October 21, 2019

Before and After of Milky Way Photos Over the Montana Badlands

Since these seem to be the types of blog posts people really enjoy seeing, I have decided to create another before and after series of some Milky Way photos I took this past summer in the Montana Badlands. I included some technical discussion about shooting and editing the photos as well.

Hint: On a mobile device, tap on different parts of the image.

This first image (above) was taken with a Nikkor 50mm f1.8 lens on my Nikon D610 camera. My first ever Milky Way photo I took with something other than a wide angle lens. Due to the more telephoto nature of this lens, the shutter speed had to be shorter than my usual ~20 seconds in order to keep the stars from streaking, but shooting at f1.8 instead of f2.8 was able to more than make up for that.

The first change I always make in post is fixing the white balance. I shoot with an auto white balance, but this will often not be correct with astrophotography photos. Since I shoot in RAW, you can change the white balance in post without losing any quality or detail whatsoever in the image - so it doesn’t matter whether you set it in camera or in post. This change alone can make an immediate, drastic difference to the look of the image.

I did not light-paint the foreground in this image because I wanted a silhouette. However, after I bumped up the exposure for the overall image, the foreground was no longer perfectly dark. To account for this I used the brush tool in Adobe Lightroom and painted in just the foreground. I was then able to increase the blacks and adjust the contrast so it was perfectly silhouetted.

I next added a good amount of clarity to the sky to bring out more detail and adjusted the overall contrast. Next, I used the brush tool in Lightroom again to paint over the Milky Way. Bringing up the clarity a touch more and adding additional contrast helped to make the Milky Way “pop”. I then moved the photo over to Photoshop and applied a curves layer, increasing the whites and bringing down the shadows.

The last thing I did was use the star reduction process. This allows you to enhance the faint details in the Milky Way without compromising image quality. If it is of interest I can write a future blog post on this method.

I used generally the same editing process for the following two images, but these were shot with my wide angle lens (Tamron 15-30mm f2.8) instead.

Hint: On a mobile device, tap on different parts of the image.
Hint: On a mobile device, tap on different parts of the image.
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