How to Plan, Shoot and Edit a Milky Way Arch Panorama (Part II)

Note: This is the second in a two-part series about creating a Milky Way panorama. Part I covered planning and shooting. Below we go over how to put it all together in post.

In last week’s blog post, Matt demonstrated how to create the raw materials for a Milky Way panorama arch. I really enjoyed the post and was glad that he asked me to follow up with a tutorial on processing the frames he captured to stitch the final image.

Computer Software

To create a panorama from multiple images, you’ll need some type of software for your computer. When it comes to software, I like to keep it simple—until I can’t. For me, keeping it simple means working with software I already own and understand. In this case, that means working with Adobe Lightroom Classic and Photoshop. While there are other stitching programs out there, I have always been satisfied with the Adobe products. I already own them, so again, I keep it simple.

In general, both Lightroom and Photoshop are seriously robust and each have their own advantages and disadvantages. When it comes to processing panoramas, both programs work well. Lightroom is the more convenient of the two, and Photoshop offers more options and tends to create more realistic results when you have less-than-perfect captures.

What are less-than-perfect captures? In short, images that the software finds difficult to stitch together. This could be frames taken without a nodal rail or frames that don’t overlap enough, etc. In last week’s article, Matt showed how to create perfect captures that will be easy enough for either program to stitch.

Pre-Stitch Processing

Once you download your images, it’s time to start processing them. If you are planning to stitch (or “merge”) the images together using Lightroom, there’s very little processing that’s necessary beforehand. The reason is that the result of Lightroom’s Merge function is a panorama that is still a RAW file. This means you can do all your processing to the final pano after it’s created, rather than to each individual file before stiching.

Figure 1.

However, there is one exception to that, and that exception is Lens Correction. Why? Because correcting lens quirks will help the rest of the process go better, particularly in regard to vignetting. Removing vignettes will help the exposure look consistent across the whole panorama.

The Lens Correction panel (Figure 1) lives in the Develop module, and it’s the one place you must visit before merging your images into a panorama. Here you can see I’ve checked the Remove Chromatic Aberration box as well as the Enable Profile Corrections box.

Checking both of these boxes tells Lightroom to correct any aberrations associated with that particular lens. At this point Lightroom will typically recognize which lens you’re using and apply the correct profile corrections automatically. However, if you are using a very old lens, or if you’re using a lens brand that’s different than your camera brand, you may need to manually input the type of lens you used. In the example in Figure 1, I had to choose Zeiss from the Make drop-down menu for before Lightroom recognized the lens as the Zeiss Milvus 2.8/15 ZE.

Once you have set the Lens Correction panel on one image, it’s time to sync that change across all the images of that set. From the thumbnails at the bottom of the page, first click on the image with the Lens Corrections. Next, hold down the shift key and click on the last image in that set. This will highlight (select) all of the images in the series. Notice in Figure 2, the cell for the first image I clicked on (the one with the changes) is white, while the remainder of the selected cells are light gray. This means that all the images are selected, but the white image is the “active” image. When we sync, the active image is the one that shares all of its settings with the others.

(If the image with the Lens Corrections is not white, simply click on the correct image. All images will remain selected—you will have just changed the active image.)

Figure 2.

With all of the images selected, click the Sync button (circled in red in Figure 3). (If the Sync button is not available, that means you have only one image selected. Return to the Filmstrip at the bottom and reselect the images.)

Figure 3.

Now, click the Sync button to open the Synchronize Settings dialog (Figure 4).

Figure 4.

Click the Check All button and then finish by clicking the Synchronize button. This will close the box and copy all of the settings from the active image to the selected images.

Figure 5.

Merging Using Lightroom

With all of your images selected and synchronized, it’s time to merge them into a panorama. From the Lightroom menu, choose Photo > Photo Merge > Panorama (Figure 5).

The next thing you’ll see is the Panorama Merge Preview box (Figure 6). The choices here are quite minimal. Projection (Spherical, Cylindrical and Perspective) is what determines the overall shape and look of your image. Simply choose the one that best represents your original vision. Because Matt used a nodal rail when shooting, the difference between Spherical and Cylindrical is nearly impossible to discern. This may not always be the case. Again, just choose the setting that produces a result you like.

Figure 6.

With this image, when I choose Perspective, I get the error “Unable to merge the photos(Figure 7). If you get this error, simply choose another projection. It may or may not work. As I mentioned earlier, while Lightroom’s Merge to Panorama is convenient, it may not work in all circumstances.

Figure 7.

The remaining options are really just that—options. My preferred settings (which appear in Figure 6) are:

  • I keep the Boundary Warp at 0 and I check the Auto Crop box. This keeps Lightroom from stretching the image to fill in blank spaces around the edges, and instead crops out those stray spaces.

  • I keep the Auto Settings box unchecked. This keeps Lightroom from auto-tuning the basic adjustments in the final pano. I prefer to make my own adjustments.

  • I check Create Stack so that the panorama file is stacked with all of its source images in the Library module. This just helps keep things organized.

Click the Merge button at the bottom right of the Panorama Merge Preview dialog to create your panorama. Lightroom will begin merging your images, and you can track its progress in the taskbar in the upper left portion of your screen (Figure 8).

Figure 8.

Once finished, your image will appear back in Lightroom (as a RAW file), all ready for you to apply your favorite Milky Way edits!

Comparing Lenses

As you may remember from last week, Matt shot the raw materials with three lenses—the Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8, Viltrox 20mm f/1.8 and Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art. Here are those three panos created with Projection set to Spherical.

Figure 9. Nikon Z 6 with a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens. Multiple stitched frames shot at 8 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Figure 10. Nikon Z 6 with a Viltrox 20mm f/1.8 lens. Multiple stitched frames shot at 14 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Figure 11. Nikon Z 6 with a Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 lens. Multiple stitched frames shot at 16 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

The first thing you might notice is that the panos shot with longer lenses are darker, with fewer stars appearing in the sky. That’s because Matt needed shorter exposure times for the longer lenses, in order keep the stars sharp.

The next thing you’ll notice is that the images from the widest-angle lens—the 15mm (Figure 11)—do not merge well. The sky on the left side of the image appears uneven. Lightroom may sometimes have problems merging panoramas made with superwide-angle lenses.

Merging Using Photoshop

When using a very wide lens, or if you didn’t use a nodal rail—or if Lightroom is having trouble with the pano for any reason, discernible or not—you may have to take your images into Photoshop to do the stitch. The steps are very similar to merging in Lightroom. In fact, the first three steps are exactly the same:

  1. Select first image in the series and go to the Develop module.

  2. Go to the Lens Corrections panel and check Remove Chromatic Aberration and Enable Profile Corrections.

  3. From the thumbnails at the bottom of the page, click on the image with the Lens Corrections (this should already be selected if you were just working on it), hold the shift key and click on the last image in the pano series. With all of the images selected, click the Sync button.

Now we start to detour from the Lightroom pano workflow. Before exporting to Photoshop, you can edit your images before merging. Stick with the big overall changes in the Basic panel, such as White Balance, Color Profile and the fundamental tonal adjustments. Remember you’ll be syncing these changes across all of your images in the set, so don’t make a change that might adversely affect one of the other images.

Once that first frame is suitably adjusted, sync the settings across the whole set in the same way as described above. Then look at each image to ensure that the settings work well with each frame. If they don’t, return to the settings and adjust as needed. Then synchronize them again.

Once all the frames in the set look right, select the whole series by clicking the first and shift-clicking the last. Then, from Lightroom’s menu, choose Photo > Edit In > Merge to Panorama in Photoshop (Figure 12).

Figure 12.

Next you’ll see the Photomerge dialog in Photoshop. Choose Auto from the Layout panel on the left and check Blend Images Together (Figure 13). You don’t need to check Vignette Removal or Geometric Distortion Correction, because you already fixed those issues in Lightroom; you don’t need to check Content Aware Fill Transparent Areas because we’ll tackle that manually later.

Figure 13.

Click OK. Photoshop will now start to create the panorama. This could take a minute or so. For our example, Figure 14 shows the final image that Photoshop creates.

Figure 14.

Next, from the Photoshop menu, choose Layer > Flatten Image.

For the simplest way to wrap up, choose File > Save and then File > Close and your image will return to Lightroom ready for your magic touch in the Develop module. However, if you are even somewhat Photoshop literate, there are some advantages to keeping the file open and continuing to work on it before sending it back to Lightroom. Read on. …

More Photoshop Edits

One of Photoshop’s more powerful features is Content Aware Fill, which is perfect for filling in gaps at pano edges that you would otherwise need to chop off with the Crop tool. In this example I wanted to keep a bit of sky over the Milky Way arch, so I left the blank corners, as seen in Figure 15. Content Aware Fill will help us quickly and intelligently fill in those blanks.

Figure 15.

After I crop the image (as seen above), I choose Layer > Duplicate Layer from the Photoshop menu. This keeps all of my edits on a separate layer and protects my original pano as a background layer.

Next I select the Lasso tool and draw a circle around the area that I want to fill (Figure 16). I don’t want to include too much excess area, but I also don’t want to cut it too close.

Figure 16.

After making the selection, I select Edit > Content Aware Fill, which is where a lot of magic can happen. In the Content Aware Fill dialog, everything masked with green is where Photoshop will look to sample data to fill in the blank area (Figure 17).

Figure 17.

By default, the Subtract paint brush is selected. Simply paint away any areas of green that you feel don’t need to be included in the sample; likewise, you can add to the sample by holding Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac) and painting to add green. Figure 18 shows how I painted away areas not similar to the area I want to fill. For example, I don’t want Photoshop to sample a starry sky when trying to fill foreground rocks. The Preview box on the right foretells the final effect.

Figure 18.

When finished, click OK, which will apply the fill and close the dialog. Figure 19 shows the result. Photoshop has literally made up information (based on the green-masked sample) and filled the blank area.

To continue filling in the corners, I return to the pano copy layer by clicking on it (Figure 19). Again I make a selection and proceed as above until all of the corners are filled. (Remember to return to the Layer 0 Copy layer between edits.)

Figure 19.

Once you are finished, you can flatten the image (Layer > Flatten Image), choose File > Save and then File > Close, and your panorama will return to Lightroom ready for final edits.

In Summary

Both Lightroom and Photoshop can create seamless panoramas of the night sky. Lightroom excels at being simple and convenient when using source images that are easy to merge. Photoshop can be used when images are less than perfect. This includes images made from superwide-angle lenses or frames that don’t overlap as much.

Regardless of which tools you use, making the time investment to learn how to create Milky Way panoramas will open up a whole new area for creativity in night photography.

Whether you’ve been making Milky Way panos for years or will start after reading this post, we’d love to see your images! Please share in the Comments section below or on our Facebook page.

Tim Cooper is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. Learn more techniques from his book The Magic of Light Painting, available from Peachpit.


Sliding Into Sharper Skies: Lightroom Brings Texture to Night Photography

Lightroom’s new Texture slider.

Back in May, Adobe introduced a new slider to the Presence area within the Basic panel in Lightroom’s Develop module. This new tool was originally intended to be a “smoothing” slider that would soften skin texture somewhat more naturally than the Clarity slider does. But during development, the engineers found that while it was great at smoothing skin tones, it could also be used to add texture to our photographs.

Thus, the new Texture slider is aptly named. It really does enhance texture in our images! But as with all new photography tools, we wanted to push its limits and see what else it can do, particularly for night photography. As it turns out, when paired with the Dehaze slider, Texture can really enhance the look of our night photographs.

For those of you looking for a quick read, that about sums it up. By adding in a fair amount of Dehaze and a little Texture, your night skies will come alive! In the example below, Dehaze was set to +44 and Texture to +5. These are by no means default settings, as each camera produces different files and each scene requires its own approach. This does, however, give you starting point.

For those of you looking for a deeper understanding, read on.

A Deeper Understanding

The general effect of the Texture slider is somewhere between Clarity and Sharpening. To fully understand how this slider works, let’s take a look at all the sliders that enhance detail and contrast in our images: Sharpening, Texture, Clarity and Dehaze. We’ll begin with Sharpening.

Understanding Sharpening

Each of the aforementioned sliders, in essence, increases contrast. It’s the areas they increase contrast in that separates them from one another. Sharpening, on one end of the scale, adds contrast at the pixel level. Dehaze, at the other end, is much broader in its application of contrast. Let me show you what I mean.

Sharpening increases apparent sharpness by finding an edge, and then darkening one side and lightening the other. This increases contrast around that edge, making it appear sharper. The images below show an unsharpened enlargement (11:1) of a night sky, and the same section after adding Sharpening. Notice how the stars appear to have a dark ring around them? This is the contrast being added by the sharpening slider.

Also notice that even the pixels in the sky without stars have been sharpened. This look is what makes an over-sharpened image look “false.” Lowering the value of the Detail slider can correct this negative effect. The images below show the sky sharpened with Amount at 150 and Detail at 25, and the same image with the Detail slider lowered to 2.

Finally, let’s look at the real comparison. The images below are completely unsharpened and then sharpened with Amount at 150 and Detail at 3.

As you can see, the adjusted image has an increased apparent sharpness in the stars without appearing to be over-sharpened in the surrounding sky.

Of course, you would never want to sharpen your images at a magnification of 11:1. And the slider settings presented are not what I would necessarily suggest. These magnifications and settings were used to better help you understand the concept of sharpening. Sharpening should be done at magnifications of 1:1 or 1:2. Experiment with each magnification to suit your taste. Likewise, experiment with your sharpening sliders, keeping your Amount higher and Detail lower.

Note: The other sliders in the Sharpening box are Radius and Masking. The Radius slider controls how large the “halo” around the edge becomes. A higher Radius equals a thicker halo ring; a lower Radius setting creates a more natural look (a setting of 1.0 could be your benchmark). Adobe defines Masking as: “Controls an edge mask. With a setting of zero (0), everything in the image receives the same amount of sharpening. With a setting of 100, sharpening is mostly restricted to those areas near the strongest edges.” So increasing your Masking slider relegates the sharpening to only the areas with well-defined edges—which is typically the place we want the sharpening to effect.

Congratulations! You’ve made it through it a quick primer on Sharpening. The reason I dove a little deep here is that a basic understanding of Sharpening helps create a better understanding of the other contrast controls—Texture, Clarity and Dehaze.

Understanding Dehaze

Now, let’s jump to the other end of the spectrum with Dehaze. While Sharpening adds contrast on the pixel level, Dehaze increases contrast across your image on a much broader scale. The following images are at a 4:1 magnification. We see a comparison of no contrast controls applied, versus the Amount slider in Sharpening increased to the maximum of 150, versus Dehaze set to +100. (Again, these adjustments are not recommendations, but rather exaggerations to show the effect.)

Contrast added with Sharpening.

Contrast added with Dehaze.

Below, let’s look at those two contrast adjustments side by side—Sharpening at 150 and Dehaze increased to the maximum of +100.

The Dehaze slider is actually increasing contrast between the sky glow and foreground. Compared to Sharpening, notice how Dehaze makes the foreground darker and the sky glow brighter. This makes the foreground and sky more separate from one another (i.e., there’s more contrast between them).

You can also see how Sharpening actually brightens the foreground and adds texture throughout. It does not, however, significantly separate the sky glow from the foreground.

Below is another example, comparing the image straight from the camera with a version with Dehaze set to +60.

This really shows how Dehaze darkens the sky around the Milky Way. Again, this is a broader application of contrast as opposed to Sharpening’s more localized approach to separating individual stars from their surroundings. For our night skies, the Dehaze slider can be simply magic. (See more on this in my 2018 blog post “Dehaze: The Night Photographer's Secret Weapon.”)

Note: Along with an increase in contrast, the Dehaze slider also significantly increases contrast and somewhat darkens the whole image. After pumping up Dehaze, it’s not uncommon for me to decrease the blue saturation and increase Exposure.

So What About the Texture Slider?

The Texture and Clarity sliders fall between Sharpening and Dehaze. The breakdown of the different sliders looks like this:

  • Sharpening. Pixel-level addition to contrast around the edges. No real increase in saturation. Can increase grain and noise in the image.

  • Texture. Edge contrast added on a broader scale than Sharpening. Increases the apparent texture without the amplification of grain or noise that is sometimes accompanied with Sharpening. No noticeable saturation increase. The net effect is one of increased sharpness.

  • Clarity. Contrast added throughout the image on a broader scale than Texture. Looks more like an increase using the Dehaze slider but with slight sharping of the edges and no noticeable increase in saturation. The net effect is one of increased local contrast.

  • Dehaze. Adds contrast and saturation across a broader area of the image. Virtually no sharpening effect added. Separates especially well in brighter, low-contrast areas. This is why it works so well on our night skies.

  • Contrast. The broadest application of contrast. Also adds saturation. It does not take into account bright areas or dark areas, nor does it control edges. It’s the bludgeon of contrast controls with a very heavy-handed effect. Consider this to be an image-wide increase in contrast.

So the Texture slider is really like a less focused Sharpening slider. It creates edge sharpness without increasing noise and grain. You can see the effect here:

Used in combination with the Dehaze slider, Texture can produce night skies that are both crisp and colorful. However, like with the Sharpening slider, you should adjust with a soft hand. Kid gloves. A little goes a long way.

Putting it All Together

The following is a workflow that I used to process a recent image from our Bryce Canyon National Park workshop. Figure 1 shows the image captured with a Luxli Viola at camera left to illuminate the foreground. The Luxli output was balanced to complement the Milky Way in the background. The exposure was 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Figure 1. Bryce Canyon National Park. Nikon Z 6, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens at 14mm, light painted with a Luxli Viola. 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400. Unprocessed.

Figure 2 shows the image after basic Lightroom adjustments—I decreased Blacks to -32 and increased Whites to +4.

Figure 2. Blacks -32, Whites +4.

Then, as we see in Figure 3, I added a local adjustment on the foreground using the Adjustment brush and increased the Texture to +45. This increased the sharpness and texture of the hoodoos in the foreground. (This is the type of application that Texture is actually designed for—adjusting actual texture in a surface.)

Figure 3. Local Adjustment of the foreground, Texture +45.

The last adjustment was to the sky only, increasing Dehaze to +30, Exposure to +35 and Texture to +3. Figure 4 shows the final image.

Figure 4. The final image with another local adjustment of the sky: Dehaze +30, Exposure +35,Texture +3.

Everyone will develop their own special recipe of slider settings for their night skies. And indeed these may even change from one scene to the next. The important thing to keep in mind is the effect of these settings. A better understanding of what each slider produces will arm you with the knowledge to craft a truly fine photograph.

Tim Cooper is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. Learn more techniques from his book The Magic of Light Painting, available from Peachpit.


Processing Star Point Images with the Help of Starry Landscape Stacker

We all love shooting under the stars, but oftentimes we are pushing our cameras and lenses to the extreme. In last month’s article we talked about “Shooting for the Sharpest Stars” and how that forces us into even higher ISOs and shorter exposures. Most cameras have difficulty at 6400-plus ISOs, and the shorter exposures make it tricky to get any detail in the foreground.

Enter the Mac-only software Starry Landscape Stacker (SLS), which blends multiple high ISO star point shots to reduce noise while keeping your stars sharp! (For PC users, your solution is Sequator, which operates and yields similar results to SLS. We will take a closer look at Sequator on our blog a little later this year.)

What is Starry Landscape Stacker?

SLS is a very intuitive piece of software that gives you smoother final images by recognizing and aligning the “tracked stars,” and then stacking the files while applying noise reduction to the other areas of the sky. This is probably the best piece of software to squeeze the most image quality out of multiple files instead of just working with one.

In this post, we’re going to look at the basics of how to use SLS. At the end, you can watch a video of me working through the details of processing an image this way.

Shooting Considerations for SLS

The key for both SLS and Sequator is that we shoot multiple images in the field—at least 10, but 20 is even better. The more information the program has, the better it will work.

So, once you settle on your star point composition, check focus and attain a good exposure, don’t just take one or two shots and move on. Instead, set your intervalometer to take 20 shots with a 1-second interval between. And you can certainly take more than 20 shots. If I have settled on a really nice composition, I might shoot it for an hour or so to get different alignments of the Milky Way as it moves across the sky.

We also have to consider the foreground. In the Figure 1 below, the exposure is good for the sky, but there’s hardly any information in the foreground.

Figure 1. Nikon D5 with an Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens. 25 seconds, f/2.5, ISO 6400.

How can we fix it? Three solutions:

1. Take a twilight shot.

If you arrive to your location prior to nightfall, take a few shots as the light varies throughout the twilights. You can use those later to blend into your star shot. Of course this approach works for only one setup per night (unless you have two or more cameras), but it can create a unique look. (In previous blog posts you can see examples of when Matt and Tim have done this.)

2. Light paint your foreground.

This works really well if we have something dominant in the foreground that is easily reachable with our light painting tools. However, if we have a big swathe of landscape, that will be difficult to paint.

3. Take a longer foreground-only exposure.

Lower your ISO, turn on your long-exposure noise reduction, and take a shot that is three to six stops higher than your sky shot. By using the a lower ISO we can get a cleaner foreground. But don’t expose so that it looks like a daytime foreground—my rule of thumb is to shoot a foreground exposure that gets the histogram off the left side and more in the middle (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Nikon D5 with an Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens. 13 minutes, f/2.5, ISO 1600.

My thought process on for this image: It was very dark, with no moon in the sky in Capitol Reef National Park, which is a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park. I figured an exposure of 4 minutes at ISO 6400 (three stops brighter than the sky shot) would start to reveal foreground. However, I also didn’t want the 6400 noise in the darker foreground, so I lowered my ISO two stops to 1600, which is incredibly clean on the Nikon D5. Adding five stops to my original image gave me an exposure of 13 minutes (should have been 16 minutes, but oh well), f/2.5, ISO 1600.

Don’t look at how bright the sky and the trailing stars are—the piece we want from this image is the foreground detail of the road cutting through the landscape.

Preparing Your Files for SLS

There are a few key things to do to your sky files in either Lightroom or Camera Raw to best prepare them for SLS. The idea here is to remove any chromatic aberrations and have a nice flat file that will help SLS align and combine the dimmer stars.

1. Lower the contrast of the image. I generally set my contrast to -100 and increase the exposure to +.30 (Figure 3). It won’t look good on the screen but that’s OK—just be careful you are not blowing out any stars.

Figure 3.

2. Turn off any sharpening and noise reduction. Bring the sliders all the way to zero (Figure 4). SLS will handle the noise reduction for now and we will do the sharpening after SLS stacks the image.

Figure 4.

3. Correct for lens aberrations. Under the Lens Correction section of Lightroom, check Remove Chromatic Aberration (Figure 5) and manually adjust any vignetting to even out the exposure of the image (Figure 6). I choose to manually adjust the vignetting instead of turning on “Enable Profile Correction” (EPC) because I’ve noticed weird artifacts/moire patterns in the stacked images when doing so early in this process. EPC adjusts for distortion and vignetting, so it’s best practice to apply the Lightroom adjustment (if you want) to the finished image after stacking in SLS. Again, our goal here is only to prepare a nice flat file that SLS can use to easily recognize the stars, sky and landscape for blending. Minimum pre-processing equals maximum results.

Figure 5.

Figure 6.

That’s it! You don’t have to remove airplane trails or satellites. SLS will help you remove them from or add them into the final image.

Once you have worked on the first image of your “batch” you can then quickly sync the adjustments to other files. Choose your best 10 to 20 consecutive images that have the best positioning of the Milky Way or stars, and export them as full-resolution 16-bit TIFF files that include all metadata (because SLS uses your exposure information when stacking). (Figure 7.)

Figure 7.

Processing in SLS

I’ll go into more in depth in the video below, but here are some overall processing tips:

1. Open the files in SLS. It will stack them together and there will be a bunch of red dots that identify the stars.

Figure 8.

2. Follow the “Workflow” instructions at the top left.

3. Adjust Dots in the Sky. Remove any red dots on the ground, along the horizon, in cloudy areas, or in any spots where there weren’t actually stars. You can even add dots into the sky if there are major areas in the sky that don’t have them.

4. Click Find Sky. That will create the blue mask of the sky; it doesn’t need to be perfect but should include all the areas where there are stars. If you have a horizon that has lots of trees cutting into the sky, choose “Mask with Islands of Sky” and that will let SLS know to create masks for the stars between the branches. You might need to clean this up, but SLS does an excellent job to get you started.

5. Align With. This will remove the blue mask. At the bottom of the workflow section it says Current Image. Click on Next and Previous to choose which Milky Way/star-point alignment you’d like SLS align to.

6. Align and Composite. This stacks all the images. You have to select a composition algorithm to choose:

  • Min Horizon Noise is the default and works in most cases. It brightens the Milky Way stars a bit more than the surrounding stars and minimizes the noise along the horizon.

  • If you do notice any star trailing or duplication along the edge of the mask, use the Min Horizon Star Dupe. There is also a “mean” version of the Horizon Noise and Star Dupe—this uses the older “median” algorithm that was seen in previous versions of SLS.

7. Click Save. SLS saves the stacked file to your folder of TIFFs. SLS gives you the option to save a copy of the mask; I generally don’t need it as the masked file works fine. You’ll need to import this new file into LR and then do any image massaging there.

Tip: You can save multiple algorithms of the stack. The Max algorithm reveals any airplanes, satellites or meteors. Save a clean Min Horizon Noise for minimal noise, but then save any meteors that came through and you can blend them together in Photoshop!

Walking Through an SSL Edit

That’s it! You now have the cleanest night skies out there! Check out the video below, where I go into detail and walk through the whole process. I also take the SLS night sky image and blend it with the foreground from the longer exposure in Photoshop.

Milky Way season is here and the temperatures are rising, bringing more noise into our shots. Use Starry Landscape Stacker to create even cleaner jaw dropping night images!

Gabriel Biderman is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. He is a Brooklyn-based fine art and travel photographer, and author of Night Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots (Peachpit, 2014). During the daytime hours you'll often find Gabe at one of many photo events around the world working for B&H Photo’s road marketing team. See his portfolio and workshop lineup at

How to Make Your Lightroom Rendering Look Like Your Camera Preview

Have you ever imported an image into Lightroom and felt that it looked different than what you remember from the back of your camera? If you have, you are probably not imagining it.

There are two reasons this disparity can occur. The first is a function of our vision. The second derives from the way your camera and Lightroom handle RAW files.

Night-Adjusted Vision

Our eyes are fabulous instruments. Their ability to adjust to a wide range of light is astonishing. Stand outside on a bright sunny day and you’re able to take in all of the information from your surroundings. Enter a dark room and your eyes adjust to the low level of luminance, allowing you to make out shapes and details. Stand on a street illuminated with city lights and you can discern every detail from the highlights of bright buildings to the shadows beside them.

However, adjusting to extreme darkness takes time. As your surroundings get darker, your pupils dilate to allow more light to enter—just like opening your lens aperture from f/8 to f/2.8. This condition is called “night-adjusted vision.”

When your eyes are dilated in this state, the images on your camera’s rear LCD will be perceived as much brighter than they actually are—because your eyes have adjusted to the darkness of the world, and not to the brightness of your camera. The problem this causes is that when you view your images in Lightroom, they look much darker than you remember from in the field.

The solution

Turn down the brightness on your camera’s LCD.

Most cameras’ default setting for brightness is Auto. This means when it’s bright outside, the screen brightens; when dark, the screen dims.

While the Auto setting is fine for most types of photography, the night photographer needs to take manual control over the brightness of the LCD. By lowering it to the lowest setting possible (or second lowest), you will get a much more accurate preview at night. This will also help achieve a better match when you review your images back in Lightroom. (Figure 1 shows the LCD brightness settings on Nikon and Canon cameras.)

Figure 1. The LCD Brightness settings in Nikon (left) and Canon menus.

How the Camera Previews

Even though you have set your camera to shoot RAW, the image you see on the rear LCD is not the RAW image, but rather a JPG generated from that RAW data. For many photographers this discrepancy is irrelevant. But for those wanting to ensure a close match from camera to Lightroom, a better understanding of this function is important.

There is a setting in your camera that allows you to create different “flavors” in your photos. Each manufacturer has different names for this setting, but in essence they all alter the color and contrast of the resulting image. For example, by using Portrait mode, the skin tones of your subjects will seem more natural. Using Neutral will lower the overall contrast and saturation. Standard provides a more traditional rendering.

Figure 2. The Nikon Picture Control menu.

Figure 2. The Nikon Picture Control menu.

For detailed explanations and a complete list of your options, consult your camera manual. Nikon calls their setting Picture Controls (Figure 2). Canon is Picture Styles. Sony is Picture Profile. Fuji is Film Simulation.

These settings are applied differently to RAW and JPG images. When you shoot in RAW, the image is captured and then passed on to an in-camera processor. Here the RAW image is “tagged” with the Picture Control. But that interpretation—those settings—are not permanently baked into the file. Think of it like a note that’s added to the file that says, “Make the image look this way when it’s opened.”

When your camera displays the image on its LCD, it first creates a JPG made from the RAW file with the Pictures Control “notes” taken into account. So what you’re seeing on the LCD is not the RAW file, but a JPG that your camera’s internal computer has rendered just for that immediate use. It has no impact on how the image will look later in Lightroom.

This is in stark contrast to how things work if you’re shooting straight to JPG, rather than shooting RAW files. When you shoot in JPG, the Picture Style is actually baked in. So if you shot on the Landscape setting, the extra contrast and saturation is a permanent addition to the file. When it comes to shooting JPG versus RAW, there are many photographic disciplines out there and each has its own version of best practices. For the night photographer, we want as much flexibility within our files as possible, so we shoot in RAW.

My personal preference is to shoot my night images in RAW on the Neutral picture style. This style is the lowest in contrast and saturation. This means when I preview my image on the camera’s LCD I am seeing a more accurate view of all the image data that the camera captured. Using something like Landscape or Vivid may fool me into thinking there is less detail in the file, which in turn may cause me to make different choices in the field.

Lightroom and RAW Files

Provided you have calibrated your monitor (something every photographer should do!), JPGs from your camera should look pretty similar in Lightroom as they did on your camera’s LCD. This is because the Picture Style from the camera has been baked in!

However, remember that RAW files are only “tagged” with this information. That note attached to the image file that says “make the image look this way when it’s opened” is not available to Lightroom because the camera manufacturers consider it proprietary information—they don’t tell Adobe how to decipher it. This means the only thing Lightroom can do is create its own version of what the image should like. What we see in Lightroom is Adobe’s interpretation of the 0s and 1s in our RAW file.

Moreover, Adobe has many interpretations that you can select from. Adobe Color is the default interpretation (or Profile) that Lightroom uses. You can see the Profile dropdown in the Develop Module at the top of the Basic Panel (Figure 3).

The Problem

And that right here is where the mismatch between the LCD and Lightroom often happens.

Let’s say you shoot a RAW image with the Picture Control of Landscape. On the camera’s LCD it will look more contrasty and more saturated—because, again, you’re seeing a JPG with that Landscape “preset” applied. But when you import that RAW file into Lightroom, you’re seeing Adobe’s interpretation of this file based on assigning the Adobe Color profile. That’s a completely different algorithm. So this will almost always look different from what you saw on the back of your camera, because the settings being applied are coming from two different recipes.

Figure 3. This image is set to the default Adobe Color profile.

Figure 4.

The Solution

Choose a profile in Lightroom that better matches your memory.

How? In Lightroom, click on the double arrow next to Profile. You will see a list of alternative profiles that Adobe offers (Figure 4). From this menu you could choose, for example, Adobe Landscape to try to approximate what you remember from the field.

(These profiles are not just for matching, however. You can choose any profile to create the look that you want. Be creative. You don’t have to match what you saw in the field—you can also match the possibilities that you see in your artist eye.)

The difference in the profiles can be seen best when looking at contrast and saturation. Adobe Vivid and Adobe Landscape are the most contrasty and saturated. Next comes Adobe Color, Standard and Portrait with varying degrees of moderate contrast and saturation. Adobe Neutral is the least contrasty and saturated. Figures 5 shows one image with several profiles applied.

Figure 5.

But there are even more options beyond those! By clicking on Browse in the list, you can access all of Adobe’s profiles. The ones with the stars appear in the Favorites list, which is the dropdown we saw in Figure 4. In Figure 6 below, you can see that all of Adobe’s standard profiles are starred.

Hovering your cursor over these profiles produces a temporary preview in the image window. I recommend previewing the different profiles to gauge their affects.

Matching to Camera

In addition to Adobe’s Standard profile, you can also access their Camera Matching profiles. These profiles attempt to match your camera’s Picture Control settings as closely as possible. While not exact, they can be accurate enough to, in golf terms, “get you on the green”—and on the blue and the red, so to speak.

And there you go. That’s the secret!

That feature right there—the Camera Matching profiles—can be one of the best tricks to get your Lightroom rendering to most closely align with what you see on the LCD. You simply pick the profile that aligns with the Picture Control you used in-camera. For example, if you shoot in Camera Neutral and then apply Lightroom’s Camera Neutral profile, that should get you a relatively accurate match.

There’s a good chance that you will use this strategy so often that you’ll want to speed up the process. If you find yourself using one or more of the Camera Matching profiles repeatedly, you can add it to the favorites list to access it more quickly. Do this by clicking on the star to the right of the Camera Matching profile. Now that profile will appear on the profile dropdown list. And if you find yourself always using the same profile, you can include it in an import preset.

Figure 6.

Figure 7. The dropdown list after I added Camera Landscape and Camera Neutral as favorites.

Figure 8.

Final Takeaways

As we’ve seen, there are a two main reasons why our images in Lightroom may not match what we saw in-field on our camera’s LCD:

  1. Our night-adjusted vision perceived the image on the LCD as brighter than it actually was. The solution here is simply to lower your camera’s LCD brightness while shooting at night.

  2. Lightroom doesn’t have the ability to the read the Picture Control (Style, Profile, Film Simulation) in our RAW files. Again the solution is simple: A quick trip to the Profile section of the Basic Panel in the Develop Module will allow you to choose a profile that better matches your memory of the image. It’s also a great way to experiment and learn!

Tim Cooper is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. Learn more techniques from his book The Magic of Light Painting, available from Peachpit.


The First Steps to Processing Milky Way Images in Lightroom

Capturing the Milky Way is one of the great joys of night photography. But why do some photos of this celestial phenomenon look better than others?

Post-processing your photos can really make the difference between a grab shot and a masterpiece. The good news is that you don’t need a doctorate in Photoshop to bring out the brilliance. A few simple tricks in Lightroom can go a long way in making your stars and Milky Way stand out.

In This Video

In the video below, I illustrate several tips, including:

  • adjusting white balance to make skies look more like “night”

  • using Dehaze to boost the look of the Milky Way

  • applying local adjustments to target effects

  • HSLing the image to nail the color

  • brushing some punch into the galaxy

So open up an image and follow along with the video to learn how to process your Milky Way images in Lightroom!

Note: Did you like that video, and think you’ll like more? Please consider subscribing to the National Parks at Night YouTube channel to get notified about all our new videos when they come out.

Tim Cooper is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. Learn more techniques from his book The Magic of Light Painting, available from Peachpit.