In this tutorial I am going to show you how to process a milky way photo from camera raw to the final processed image.
Here is the before and after of the milky way and you can see that there is a dramatic and pretty amazing transformation from the camera raw version to the final image. Now shooting in Raw means that all of the colour adjustments and processing I did to the image was quite easy and did not take away the quality of the image. Now in contrast, if I shot this image as a jpeg, I would not have the same freedom and layers of information to work with.
You always want to shoot in Raw if you are going to process your images.
With that being said, let’s get started and hopefully inspire some of you to have some fun and really take your images to the next level.
The first step I took was in the Lens Corrections panel and I enabled the Lens Profile correction for my specific lens. I did this because each lens has it’s own unique distortions and by enabling this profile I was able to start to minimize any distortions created by my 20 mm ultra wide lens. Once I enabled the lens profile I also did some specific manual lens adjustments to the over all distortion and the vertical distortion.
Once I fixed the distortion problems I then started to adjust the exposure elements that are all located in the Basic panel. My first adjustment was to the temperature of the image.
I chose a kelvin temperature of around 3,000k, which is on the cooler side because this is a night image and that adjustment will bring out more blue in the night Sky.
Then I dropped my over all exposure to minus -0.45, increased my contrast to +34, increased my highlights to +14, and reduced my shadows to -23.
As you can see the milky way really doesn’t pop off of the page yet because the adjustments I just did were all done to highlight the next few changes that I am going to make.
The first real change that we see happen to the image is when I adjust the whites, increasing them to +63. I increased my whites to + 63 because each star is a white dot and I really want to make sure that aside from making the milky way look awesome, I also wanted to have some bright stars. The next step in the basic panel was to reduce my blacks and the increasing the clarity to +47.
Looking at the milky way we can see that it’s starting to take shape and become more visible but I am still far off from the final image that we can see here. We are getting closer but there is still a lot more to do.
My next step is to make some of the features more prominent, which are the orange lights on the horizon the purple haze that is just above the horizon line transitioning from the orange city lights to the milky way it’s self. I did these adjustments in the HSL panel, which is also known as the Hue, Saturation and Luminance panel. I focused on the specific saturation of orange and purple. I increased the orange to +63 and the purple to +44.
The reason why I did this adjustment in the HSL panel compared to just increasing the saturation tab in the basics panel is because the saturation tab is an absolute adjustment to all of the colours while I only wanted to increase the specific saturation of the orange and purple colours.
The next step was to add an orange tone in the Split Toning Panel. To do that I first chose the colour that I wanted to influence my highlights over the entire image , then put the highlights to +30, Saturation of that colour to +24 and reduced the balance to -60. I reduced the balance to -60 because I wanted to blend the colours a bit more and the balance tab acts like an opacity function, blending the chosen colour over the entire image.
The milky way is really starting to come alive in the image and the next few steps will really add some more colour, depth and reality to the image. To do this I am going to use the brush tools that are located just above the Basic Panel.
The first brush is designed to add some depth and create a unique transition from the milky way to the blue sky that surrounds it. I did that by first resetting my brush by double clicking the effect tab and then choosing the shade of green in the colour tab. Putting green on the image as is, is not going to look good but if we drop down the density to 22 and flow to 79, the green will act as a bit of a teal blue and really add a nice accent colour.
The next brush is designed to help start to define the elements in the milky way and I achieved this by adding a brush that only adds clarity to the image. I first needed to create a new Brush and increase my density from 22 to 73 to get more of an effect.
The next brush is focused on adding saturation to the colours in the milky way. For this brush I’m increasing the contrast to +100, saturation to +75, clarity to +27 and dropped down the density to 30 so that the result blends in a bit better.
Everything I have done up to this point is designed to enhance the details, colours and more prominent features of the image.
As they stand, I could leave the image but…….. I have a few more adjustments that will really take this image to the next level. To do this I’m going to add a radial filter and invert it. As you can see this small change starts to make every adjustment I have made up to this point look amazing because this filter is designed to draw your eye to the center where the milky way is and darken out the exterior of the image.
A great image limits the distracting elements and draws you into what the image was designed to showcase.
One of the last steps is to increase the saturation of only the blue in our image. That is done in the HSL Panel and I increased the blue to + 24 which starts to make the teal brush I added a few steps back, blend in more naturally.
The last thing that I did was sharpen and remove some of the noise and grain that was created in the image when I captured it. I did this in the Detail Panel and Adjusted the Amount of sharpening to +54, the radius of the sharpening to 0.9 and the detail preservation to +57. For the noise reduction I increased the luminance to +62.
Now if we look at the before and after of my image you can see that in a few minutes and with a bit of artistic vision I was able to enhance my image of a beautiful milky way to an image I would want to print and put on my wall.
In my opinion, it’s so important to remember that photography is 100% completely subjective and what I did to my image might be over kill to someone else and that’s completely ok. Your job as a photographer is only to get the results that you are looking for, not to satisfy the opinions of others who just don’t have your artistic vision.
I hope this lesson helps and was able to give you some ideas and ways to view your milky way image. Remember that the changes I made to my image might not work as well with yours. As such you may have to tweek and adjust the settings to suit your image.