing this for this shot because the foreground is interesting. However, if you had a silhouette in the foreground, then I would decrease the shadows to accentuate the silhouette.

Shadows +45

Shadows +45

Now the shot is starting to take some form, so let’s bump up the contrast to make it pop a little more. I’m also going to bring up the blacks to +19, which will help to bring out a little more light in the darker parts of the image.

Contrast +44; blacks +19

Contrast +44; blacks +19

Now that our image is looking pretty good, let’s play around with the white balance. I personally like my star photos to look as natural as possible, so let’s adjust the temperature to 3,400 and add a tint of red +7.

The next thing I’m going to do is add some clarity to the image. I don’t normally add much clarity to my photos but for star photos, it really adds some good punch. Let’s add +39 clarity.

Temperature 3,400; tint +7; clarity +39

Temperature 3,400; tint +7; clarity +39

We can see the shot looks a bit more defined, now I’d like to add a bit more punch to the colours, so let’s add a bit of vibrance and saturation. Be careful not to go too overboard with these.

Vibrance +18; saturation +13

Vibrance +18; saturation +13

That’s pretty much it for the basics panel. Now let’s go to the Tone Curve. I want to bring out some of the highlights a little more using this curve, so I made a curve like this. Try it out on your shot and see if it brings out the milky way.

Now let’s move down to the Detail panel. Sharpening your image is essential, and so is reducing the noise, especially with an astro shot. These are the edits I made, but it will vary depending on your particular photo.

You can see the before sharpening and noise reduction (left) and after (right) and how much better it looks. TIP: always zoom in to 100% when making detail adjustments so you can really see what effect you’re having on the image.

 

DETAILS

Now it’s time to bring out some magic in the milky way. This involves some colour adjustments and accentuating the white of the stars. I do this using radial filters. First I like to apply a radial filter over the whole of the milky way. I have a preset for this, but the basic adjustments involve increasing highlights and whites, adding clarity and adjusting the temperature to add some warm and pinkish tones. You can see now the milky way looks much better.

Now it’s up to you if you want to make any more adjustments. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to edit an image – it’s all about personal style. I personally think that the milky way looks a little purple, so I added another radial filter on top to add some more yellow tones.

Beginner's guide to editing star photos

I’m pretty happy with how this shot looks so I decided to stop editing here. You can always add a few more adjustments, such as smaller radial filters over parts of the milky way to bring out the whites or adjust the colour slightly. If you wanted to, you could even apply a tiny radial filter over individual stars to make them pop a little more, or add some warmer tones to the artificial lights on the house. Other photographers probably have different ways of editing their night time photos but if you’re not sure where to start, try increasing exposure, whites and clarity, and then play around with your colours. Soon you’ll be able to transform an image from this….

How to edit night time star photos for beginners

to this!

how to edit night time star photos

A beginner's guide to shooting the stars by Hannah Prewitt

I’m not sure that I feel qualified to write a tutorial on astro photography, but it’s been personally requested, and I have been able to successfully produce some pretty nice night photos without any assistance so I must have some idea what I’m talking about. However, by no means do I consider myself an expert on the subject, so if you have any tips for me, please leave them in the comments below. So let’s call this ‘A beginner’s guide to star photography’.

I’m going to try and make this as simple as possible, so this first part will be about how to physically shoot the image. Then I’ll write another post explaining how to edit your image.

Location

I’m not going to talk too much about locations, because basically, you can shoot the night sky anywhere, assuming you’re outside. However, you want to try to minimise light pollution so that you can really see the stars clearly. So try to get as far away from cities and houses as you can. If you can get to a beach, or rural area, a field or mountain, they should all work pretty well.

How to shoot the stars photography tutorial for beginners

Composition

If you’re just aiming to get a photo of the milky way, then point your camera in that direction and get clicking. However, if you want to make your image a bit more interesting then we want to try and get something else in the image as well. Find something to silhouette, or put something in the foreground, or even get someone to stand still in your photo. I personally find composition one of the most difficult things about shooting at night because it’s hard to see in the dark. So you’ll have to take a few test shots just to check that you’re actually shooting what you think you are.

Equipment

Usually I say that equipment doesn’t matter, but when it comes to shooting in very low light, it does. You will need a tripod. A good one. It’s really important that your camera stays absolutely still while the shutter is open, otherwise your image will not be sharp. In terms of the camera itself, ideally you want to shoot with a full frame sensor, but if you only have a crop one, that will work too. With regards to lenses, you’re probably going to want to use a nice wide angle lens if you have one, so that you get as much in the image as possible. I shoot all my night photos at 16 mm, which is perfect for getting in the whole milky way as well as something in the foreground (remember if you’re using a crop frame camera then 16 mm will be the equivalent of about 24 mm depending on the camera model). You will also need to have access to Adobe Lightroom or equivalent editing software.

How to shoot the stars photography tutorial

SETTINGS

 First of all, you must shoot in RAW. If you don’t already, then now is the best time to start. I remember reading a blog back in the day by a photographer who regretted not switching to raw earlier. I ignored it because I didn’t understand the reason behind it, and now I wish I’d done it earlier. Basically, a jpeg is a lossy file, which means that it loses data and really limits your editing potential. The only time I shoot in jpeg now is when I’m shooting a lot of surfers and I need to save space, and I know I won’t be doing much editing at all.

The next thing we want to do is set our focus. The autofocus on your camera works by using contrast, which it will struggle to find at night because everywhere is dark. If you have a very bright spot, you might be able to use autofocus, but I always switch to manual. You then have two options. You can either set your manual focus to almost infinity when it’s still light and then tape the focus ring in place, or you can use your camera’s live view and zoom in on the stars and set your focus, which is what I do.

I also read somewhere that you should turn off your lens’ image stabilisation if you have it, so I do that too.

We will also need to use our camera in manual mode. If you’re not yet comfortable shooting in full manual mode, now is a good time to start that as well. In terms of the settings we choose, think of your camera as needing access to as much light as possible.

So you’ll need to use a nice wide aperture, but not so wide that the image is blurry. I use f/4 because that’s the widest my lens will shoot at, but f/2.8 would work great too. Then we can set our ISO. We’ll need to bump this up a little but not so much that there is excessive noise in our image. So it really depends on the capabilities of your camera. Most blogs will tell you to start at an ISO of 1600 (which is pretty high if your camera isn’t great), and then move up from there, but I’ve managed to achieve great images with an ISO as low as 400. It also depends on how much light is in your shot. I would start at 800 and adjust as needed. Be aware that the photo on your camera will look very dark! But not to worry, we’ll be bringing out all the data in Lightroom afterwards.

For your shutter speed, we need to use something called the 500 rule to calculate the longest shutter speed we can use with our specific lens in order to maintain a sharp image. The rule is simple. Divide 500 your focal length. So I use a focal length of 16 mm, so 500/16 is 31.25, which means that I can use a shutter speed up to 30 seconds and still get a sharp image. If I were shooting at let’s say 24 mm, then 500/24 is 20.8, so I would need to keep my shutter speed at 20 seconds or less. Unless of course, you want to get a blurry shot. Star trails look amazing. I haven’t personally done them because I don’t have a remote timer, but if you want to try this, then set your shutter speed to bulb (it took me SO long to discover what this was!) and you can then manually set your timer.

For your white balance, well I don’t ever set my white balance unless I’m shooting underwater. If you shoot in raw, you have full control over your white balance in post, so just set it to auto and forget about it.

And that’s pretty much it! Here’s a nice summary of the settings you can use. Remember that this is just a guide to get you started, and you will probably need to adjust things a little.

Star photography settings for beginners