When you look at a Milky Way image, chances are the photographer has done a fair bit of editing work. Editing helps the galaxy stand out in a photo and makes ups for some of the limitations of cameras. In my Northern Lights Photos Before and After Editing post, I briefly discussed that what eyes perceive is different from what cameras record. The difference between an image straight out of camera (SOOC) and what our eyes see is significant, especially when it comes to the Milky Way. When it comes to editing Milky Way photos, there is a lot of creativity involved, but it is possible to try to stay true to things like colours of stars, gas clouds, atmospheric conditions, etc. Personal taste comes into play, of course; images can be lightly edited, heavily edited, have specific colour tones chosen, or whatever else the photographer wants to do. It’s your image, so make sure you like it and the editing.

While cameras can pick up a lot more than our eyes can, they still have their limitations. These limitations include things like limited depth of field, noise issues, star trailing, and more. I’ve split up the before and after examples by different photography techniques that night photographers utilize to overcome some of those limitations. Most of my editing is done in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Single Exposures

A single exposure would probably be considered the most authentic way to capture a scene. It is what it sounds like, just one shot. The limits with a single shot include trying to pick an exposure time to get as much light to the sensor as possible without noticeable trails in the stars and noise because of high ISO. I will still shoot scenes as a single exposure and get great results.

Hiker standing on a ridge over Waterton Lakes and Town with Milky Way over Vimy Peak

ISO 6400 f2.8 14mm 13s | Nikon d850 + Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8

Milky Way image with red barn before editing Barn lit with red headlamp, Milky Way, green airglow and light clouds lit with light pollution

ISO 3200 f2.8 14mm 30s | Nikon D3s + Rokinon 14mm f2.8

Focus Stacking

Focus stacking is a method used to get sharpness from the front to the back of the image. I have a tutorial on focus stacking, and the concept is the same in the dark. When shooting wide open (usually we are using f2.8 or faster), the depth of field is relatively shallow even with wide lenses. If you want to get close to a foreground object and photograph stars that are at infinity distance-wise, you will have to take a series of shots, focusing at different points to get front to back sharpness.

In the before photo, the lit up ice is in the focus but the stars are blurry and exhibiting some bokeh.

Milky Way photo with focus stacking before editing Ice block crack makes an x shape with Milky Way rising behind Mount Michener

ISO 3200 f2.8 14mm 20s | Nikon d810 + Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8

Stacking (Minimizing Noise)

Photographers will push the ISO values of their cameras relatively high to get as much (star)light in as possible. The higher the ISO number, the more noise gets introduced into the image. One way to reduce noise is to take a series of images without moving the camera or changing settings and stacking out noise in the processing portion. Noise is random and will be different between each shot. The signal remains the same. You can do the stacking yourself in Photoshop, but I use Starry Landscaper Stacker; it’s only for Macs. Sequator is the recommended program for PCs.

Milky Way photo before editing Milky Way over Mount Engadine Meadows reflecting in a still creek with snowy banks

ISO 12800 f2.8 14mm 15s | Nikon d850 + Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 | 9 Images Stacked

Tracking

There is a device called a Star Tracker that will move your camera at the same rate that the stars move through the sky. It allows you to do longer exposures and use lower ISO values for the sky. You will need to take a second exposure for the foreground. The foreground will blur as the star tracker moves your camera. For a more detailed explanation, check out my Why Use a Star Tracker post. This method does bring out a lot of detail in the Milky Way.

Tracked Milky Way photo before editing Tracked Milky Way photo after editing

ISO 800 f4 20mm 210s | Nikon d850 + Nikkor 20mm f1.8

Stacked/Blended

You can make Milky Way photography and processing as complicated as you want by combining all or some of the previously mentioned methods. This example combines two. There were nine shots for the sky and another nine at a different shutter speed for the foreground. After stacking out the noise in the foreground, I blended the lights from the train back in.

Milky Way photo at astronomical twilight before editing Milky Way over Mount Rundle, a CP Rail train lights up the foreground

ISO 6400 f2.8 20mm 13s Sky + 30s Foreground | Nikon d850 + Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8

Composite

In nature photography, composites generally do not interest me. However, there are a lot of people that like to do night sky composites. Two or more photographs make up a composite; these can be from entirely different locations, times of day, months, etc. From an editing and creative vision perspective, composites do have their challenges. However, I prefer the challenge of going out and finding unique compositions that occur in nature and trying to capture them. It may take years for all the conditions to line up, but it is hugely satisfying when they do.

I do have one composite example, but it is only a composite because the sky’s focal length was different from that of the foreground. I shot everything from the same spot. You would be able to see Orion in this position over the mountain. The before is one of the foreground shots at blue hour – there are no stars in the sky yet.

Bubble shaped like a skull at abraham lake at blue hour Methane bubbles and cracks shaped like a shattered skull in Abraham lake with orion in the sky

Foreground: ISO 100 f4 20mm 2s | Sky: ISO 6400 f3.5 35mm 6s | Nikon d850 + Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8

I have an online Milky Way editing course coming up on May 27th at 6:30pm MDT. I edit the foreground and sky separately in almost all my Milky Way photos, so you’ll have the tools you need to do blends, use tracked photos, stacking and so on.
For those that would like to spend an evening talking about the more creative side of night photography, I have a brand new seminar on May 25th, Seeing at Night! I’m very excited about this one and to help you push your night photography to the next level.