I have already taught you how to photograph the northern lights. Taking the pictures is only one of the steps to produce beautiful Aurora images. You also need to know how to edit northern lights photos, so I prepared this guide showing my usual workflow.
First steps in processing your aurora photos
I personally use Adobe Lightroom Classic to edit northern lights photos, and this tutorial is solely based on this software. There are many other software, like ON1 Photo Raw or Capture One. They all more or less do the same as Lighroom, albeit some settings might have different names.
The first step before you even start editing is to copy your photos from your memory card to your computer. Then, you import them into Lightroom. I personally like to have full control of those actions, so I do not automate anything in Lightroom, and manually do the following:
- Create a folder on my computer named YYYYMMDD_Aurora-in-Location, and copy all the photos from a given session from the memory card into that folder
- Import all the images from this folder into Lightroom
I also like to apply a develop setting while importing, because it prevents me from forgetting afterwards. This preset only changes one item, which is the profile, to the setting Camera Neutral.
In order to get less frustrated by how slow Lightroom works while editing, I then create 1:1 previews for all photos:
- Select all photos
- Go to Library>Previews>Build 1:1 Previews
- Go get yourself a cup of coffee, answer a couple of emails, and when the previews are built, you can start editing.
How to edit northern lights photos
These are the steps that I usually follow to edit my northern lights pictures. Unsurprisingly, this goes from top to bottom from the Develop menu in Lightroom.
If you didn’t apply a preset on import, change the Profile to Camera Neutral. I found that this gives the most room to manoeuvre with all other settings. It also also gives a much more natural look to your images.
Left: Camera Neutral | Right: Lightroom’s default Adobe Colour. You can see that in the default profile setting Adobe Colour, the highlights are blown out, and the colours are too vibrant.
This is actually the most tricky part of your editing, because it defines the entire style of your image. And unfortunately, there is not a “one setting fits all photos” value for the white balance, and you will use wildly different values whether under the full moon or without any moon, or if you are in a snowy landscape or not. I can share these following guidelines but it will be up to you to find what you like best:
- Under a full moon: Temp 5700-5900 and Tint 30-40
- No moon: Temp 4200-4500 and Tint 50-60
Even if I noticed that it has become a trend lately on Instagram, I do not like those images with very cool or cold tones, which are a sign that the white balance temperature has been brought much lower than these values. On the other hand, a too high value will produce very green or even yellowish auroras, which is also not very appealing in my opinion.
However, the white balance setting that you use for your final images is purely up to your own taste, and the numbers above are just given as indicative values to obtain the most natural look.
Tone and Presence
An image is visually attractive when the light is well balanced. This is what I aim for when I edit northern lights photos. This is often difficult to achieve with the northern lights, due to the often limited dynamic range of most digital camera sensors. It often happens that if your sky and aurora are well exposed, then your foreground would look very dark and unappealing.
I will usually edit my settings so that the sliders look like this.
The tone curve allows you to refine further the contrast of your image. It gives you very fine control on the lightness and darkness of every single part of the image. What you want, is to create an S shaped curve. I usually drag the extremities of the curve away from the corners, as in the screenshot below, to reduce clipping of blacks and highlights.
Of course, one setting does not fit all pictures, and you will have again to play with this to suit your images and tastes. Notice though how subtly the curve is moved.
HSL settings (Hue, Saturation and Luminance)
These sliders give you total control on the hue, saturation and luminance of each colour of your image. I rarely have to change the hue of any colour. However, the saturation and luminance sliders are very useful, especially on the green colour. This allows to reduce the green saturation even further than when you reduced the overall saturation, without affecting the rest of the image.
The trick is to bring the green saturation to a negative value, while slightly augmenting the luminance of the same green.
As you can see above, on this particular image I also played with the blue. This is very useful especially on long spring or autumn evenings, when the aurora appears during the blue hour after sunset. I’ll admit that the difference between HSL on and off is subtle, but I like the ability to remove the “flashy” aspect of the green and blue without touching the rest of the image.
The final section that I use in the Develop module is the Detail one. It allows to increase the sharpness of the image, and reduce the digital noise that’s created by your sensor while using high ISO values in night photography.
After years of trying different settings, I have found that the ones in the screenshot below work best for me for northern lights photography. Again, you have to check that they work with your camera/sensor, but they’re a good place to start.
Export your northern lights images
That’s it, as you can see, it’s not so complicated to edit northern lights photos! When you are happy with all your settings, it is time to export your aurora images, to show them on social media, your website, send to your family on messenger services, you name it. You choose the folder in which you want the photo to be saved, its size, quality, and you’re ready to go.
And as a final word, I show you an unedited raw photo to compare with the final edit.
If you want to know more, just ask in the comments!
And if you missed it, don’t forget to check out the tutorial on how to photograph the northern lights.
And for more inspiration on northern light photos edits, why don’t you check out my stock galleries?
This Post Has 4 Comments
Hello Rayann! Thank you for this tutorial. I use RawTherapee (for Linux, open-source). I kind of have a feeling that the image gets a bit grainy than what I see on camera (not only for auroras). Does the editing tool bring in any difference? I know I still have to learn a lot.
Hi there! I’m sorry but I really don’t know this software, so I’m afraid I can’t give any valuable advice on this :(
Dear Rayann, thank you indeed for sharing your settings for the post processing. I “translated” these into Capture One since I am not working with Lightroom. As you said the settings don’t fit all circumstances but they provided for a solid orientation and starting point. My pics came out very well and they gained so much more in value. I thank you very for that. I also scanned through your stock galleries. Congrats, for those marvelous pictures. Northern Lights can become a passion. Best, Peter Keil-Bruder
Hi Peter, I am glad that you managed to translate these recommendations to Capture One. I have used C1 as well, and the only thing I could not reproduce in the same way was noise reduction, where I think that Lightroom still provides better results. For all other settings, C1 is really the way to go! If the one-off purchase wasn’t that expensive for Canon cameras, I would have already switched.