How To Shoot The Aurora: How to Edit Northern Lights Photos

This post is part of a series called See The Aurora
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Part 4: How to Edit Northern Lights Photos.

This is the final installment of my ‘How to Shoot the Aurora’ series, where I explain what is aurora, what gear you need to capture the aurora, how to shoot it, and how to edit your aurora photos. This post covers how to edit your photos of the northern lights.

Aurora season in the northern hemisphere is beginning! Traveling to see the northern (or southern) lights is a big draw to polar destinations like Alaska, Antarctica, Finland, Greenland and more! Want to take trip to see the northern lights? This guide will give you all the information you need!

Are you planning a trip to the high latitudes (or super low lats)? This guide series will give you all the tips, tricks and a step-by-step list of how to shoot the aurora on you’re very own.

Want to catch up on the first part of this ‘How to Shoot the Aurora‘ series? Check out ‘What is Aurora?‘. Not sure what gear you should be using? Read ‘Aurora Photography Gear‘ to find out the must-haves and check out my last post: How to Shoot the Aurora.

*This post contains affiliate links.

So, you’ve gone out all night and want to process your images?

The rest of this guide will explain how to edit northern lights photos. This will require use of Adobe Lightroom to process your images. Of course these steps are suggestions and can be loosely applied to your tastes. Not everyone likes the same editing. I don’t really enjoy editing photos and try to keep my editing daily minimal.

*Click images to enlarge if you need to see closer up!

Step 1: Import your raw file to Lightroom and click develop.

Drag and drop your file into Lightroom, then click ‘Import’ in the Lower right corner. After it has been imported select the Image and click the ‘Develop’ tab in the upper right. This is where you begin to edit northern lights photos.

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Optional Step: Adjust White Balance.

If you need to adjust your white balance click in the right tool bar under ‘Basic’ where it says ‘WB:’ and a drop down menu appears. Play around and see what they look like. I find that I normally don’t mess with the white balance.

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Step 2: Adjust your exposure.

I habitually under expose my photos. I normally will need to increase my exposure a little in processing. Adjust the exposure until it looks as bright as you’d like. Be careful to not increase too much as it will blow out certain aspects of your photo.

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Step 3: Dehaze.

Now scroll down to ‘Effects’ and move the ‘Dehaze’ slider up until it is to your liking. You may need to go and adjust the exposure again. Many times I’ll go back and increase the exposure a little more. Play around with it.

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Step 4: Adjust highlights and shadows.

I typically will bring my shadows up to lighten up my foreground and bring the highlights down when I edit northern lights photos. Remember how dark the foreground was in the original photo? Bringing up the shadows brings out the foreground. Of course there may be situations where you want to bring shadows down if you want the foreground to have more of a silhouetted appearance. I usually will either leave the highlights alone or bring down slightly in a photo.

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Step 5: Bring up contrast.

I personally don’t like too much contrast. Some people like it, other people overdo it in my opinion. Move the slider until you reach your desired effect.

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Step 6: Adjust blacks and whites.

Highlights and Shadows alter a much smaller range within a photo whereas black and whites are more dramatic. I normally leave the whites alone and bring the blacks up, but with that said this all depends on the photo. In some cases I increase the blacks.

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Step 7: Adjust Vibrance and Saturation.

I find this to be better left alone or if you do adjust vibrance and saturation, only adjust it very slightly or minimally. I hate an aurora shot with blown out colors. I prefer to adjust colors individually when I edit northern lights photos, which I will talk about in step 9.

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Step 8: Adjust Clarity.

I typically will bring the clarity up to give the northern lights and my foreground a little more detail. Be careful how much you increase the clarity as it does increase the grain.

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Step 9: Adjust individual colors.

We’re finally leaving the ‘Basic” tab and heading down to the ‘HSL/Color/B&W’ tab. Make sure to click color. More often than not, when you go to edit you northern lights photos you’ll be working with greens. Green is the most common color to see. But increasing the saturation the greens become more intense. If you toggle the hue you can make them look more blue/green or more yellow/green. If you increase the luminance it brightens the greens up. That’s the beauty of the ‘Color’ tab. You can isolate which colors you want to alter with little effect on other colors. You can do this to bring out any colors you want. A word or warning: be careful with saturation. Move it to 100% and see what happens. It just doesn’t look right.

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Step 10: Up ‘Luminesce’ and turn up color luminance.

Now scroll down to the ‘Detail’ tab. I usually will up the ‘Luminence’ under noise reduction to about 20 give or take. I’ll then bring the ‘Color’ up to 100. This will help smoothen things out and help combat/cover up noise when you edit northern lights photos.

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Step 11: Enable Lens Profile Corrections.

Now scroll down to ‘Lens Corrections’. Here you can check the box that says ‘Enable Lens Corrections’. This will correct any distortion from your lens.

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Step 12: Adjustment brush.

Now scroll back up to the top and select the adjustment brush. With this brush you can selectively edit parts of your photo. First, I select the settings I want to alter. In this case I’m going to increase the exposure of the northern lights to make them ‘pop’ in the photo. Next go down to the box below that says ‘Brush’. Here you can change the size of the brush, if it’s feathered or not, and how intense it is. For hand painting details like this, I normally have my flow and density set at 30.

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Step 13: Export, you are done!

The final step is to export! To export hit Command+Shift+E and the dialog box will pop up. Select where you want it export to, the image format (I use JPEG for web and TIF for printing), and change your color space to AdobeRGB (1998). Voila, you’re all finished! You now know how to edit northern lights photos.

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Before and After:

It’s always fun to see when you edit northern lights photos what they look like start to finish side by side.

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I hope this post series helps you to get out there and shoot the aurora and edit your photos as well.

Happy editing!

Remember, this is just a basic guide. You’ll find your own style and what you like as you progress with editing.

Want more tips on how to shoot the aurora?

Check out my other posts in the ‘See the Aurora” series:

What is Aurora?

Aurora Photography Gear.

How to Shoot The Aurora.