How to Edit Northern Lights Photos

how to edit northern lights photos

You’ve photographed the Aurora like never before! Now its time to learn how to edit Northern Lights photos and enhance their breathtaking beauty with these essential post-processing techniques.

Capturing the ethereal dance of the Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, is a dream for many photographers (if you’re in the southern hemisphere then we are talking about Aurora Australis or the Southern Lights).

how to edit northern lights photos

These stunning displays of light offer a surreal spectacle that can transform a night sky into a canvas of vibrant colors and swirling patterns. And with the Sun approaching its maximum activity during this cycle, auroral displays might get more and more common during the next year or so.

However, capturing the Aurora is just the beginning. To truly bring out the magic of these natural wonders, effective post-processing techniques are essential.

Let’s see how you can enhance and refine your Aurora photos to create captivating images that truly do justice to the awe-inspiring beauty of the Lights.

how to photograph northern lights

As I always do when I talk about post-processing, I will say that the most important thing is moderation. But more on that later. Let’s take it step by step.

1. Start with a strong foundation

Before diving into post-processing, it’s crucial to start with a well-captured image, in RAW format, of course.

When photographing the Aurora, use a sturdy tripod to ensure sharpness, and opt for a wide-angle lens to capture as much of the sky as possible. A wide aperture (f/2.8 or wider) will allow you to gather more light.

Experiment with different exposure times to find the right balance between capturing detail in the Aurora and preventing star trails. If the Aurora is super active, expect exposures as short as 1 second. Even less, if you can do that.

Don’t bother too much about ISO. With today’s cameras and software capabilities, you can shoot at a pretty high ISO setting without getting a lot of noise in the final image.

how to edit northern lights photos

Now, having the best possible raw image, it’s time to open it in a RAW converter. You can use whatever software you like most.

After trying quite a few ones, I believe that the best results come from Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and Adobe Lightroom (LR). In my day-to-day fashion photography, I find Capture One to be better, but for astrophotography, I always come back to Adobe.

Read more: All You Need to Know to Process a Raw File in Lightroom

2. Lens corrections

Right after opening your Aurora Borealis photos, apply lens corrections to correct any distortion or vignetting caused by your lens.

Lightroom’s Lens Corrections panel can automatically detect and apply corrections for lens distortion, chromatic aberration, and vignetting, ensuring that your images are free from unwanted optical imperfections.

If the horizon is slanted, adjust that too, although it would be better to take the time and level off your tripod when shooting.

3. Correct white balance

The colors of the Aurora can vary widely, ranging from vibrant greens and purples to soft pinks, reds, and blues. Correcting the white balance is essential to ensure that these colors are accurately represented in your final image.

In my opinion, this is the trickiest part when it comes to editing Aurora photos.

how to edit northern lights photos

Adjust the temperature and tint sliders in your editing software until the colors of the Aurora look natural and pleasing to the eye. Most of the time, you will not see the full colors of the Aurora when in the field, so it might not be easy to match them to reality.

I know that lately, it’s quite trendy to give a very cold air to Aurora images, leaning towards pretty cold tones. To me, that looks unnatural. Start with daylight white balance and adjust everything from there.

Read more: What is White Balance?

4. Enhance contrast and clarity

To make the Aurora Borealis pop, enhance contrast and clarity in your image. Use the contrast slider to deepen shadows and brighten highlights, bringing out the intricate details of the Northern Lights. I usually don’t go over +25 on the Contrast slider.

how to edit northern lights photos

Increase clarity to add crispness and definition to the overall image, emphasizing the swirling patterns and textures of the Aurora. Be careful not to overdo it, as excessive clarity can result in unnatural-looking artifacts.

And this is probably the place where most people overdo it. Images with a lot of clarity added might look spectacular at a first glance but once you zoom in or you try printing images, they will show flaws.

I will probably not go further than 15 on the clarity slider. I wouldn’t suggest using Dehaze for Aurora photography. The image quickly starts looking very unnatural.

5. Adjust exposure and highlights

Fine-tune the exposure and highlights to ensure that the Aurora Borealis stands out against the night sky. Use the exposure slider to brighten or darken the overall image, making sure not to lose detail in the shadows or highlights.

northern lights photo editing

Pay special attention to the brightest areas of the Aurora, adjusting the highlights slider to prevent clipping and preserve detail in the delicate structures of the lights. Lift the shadows a little if you feel the foreground is too dark or lacks detail.

6. Reduce noise

The high ISO used to capture the Aurora Borealis can introduce unwanted noise into your images, especially in darker areas of the sky. To reduce noise while preserving detail, use the noise reduction tools in your editing software.

Start by applying luminance noise reduction to smooth out graininess, then adjust the color noise reduction to eliminate any unwanted color artifacts. Be cautious not to overdo noise reduction, as this can result in loss of sharpness and detail.

how to edit northern lights photos

As long as we are here, take a look at the Sharpening section of the panel and find a slider that lots of people miss: the Masking slider. This slider allows you not to apply sharpening to certain areas of the image. And you definitely don’t want to sharpen noise.

Noise will always be more visible in the darker areas of the image so you want to mask those. But how do you know where the mask is applied? Hold Option (Alt on a Windows computer) and slide the Masking slider.

Suddenly, your image turns to black and white. Sharpening will not be applied in the black area but only in the white one. Now move the slider until you are happy with the masked area of your image. I find that values around 90 are the most useful in astrophotography.

Read more: How to Reduce Noise in Photos in Lightroom

7. Fine-tune colors

Once you’ve corrected the white balance, experiment with color adjustments to enhance the vibrancy and saturation of the Aurora Borealis. Use the vibrance slider cautiously though and try not to make the Aurora look cartoonish.

how to edit northern lights photos

For more precise control, adjust individual colors in the HSL panel to accentuate specific hues within the Northern Lights, such as greens, purples, and blues. Aim for a balance that enhances the natural beauty of the Aurora without appearing overly saturated or artificial.

Actually, sometimes it’s advisable to even desaturate the colors in the Aurora (especially the greens) a bit as the camera might register them a bit too vivid, at least for my taste.

Read more: Lightroom Colour Correction – Hue, Saturation, and Luminance

8. Add creative effects

To add an extra layer of creativity to your Aurora Borealis photos, experiment with filters and local adjustments. And when I say filters, I am talking about the gradual filter in LR or ACR.

how to edit northern lights photos

You can also use the sky selection tool to work only on the sky part of your image or you can invert that selection and work only on the foreground. This will be extremely useful if you want to bring out some details in the foreground without changing the aspect of the sky.

If you want to be even more specific with the areas you want to modify, you can also try the brush tool.

9. Final touches

Before finalizing your Aurora Borealis photos, take a step back and evaluate your edits with a critical eye. Fine-tune any remaining adjustments to ensure a harmonious balance of color, contrast, and clarity.

how to edit northern lights photos

Pay attention to small details such as noise, sharpening, and composition, making adjustments as needed to achieve a polished final result.

Once you’re satisfied with the outcome, save your image in the highest quality possible (I always opt for TIFF) to preserve the integrity of your post-processing work.

In conclusion

Post-processing Aurora photographs is not exceptionally hard, if you compare it to other fields of astrophotography. It requires moderation and you also have to understand color a bit. Otherwise, it’s pretty straightforward. But, with only a few tweaks you can elevate a good image to a great one.

Clear skies!

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