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.
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.
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:
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.
Hope this helps! Happy chasing!
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