Forget everything you know about how to process a photograph. When it comes to post-processing Milky Way photography, nothing is the same.
You’ll make adjustments to sliders that you would never dream of making when editing a regular landscape photograph.
But don’t worry, with Milky Way processing, it’s 100% acceptable. The rules change, but the principles remain the same, so let’s have a look at the seven settings you must use:
The Graduated Filter
When processing a photo in Adobe Lightroom, it’s always best to start at the top of the develop window, and for the majority of my Milky Way photography, I find that that involves using a graduated filter for colour correction.
In the photo below I’ve added a blue graduated filter to the right side of the image, and you can see a very clear difference.
The graduated filter has removed the orange glow from the horizon, which is there as a product of light pollution from hundreds of miles away.
But using a graduated filter, you can apply the colour correction to the affected area while leaving the rest of the photo untouched.
The stars are bright white specks in the sky, so it makes sense to enhance them by increasing the highlights. This will affect only the brightest parts of the photographs.
I also suggest bringing out the whites of the photographs too. This will make the whole photo brighter, but don’t worry, we can correct that in a moment.
When processing photos of the Milky Way, always prioritise the stars over anything else–after all, that’s what we want to see the most detail of.
Adjusting the photo’s highlights and whites can cause the photo to get a little bit too bright and, as a result, the sky starts to look grey. To counteract this, we bring the shadows slider to the left, which makes the image darker, while still maintaining the bright spots of the stars.
Contrast is your best friend with Milky Way photography. You want to make the stars pop while keeping everything else as dark as possible.
This is where Milky Way processing really comes into its own. I would never dream of playing with the clarity slider this much on any other kind of photograph, but when processing the Milky Way, it’s A-OK.
The clarity slider is going to make those small details much sharper and more defined, which is why it’s perfect for the Milky Way. The stars stand out and you can see the structure of the galaxy in much greater detail.
I’ve increased the clarity here by +60.
Colour Saturation Sliders
This is perhaps the most subtle of the processing techniques here, but despite it being hard to spot in the small image below, it actually has quite a remarkable affect.
The reason we use the colour saturation sliders is because we want to remove any orange or yellow glow from the sky, while enhancing the blues and purples that are naturally found inside the Milky Way.
The previous photo examples I’ve used have been multiple-photo panoramas, and although there are times where you might use lens correction on them, it’s best to show you how lens correction works on a single photo.
The animated gif below shows you how the correction removes the barrel distortion from the photo, to make it look more like what we see with our naked eye, effectively straightening out the corners and removing the curve from the photo.
I’ve saved the best for last, as this simple slider produces dramatic results to add the finishing touches to your Milky Way photography.
The dehaze tool does just that. It removes the haze from the sky, and you’ll be surprised at just how much haze there is in the sky.
It does a remarkable job or making the bright (but now white) parts of the night sky darker so that the stars pop. I’ve cranked the dehaze slider all the way up to +74 here for the best results.