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By Paul Zizka

What are the best tricks for editing my photos of the northern lights?

It’s a frequently asked question that I get, so I thought I’d share a few tips! I find it’s so easy to make a mess out of aurora shots. Looking back at old images, I often went overboard with the sliders. I now prefer an approach to editing that is not as heavy-handed.

Stunning night in the Northwest Territories, Canada under the swirling northern lights
Stunning night in the Northwest Territories, Canada. Image by Paul Zizka Photography.

For starters, I should say I usually edit the sky selectively. I rarely want the same treatment applied to the sky and whatever lies below the skyline. To do so, I use the adjustment brushes in Adobe Camera Raw. The ones in Lightroom will work the same way. As far as brush settings go, I usually start with a large brush and paint broad strokes across the sky. As I get closer to the skyline, I make the brush smaller and smaller in order to get seamless results.

I like to keep a lot of feathering throughout, again, to keep things seamless. Typically the feathering value is in the 75-100 range. I always keep density at 100. I find that a flow of 50 works well for my purposes.

A man spreads his arms like a Pterodactyl under the Aurora on Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park.
Pterodactyl. Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park. Image by Paul Zizka Photography.
Powerful aurora display over base camp in Torngat Mountains National Park, Labrador.
Powerful aurora display over base camp in Torngat Mountains National Park, Labrador. Image by Paul Zizka Photography.

Once I have those brush settings down, here are the adjustments I typically make:

  • Change the colour balance to make the aurora green again. Depending on your white balance and the brand you shoot, your lights might come out a little yellow. That is of course a matter of personal preference, but I prefer my aurora green.
  • Add blacks and contrast. That helps make the sky darker between the aurora features and therefore it makes the curtains and bands pop a little more, and makes the sky look a little more like nighttime again. It’s easy to overdo it when darkening the blacks. I usually go no more than -10. I often add a touch of dehaze to that to get give the image a little more pop.
  • Look for areas that are much brighter than the rest of the aurora, or nearly blown out, and paint them with a brush that reduces whites and/or highlights, so that those areas don’t draw too much attention.
  • Reduce the clarity of the aurora so give it that “glow from within” look.
  • Reduce noise, since I usually expect all of the above adjustments to add a touch of noise to an image that was likely already shot at high ISO. I also don’t mind trading in a bit of sky sharpness for less noise since there are no hard edges in the aurora, i.e. no real sharpness to lose anyways.

I usually perform all of the above using the one same brush (other than the highlights/whites adjustment). Bundling all of the operations together saves me a considerable amount of time. So a starter brush might look like:

Size 40

Feather 100

Flow 50

Density 100

Temperature -3

Contrast +25

Blacks -10

Dehaze +5

Clarity -20

Noise reduction +20

Of course this is just a starting point and I can just readjust from there. And obviously all of this is truly a matter of personal preference, but if you’re after the look that this image of Banff Avenue has (same for a lot of my other aurora shots), then that’s how I achieved it.

It’s also worth noting that this approach saves me from going into Photoshop and takes less than a minute.

A man dangling from ice axes while ice climbing under the lights at the Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park.
Ice climbing under the lights at the Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park. Image by Paul Zizka Photography.

Hope this helps! Happy chasing!

Paul Zizka originally wrote this article for our private online photography community here at OFFBEAT. There are dozens more where that came from. If that sounds like something you like the sound of, sign up for our community!

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