Bringing the Milky Way to Life
As I’ve posted previously, I have been intrigued by astrophotography and photographing the Milky Way for a while, but really never took the plunge. A lot of the information on the interwebs make learning this almost cult like… there are secret handshakes, obscure references and seemingly mystical processing steps that are necessary.
Here I go trying to cut through some of the hocus-pocus bull $h!t and show some of the steps I’ve taken on a recent image I processed. I didn’t use any specialized software, the only tool I used is On1 Photo RAW 2018 – a (fairly) straight forward RAW image catalog and processing solution. The gear I’ve used to capture the Milky Way on this outing was a Sony A7Rii body, Laowa / VenusOptics 15mm f/2 lens, Manfrotto tripod and ball head, and finally a Neewer Intervalometer to trigger the shutter. Nothing really esoteric, although quite good gear wise.
Getting Down to Business
Here is an image I took recently on a relatively dark night at Francis E. Walter Dam in White Haven, Pennsylvania. This is how the Milky Way looked “straight out of the camera” (with a watermark applied and adjusted for screen and file size). As you can see it’s quite, uhm, boring as opposed to the final version of the image after processing.
Where to start? At the beginning of course! Lets first make sure you have a good image to start with. Use your tripod, set your ISO and Aperture appropriately and trigger the shutter using your remote so that you don’t cause any shaking of the camera with your finger (you WILL see it). This image of the Milky Way, for example, was taken at f/2.8, ISO 6400 with a 15 second exposure – your mileage may vary depending on the light pollution, lens, camera’s sensor, etc. This is an area where reading other people‘s expert opinions does help.
For processing in On1 I did get some of these ideas from a video on the On1 YouTube channel and ran with it. Nothing here is entirely mine, but from all sorts of suggestions and tutorials I’ve found out on the interwebs.
Ok, I am going to assume that you know a bit about On1 and can navigate through the various sections/modules, know how to import and all that stuff – if you don’t, head on over to the training area of On1’s website which has more information and help than you can shake a light stick at!
Overall image settings
Tone & Color
Your Milky Way shot is probably as bland as mine was before processing, so let’s do some basics here. We are going to bump up the Exposure a 1/3 of a stop, open up the shadows and lower the highlights a touch.
For this image, I used Exposure 0.3, Contrast +23, Highlights -30, Midtones +6, Shadows +9, Whites -9, Blacks -7, Structure -4 and Haze -33. Be very careful with the Haze slider it can really cook your image and generate noise – be sure to zoom in and look it over as you go!
Now we need to talk about the photo’s overall color temperature. There are a couple of ways to do this, the way I do it is I set Saturation and Vibrance to 100 and then tweak the color temperature until I feel its right – usually somewhere between 3400° and 3950° depending on the light pollution, and overall color cast of the image. Now reset the Saturation & Vibrance and bring them up until the overall colors are where you are happy with them. Don’t overcook the Milky Way now, we are working on the overall image. We will dive into the Milky Way colors in Local Adjustments. This is where personal preference comes into play.
For this image, I ended up with a color temperature of 3850°, Saturation 28, Vibrance 33, and I moved the tint slightly to the pink side at 4. This cooled things down a bit, later I will warm up the Milky Way cloud. If you look at the images below you can see the image with +100 Saturation/Vibrance and then when set as listed above.
Details & Lens Corrections
Tackling the Lens Correction first. If your camera and lens is supported just set this to auto. My current combo is not yet supported so I did some manual tweaking to the Fall-Off, but you shouldn’t need to worry about it. For the Details section, I simply selected the “Low” setting and used 58, 35, 25 for Luminance, Detail, Color noise reductions respectively. Again, this is when you want to zoom in and peek at those pixels.
Local Adjustments – Painting the Milky Way and Foreground
This is where I warmed up and helped make the Milky Way “pop” as well as lighten the foreground a bit. I used three local adjustment layers, one for the foreground and two for the Milky Way cloud.
I painted in the foreground with a bit more Exposure (+0.7) Highlights and Shadows were bumped slightly (~10 each) and I increased the vibrance and structure to make the wall stand out a touch.
I used two different Vibrance adjustment layers, the first was with a large brush fully feathered and varied opacity to color in the core of the Milky Way cloud and ‘warm’ it up a touch. There is no right way to do this, you will need to make decisions based on the image’s needs. I increased exposure 1/3 stop, added contrast, warmth and vibrance until things looked ‘right’. I then added another vibrance adjustment layer for the Milky Way cloud’s darker areas, dropping the exposure a touch, closing up the shadows and adding a bit more vibrance to the dark areas of the cloud. Again, no right way – play with it and make it yours!
Now the fun begins!
I never thought of using this filter for these images until I watched the On1 YouTube video above and it really is amazing, even if the name is an oxymoron for Milky Way photography! For the Sunshine filter I used 62 for Amount, 10 for Warmth and 2 for Saturation. In the images below, you can see how the filter makes the darker areas of the Milky Way cloud ‘pop’ and tint a bit purple, which I liked the look of.
Noise Reduction Filter x2: Luminosity and Blue Sky
Ok, you’re probably scratching your head as to why I used the Noise Reduction filter twice. I initially used it in Luminosity mode which helped quite a bit (settings: “Strong”, Luminance 66, Color 27, Detail 26, applied to all) but I noted some noise that bothered me in the blue/indigo range, so I shortcut the clean up by using the Blue Sky setting and tweaking the color settings (settings: “Blue Sky”, Luminance 50, Color 90, Detail 25, applied to blues only @ 85 range). I probably could do this in one pass, but didn’t see a need. These noise settings will entirely depend on your original image, and how you processed it, so your mileage will vary.
Dynamic Contrast Filter
I loves me some Dynamic Contrast. Seriously! This filter can really make most images go from nice to OMG! if not overdone. I used the Soft setting and then as I am trying simply to make the Milky Way pop, I turned down Large and Medium contrast to 0 and bumped the Small Contrast up until I liked the look. In this case it was set to 11. For the rest of this filter I used Highlights -24, Shadows 22, Whites 11, Blacks -6, Vibrance 17. Play around and see how you like your image, the idea here is to make the small details of the cloud pop!
Tone Enhancer Filter
Now we have to get a bit deep. There are numerous places on the interwebs to explain Tone Curves in On1, Photoshop or other image processing tools. Basically what it is doing is taking parts of the histogram and increasing or decreasing the levels based on the curves. I’ve been playing around with curves for night photography in general, and specifically for these Milky Way shots and a curve along this line has worked for most applications. Obviously, you may need to tweak these here and there, but this is the general shape of curve I like for this.
Here is a before / after view of how this really changes the image. Things may look overcooked at the moment, but I tweak things once again in Develop, including cropping as appropriate before final export.
I wasn’t sure about this, but after trying it and setting it low, it did help clean up a bit … perhaps there are other / better options to use, but if it works I’ll try it 🙂
I kept the defaults for the filter, but dropped its layer opacity down to 70% and Polarizer was set to 14.
Final Milky Way Image
So after the processing above, I did bring it back to develop and toned things a bit, cropped the image a bit, and worked on blends between various areas of the photo. Here’s what it turned out as once all was said and done.
If you found this useful, please let me know in the comments section. You can also follow me on my Facebook Photography Page or on Instagram. Please remember, I am not a professional, I’m a hobbyist, so if you have constructive criticism please do share it. The point of this was to give other beginners somewhere to start from using On1, not to be the most perfect/professional tutorial 🙂