Editing Northern Lights Pictures: How do i do it?

by Anthony D. Cliffe

So you’ve been out in the cold, you’ve followed my tips and hopefully you’ve got some great shots of the Northern Lights or the Stars! I hope you enjoyed it! Now it’s time to turn those good pictures into great ones! Using one of my own pictures I’m going to show you how to turn your RAW image from this…

Original Image

Original Image

To this…

blog image

Edited Image

This tutorial is for Photoshop Elements which is a cheaper version of the full blown Photoshop. I’ve used elements for years as I find it easier and more user friendly to use than Photoshop and I find it brilliant for editing pictures.

  1. So firstly you’re going to want to go ahead and open up your image in your photo editing software. If you’ve shot in RAW then you’re probably going to be faced with something like this, with numerous sliders. These tools are what we’re going to use to enhance our image. While some may say its cheating I never think it is. Your eyes are far better seeing colour and definition than a camera is so all you’re doing is bringing that information from the camera up to the quality that your eyes see it. Plus i see photography as a form of Art and editing is like a painter painting! This image is straight from the camera unedited. It’s a pretty good photograph in its own right. However I want that reflection to really stand out, I want some colour and lightness in the shrubs and foreground and I want those stars and Northern Lights to really pop and show its beauty as i see it. So let’s go about doing that!

    Photo1

    Editing in Raw

  2. Exposure: The first step I always do with any night time shot is higher the exposure up. This brightens up the image and as you can see already the greens of the Northern Lights appear brighter and so do the stars.

    Photo2 exposure

    Adding Exposure

  3. Contrast and Highlights: For this I’ve lowered my contrast a little making the shrubs less black. If I plus my contrast that would make the shrubs blacker almost making a silhouette look. If you want that look then go ahead but for the purpose of mine I want them to be in colour. The highlight scale does as it says, it makes the brighter colours brighter or darker depending if you plus or minus it. I pulsed my highlights but not too much. The green really stands out now and still holds some important detail such as the swirl and the pillars of light from them. If I heightened the highlights all the way up the green would be really bright but there would be no detail in them so it’s a real fine line to walk!

    Photo3 contrasthighlights

    Adding Contrast and Highlights

  4. Shadows: Shadow slider is the opposite of highlights, it will make your dark areas lighter or darker depending if you plus or minus. As before, we want those shrubs to have detail and not be a black silhouette so I’ve plus it and as you can see now there is detail and some colour in those grasses!

    Photo4 shadow

    Brighten those shadows

  5. White balance: Increasing the white slider makes the image brighter and has the effect of making those stars and northern lights pop.

    Photo5 white

    Increasing the white slider

  6. Clarity and vibrancy: Clarity changes the contrast and makes the image sharper at the expense of some noise. The shape of the Northern Lights is now more refined than before and the whole image looks better for it. Vibrancy increases the vibrancy of the colours in the image to make them stronger. Once that is done click open image. That image now looks much better than the raw image and that should make any image of the stars looking good!

    photo6 Clarity

    Clarity and Vibrance increase

I go one step further and get a little more technical for my final step. While I’m happy with that image as it is I still want to make that reflection look a little stronger and add a bit of light to that foreground.

  1. To achieve this I duplicate the layer, then add a new adjustment layer and crank up the brightness of the image along with reducing some contrast. The problem this causes is the whole image becomes brighter but you lose the detail as discussed before. So to stop this I open a mask layer, invert it and paint back in the brightness in the areas I want it. Such as the reflection of the lights, the top left Northern Lights and the red car light in the distance. Once all of that is done I collapse my layers, add my name and my final image is produced!
    photo7 duplicate layer

    Duplicating the layers

    photo8 brightness

    Adding brightness before masking

    photo9 layers

    Masking in brightness

    And there we have it! A final edit picture!

    blog image

    Edited Image