Creating a good milky way shot involves quite a bit of post processing usually, unless you live in an area with really clear skies and little to no light pollution. I have been fortunate to take shots in ideal situations, but more often than not, the conditions are not good and involve a bit of post processing to get the desired result.

I thought I would share my method using Photoshop to getting our galaxy to pop out of the night sky in my photos, which will hopefully be useful in your astrophotography endeavors.

This tutorial will not cover the actual taking of the photos, you can read my post about taking photos of the milky way for more details.

Beginning image

This image is what I got straight out of the camera, everything is quite flat but the milky way is subtly visible.

Levels

Before making any adjustments I like to duplicate the base layer, I find this useful for adjusting intensity of effects with the opacity slider. It also makes it easy to mask any changes as a whole instead of per adjustment.



The first adjustment I apply is levels, in which I use to bring up the highlights and start to bring out the clarity of the milky way in the sky. This simple move does make quite a difference in the visibility already.

As you can see the foreground is getting blown out so I usually mask that so only the sky is being affected by any adjustments.

Dodge and Burn

Now its time to really make the milky way pop out of the image, for this I use the dodge and burn brushes.

I start with the burn brush set to 50% opacity and go along the edge of the darker areas of the milky way formation, the overall goal is to basically increase the contrast but I like to have the fine control of it using these two brushes.

Nest I use the dodge brush and again follow along the various edges, but this time on the lighter areas.

I tend to make this over the top and unrealistic to begin with and then dial it down afterwards with the opacity slider until I am happy with the result.





Sharpening

I use the unsharp mask the sharpen up the stars and bring out the edges in the milky way, there isn’t really a set amount I got for here. Its usually image dependent, but I usually end up anywhere from 50% to 120%.



Sharpening does tend to bring in some extra noise into the image to I reduce the noise using Imagenomics Noiseware, but you can use Photoshop native noise reduction tools as well.

Finishing Up

To add a few finishing touches I play around with curves and levels a bit more to get the effect I’m looking for, this is completely personal preference but I try to bring out a lot of the stars in the sky overall.



Another touch at the end that I make is to adjust the color balance, I add a bit of blue and magenta. I just like the overall way that makes the sky look, and gives the milky way that bit more “cosmic” feeling to it.

Milky Way over Glow-Worms

Here are some other images I have created using this method.

Milky Strewn Across the Sky

Rocks under the Milky Way

Perseid Meteor Shower