During my first year of aurora photography, I kept thinking some of my images could use some editing to make stars pop. The aurora could really subdue the stars, even bright ones. When I was first trying to figure how to make the stars pop, I attempted to find some tutorials online, but most of the ones I found were about the milky way specifically. Many of the tutorials also required that you download someone else’s actions. So I came up with a way to make stars pop myself.
This post is a basic tutorial outlining what I have done, and I assume you know some of Photoshop basics.

The Workflow

Here is my starting image.

Aurora image opened in photoshop

Make two copies of your background image, C+j.

Duplicate background layer twice

Hide the second copy by clicking on the eyeball next to it in the Layer Panel. Select the first copy. Go to Filter > Noise > Dust and Scratches.

Using Filter, dust and scratches to remove stars from an image

Set the radius so that you can no longer see the stars in the preview. The radius will be a small value because most of the stars are only a few pixels wide. Then adjust your threshold.

Select a radius in dust and scratches to remove stars

Next, select copy #2 (make sure it’s visible by clicking the eyeball again) and go to Image > Apply Image.

Using apply image in Photoshop

Select copy #1 in the Layer option. Set blending mode to Subtract, Scale to 1. The image below shows what you get after Apply Image.

Photoshop apply image

Open a Levels adjustment layer (C+ l) and move the sliders over to the left. You will see the stars pop more. The foreground will also be affected, but we will deal with this later.

Adjusting levels to make stars pop

I made the blending mode of Copy 2 Screen.

Change blend mode to screen

Create a new group (using the folder icon at the bottom of the Layers panel) and apply a layer mask. The mask is a rectangle with a circle in the middle. The group will contain all the adjustments you may want to make to the stars.

Use a black paintbrush to paint out the parts that you do not want the star adjustment applied. Make sure you have selected the layer mask of the group before you start brushing.

Painting a mask in Photoshop

Remember you can change the opacity of the group as well if needed. Here is my final result:

Aurora Borealis dancing over snowy trail and mountains, Icefields Parkway


If you’d like to learn more about night photography processing or would like to get out into the field, I have private and group workshops available.

On April 19th, 6pm, I will be running a free live Aurora Editing session (Lightroom). Join my workshop group to see it live or a view a replay later on!