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3 Powerful Lightroom Adjustments for Milky Way Editing

Why do Milky Way images by the pros pop so much more than yours?

Have you ever wondered which advanced Lightroom techniques some of the pros use when editing the Milky Way? What magic Lightroom slider do they fiddle with and how do they know where to adjust which settings and how much?

Well, it’s not magic, and it’s also not that advanced.

Here are 3 powerful settings in Lightroom that can take your photos from ordinary to extraordinary.

1. Clarity

The Clarity slider is very misunderstood by some Lightroom users. Yes, it assists in bringing out detail, but it’s not a sharpening tool. The Clarity function increases local contrast in the mid tones only. So how does this differ from increasing global contrast?

Applying contrast globally affects the entire image by brightening your brights and darkening your shadows, which can result in the loss of the detail that lies in the mid tones.

The Clarity slider works well on faint Milky Way structures which lie in the mid tone range, generally all the good stuff in the Milky Way core. It does not over expose stars within the Milky Way but enhances the contrast between those spectacular gas structures.

Clarity in Lightroom
A basic image which has not had any adjustments applied in order to illustrate the effectiveness of the Clarity adjustment
Clarity in Lightroom
Contrast in the core structure colours / mid tones are not effectively increased, leaving much of the brights unaffected.

But like may tools this setting can be overused, be careful not to crank this up to 100% in every photo.

We’ve actually got a really cool tool to help you add just the right amount of Clarity, the smarter way with masking, with one click, in Photoshop. It’s a Photoshop action pack we’ve created, called ClariSKY. You can get it right here!

Other adjustments that work well with Clarity (photo foreground dependent) are increasing the highlights or whites minimally in the Basic Image settings and adjusting contrast globally.

Clarity and basic settings
The basic unedited image with no adjustments.
Clarity and basic settings
Often adjusting Highlights and Whites in conjunction with Clarity yields good results.

2. Adjustment brush for selective editing

Adjustment BrushThe Adjustment Brush allows for all the functionality you’re presented with in the basic development module, but for a localised area. As its name implies, this brush can be used to “paint” over selective areas – only effecting parts of the image with local adjustments. It’s very useful because we don’t always want all the adjustments applied globally to the entire photo.

In Milky Way photography this is an essential. Sometimes it’s only the core and certain structures within the Milky Way we want to edit rather than the entire night sky or foreground!

When selecting the brush tool, you will be presented with a variety of selective adjustments you can make which only affect the areas you paint with the brush.

Here you can choose to adjust settings like Clarity / Exposure / Contrast / Shadows / Saturation / etc.

The Brush Size, Flow, and Feathering can be adjusted along with Density (opacity), to control the intensity and size of your brush strokes.

Tip: Pressing “O” will overlay the brush strokes in red. You can toggle back and forth to see the areas you have painted.

Best adjustment settings for Milky Way editing

Add some more Clarity, a slight increase in White Balance, and added Saturation and Contrast go a long way to bring out more detail within the Milky Way. Play around with increasing the Highlights or Whites slightly to really bring out the entire structure against the rest of the sky.

Changing settings like contrast, saturation, clarity and highlights on a selected area only allows you to bring our more detail.

An added bonus here is that once you’re finished with your adjustments and return to your Basic Development module, you can go back at any time to adjust settings. Simply reselect the Adjustment Brush tool (keyboard shortcut: K), locate the pin on the image where you started the tool, then make more adjustments in the menu.

Here’s a great tutorial by Adobe on Adjustment Brush Basics

3. White Balance

Right at the top of the Basic panel in Lightroom is the WB: Temp slider. It is difficult to choose the perfect white balance, or colour temperature, at the time of your shoot, but thankfully when you’re shooting raw you’re able to change the white balance in post production. To be correct, whites in your photos should be white!

Most often, Milky Way photographs are shot too warm and they look too red or brown, so the Temp slider will need to be moved the left, to make the image colder in colour temperature. On the off chance that it is too cold, or bluish in colour, the Temp slider will need to move to the right to make the photo’s colour temperature warmer.

Read this article on choosing the right white balance to learn how to make your image look just right!

White Balance
This image was shot at 3800k, which is a good colour temp in dark skies with no ambient lighting. It’s however a little too warm…
By moving the WB Temp aggressively to the left we can gauge what the photo would look like at a colder temperature.
By moving the WB Temp aggressively to the right we can see that a warm temperature looks too brown and very unrealistic.
In the end 3600 turned out to be a better selection. Thankfully when you’re shooting RAW you’re able to change colour temperature effectively in post production.

The end result

Post production doesn’t begin and end with these settings, but understanding them will go a long way in improving your Milky Way photos. Added techniques outside of Lightroom can help, like star reduction in PhotoShop. Remember that editing also follows ones own personal taste, and while there are general guidelines – it really comes down to if you’re proud of the results you can produce with your editing.

Image by Tanja Schmitz
Image by Tanja Schmitz


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About the author

Tanja Schmitz

Tanja is the co-founder of PhotographingSpace.com with her husband, Cory. She is also the co-owner of several telescopes and Celestron mounts, too many cameras, and not enough hard drive space.

An internationally commissioned and published astrophotographer, her work has been used in multiple online and print publications. Tanja was also shortlisted for the Astronomy Photographer of the Year award.


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