night stars

How To Process Star & Night Sky Pictures in Lightroom 5 & Photoshop

So after a successful photo trip (Top 5 Tips to Photograph Stars & Night Sky) to take photos of stars, here are a simple process I use to edit the RAW files. These work both in Lightroom 4, 5 and Camera Raw. I edit my pictures in 16 bit mode with Color Profile of Pro Photo and File Format Tif. You can set these in Lightroom 5, from the Edit → Preference →  External Editing. If you want to learn all my tips and tricks, check out my Star Photography Masterclass eBook.

Equipment & Exif:  
Nikon D800, Nikon 16 - 35 mm f/4.0 @ ISO 6400, f/4.0, 35 mm, 15 sec.



Basic Adjustments

First thing is to decide how you want the image to look. Going through the main adjustments you can make the changes to the exposure contrast etc. Most of the time I find myself slightly adding exposure and contrast. Here is where I also adjust the color balance via the White Balance sliders. In this example I went towards and added Contrast to +45 and Reduced the Highlights to -36 I added hint of saturation also +7. 

Graduated Filter & Radial Filter

The Graduated Filter is excellent tool to use on these kind of images. I used my preset ”Night Sky Clarity” which just adds lot of Contrast and Clarity. (Settings: Exposure 0,29, Contrast 81, Clarity 76) Drag the slider where you want the stars to pop. In this particular image I also added another Slider to darken the top of the frame to give it a balacing sky to the ground. I also darkened the right part of the sky where the moon was. The Radial Filter works basially the same as the Graduated Filter, but adds a circular shaped adjustment. This is a great tool to use if you need to edit a just one part of the sky. For example, you can use it to enhance the detail in Milky Way by adding contrast and exposure strictly to the Milky Way part of the image.

Lens Correction

I used Nikon 16 – 35 mm f/4.0 VR lens in this photo. It has relatively small distortion in 35 mm focal lenght. Simply click on the Enable Lens Correction. I tend to reduce the vignetting settings to 55.  After this I went in the Manual Settings to correct the perspective distortion. In this particular case I adjusted the Vertical Slider to -35, which seemed to work quite nicely.


For Samyang 14 mm f/2.8 lens you can use the same dialogue if you have installed the preset for the lens. Use Adobe Lens Profile Downloader to download the profile. In this particular lens it does very nice work on the distortions and vignetting. I use Nikon D700 version of the correction, because it does perfect job in the D800 also. 


I use this dialogue to adjust the noise reduction. It works very nicely for High ISO captured images. This image was ISO 6400 so it did need some noise reduction. Usually I leave the other adjustments to default. In this case I added luminance noise reduction to 25.

Boost up the Stars In Photoshop

Use commands CTRL / CMD + E to open the file in Photoshop. Go to Select → Color Range → Select stars with the Sample Tool. In this case easiest ways to see the selection is to use Selection Preview: Black Matte. Click OK. Now the stars are loaded as selection and use the shortcut CTRL / CMD + J to duplicate the selection to another layer. After this set the layer Blending Mode to Screen. If you want to boost the stars even further, make a duplicate of the current layer with the same shortcut.  Select the Layers you just created and add them to a group with shortcut CTRL / CMD + G and add a mask to it from the layers panel, if you need to reduce the adjustments from a particular spot in the image. Brush with black and you are done. 

Step one in Photoshop - Boost up the Stars - Selection

Step two in Photoshop - Boost up the Stars - Selection Done

Step three in Photoshop - Boost up the Stars - Duplicate The Layers

Step four in Photoshop - Boost up the Stars - Group The Layers

Step five in Photoshop - Boost up the Stars - Mask Out

Save for Web

Save the file as tif and open it again in Lightroom.

I do this in Ligthroom 5 because I find the image saving settings easier because I can use presets. Shortcut CTRL + SHIFT + E. I export the files as JPEG, sRGB with Resize to Fit Long Edge for example 1000 pixels and resolution 72. Sharpen For: Screen, Amount: Standard and you are done.

I try to make another tutorial on how to combine multiple exposures to make a one night photo with extra depth. I didn't manage to have time for it yet, so you will have to wait for it for some time.

How To Photograph Stars & Night Sky, Top 5 Tips


I got few emails regarding photographing the stars. So here are few of my tips to photograph stars and what I do to plan before going out. If you want to learn more about star photography, check out my eBook: Star Photography Masterclass


1. Location Scouting

This is actually the first thing I do when I plan a trip to photograph the stars. There are various tools you can use for this. I mainly use Google Maps to search for a location that would work good in low light situation. This means that it should be somewhere that has low light pollution. I try to find a place that is at least couple kilometers from a small town or 20 kilometers from a city. I sometimes also go out drive around without a specific place in mind to search for an interesting place.


Something About a Tree - Hanko, Finland - Nikon D800, 35 mm f/4.0, ISO 6400, 15 sec.

2. Weather Forecast

f course, you cannot really rely on the forecasts, but you will get a quite good look if there will be clouds in the sky. I also recommend using at least couple of different weather forecast sites to have a wider look at the possibilities in a clear sky. 


Sometimes there might be some clouds you were not thinking to photograph, but in that case, you could just try out something different if you can't avoid them. Use clouds as a different approach.

Storm Approaching - Kerava, Finland - Nikon D800, 16 mm f/4.0 ISO 100, 25 sec.

3. Timing

Plan the trip for the darkest moments of the night. This is how you will get most out of the stars. The darker it is the more the stars will show in your capture when you have the correct camera settings. Planning a trip when the moon wont be the brightest also is very important if you want to capture stars. Moon can easily get in the way of milky way.


4. Equipment & Settings

So this is not a list that you should go and buy, just my tools of use.

Tripod, or something to keep your camera steady for long exposures. I have used quite a few tripods and I really like what I currently have a Sirui Tripod R-4203L and Sirui Ball Head K-40X

Use wide angle lens if you want the stars to appear as dots not trails. My go to lenses for my Nikon D800 are Samyang 14 mm f/2.8 and Nikon 16 - 35 mm f/4.0 VR. By using a remote controller it allows you to use longer exposures than 30 seconds. I use Hähnel Giga T Pro II  for Nikon and it works nicely for my purposes.

As for settings: Always take photos in RAW file format.

Focus to infinity either manually or simply using one bright spot to focus on. Use the widest aperture your lens has as far as the result is not too blurry. Boost up ISO, I would recommend start from ISO 1600 and go up as much as your camera can handle with a decent end result. I tend to take 30 second exposures to have the stars still when you use something like I have above with a full frame camera. For a crop sensor camera I used 11 mm lens with aperture 2.8 and 30 seconds exposure.


Balance - Sipoo, Finland - Nikon D7000, 11 mm, f/2.8 ISO 1600, 30 sec.


5. Experiment

The last but not least tip is to experiment on a location, and it's lots of fun! So if you have found a location you think fits for the purposes of taking pictures of stars try experimenting with different exposures and perspectives. Don't just settle on one spot try search around if you see something interesting to include in the frame. In fact, I rarely get the shot I was looking for in one shot.. I take multiple shots and experiment with perspectives and subjects. 


Blue Night - Kuopio, Finland - Nikon D800, 16 mm, f/4.0, ISO 3200, 30 sec.

Next tutorial, I will give you an example of what kind of settings I use to combine a photo like below. Also some Lightroom 5 tips on making the adjustments on star photos.

If you liked this tutorial feel free to visit my eBook: Star Photography Masterclass