Milky Way Blending with Nick Page

Nick Page just did a great webinar on processing Milky Way and Aurora images with Rafael Pons of PhotoPills. During their talk, Nick discusses what makes for strong images, camera techniques, and how he uses Lumenzia to create luminosity masks and bring out the best in challenging night skies.

Note that if you want to jump right to his exposure blending, you can see that around 45, 58, and 80 minutes into the video.

A few quick tips you can take away from Nick’s demonstration:

  • Processing your image multiple times and blending them together with luminosity masks is a great way to adjust your foreground and sky independently to get the most from your RAW files. You can see this around 4o minutes into the video.
  • Customize your luminosity mask preview by double-clicking the levels adjustment layer to bring in the white and black sliders to help further isolate the sky from the foreground. You can see this at the 45:30 mark.
  • You can also customize the luminosity mask preview by color easily by double-clicking the orange “Color Conversion” layer and adjusting the sliders to select more or less of specific colors you wish to include or exclude. You can see this at 59 minutes.

Nick also has an excellent collection of tutorials to go deeper on a wide range of landscape topics.

How to remove hot pixels from long exposures

In long exposure and low light photography you’re faced with noise and potentially “hot pixels“. While noise is frustrating, hot pixels are devastating. If they aren’t removed, the image is severely affected for any close viewing or printing. Traditional noise reduction techniques aren’t designed to fix hot pixels and cloning potentially thousands of bad pixels individually from an image is no one’s idea of a good time. Thankfully, there’s a must simpler fix and you’ll learn all about it in this week’s tutorial.

To remove hot pixels with the Dust & Scratches Filter:

  • Duplicate your layer (or image via ctrl/cmd-alt/option-shift-E) or convert it to a Smart Object to work non-destructively.
  • Go to Filter / Noise / Dust & Scratches.
  • Zoom in to at least 100% and start with both sliders to the far left.
  • Increase the radius slider by one at a time until you find the smallest number that gets rid of most or all hot pixels. Do no go above this, as you will lose only lose image detail. This is typically 2-4.
  • Increase the threshold slider until you find the largest number that does not re-introduce the hot pixels. This slider helps restore detail and grain in the image. Typically 5-10 is a good number, but you may go higher. Click OK when done.
  • This filter is safe to apply to color nearly everywhere, but needs to be applied judiciously to the luminosity in areas of detail. So use the following two-prong fix:
    • Create a duplicate of the fix and set one copy to “color” blend mode.
    • For the “normal” blend mode version, add a black layer mask and then paint white to reveal the full fix as needed. Use selections to help make the painting faster and more precise.
  • There may be a few stubborn hot pixels that aren’t removed by the filter. Just create a blank new layer and use the spot healing brush (set to sample all layers) to finish.

 

If you’re working on night images, this is also a great way to fix the foreground. If you’re trying to clean up a starry sky, you might wish to apply this more selectively with a brush or using color options in Lumenzia in order to avoid applying this filter on stars (since it will suppress them).

How to Use Content-Aware Scale in Photoshop

Photoshop contains a lot of hidden gems. One of them is certainly the “Content-Aware Scale” (CAS) tool. This feature is perfect for expanding the sky or background, scaling the image to fit a specific form factor for sharing online or printing, or even shrinking the image (such as to turn a regular image into a panoramic format).

CAS offers two incredible advantages over simply enlarging or shrinking your image. First, it is an intelligent tool that does a pretty good job on its own of preserving the most important detail rather than blindly changing the size of everything. Second, and this is where things get really powerful, it lets you directly specify which areas to protect and which can be stretched or compressed. In this tutorial, you’ll see just how powerful it can be, learn the basic workflow to use it, and some advanced techniques for pushing it to the limits.

 

Note that I push the second demo image to the extreme by converting a lanscape image to a square crop. This can be useful for posting to a platform like Instagram. But regardless of whether you would personally change this image in this way, the key lesson is that you can substantially enlarge your sky with the right workflow when needed.

 

The general CAS workflow is:

  1. Create a selection of the area you wish to protect. A rectangular marquee works very well. Alternatively, you may wish to use Quick Select on the sky and then invert to target the foreground. Don’t worry about being pixel perfect with the selection, you just need a reasonable target to get good results.
  2. Save the selection as a channel via the Channels Panel or Select / Save Selection. It helps to rename the channel here to find later it in the steps below.
  3. Deselect via <ctrl/cmd>-D. If you leave the selection active, you only transform the selected area and won’t get good results.
  4. If you are enlarging the image, expand the canvas with the crop tool (<C>). Leave the “content-aware” box unchecked in the crop tool. If you are trying to hit a target aspect ratio, enter value in the crop box and you’ll be able to use it to both visually crop in one dimension while expand to fill the other.
  5. If your target layer is locked (including background layer), click the lock icon to unlock the layer.
  6. Go to Edit / Content-Aware Scale.
  7. Change the “Protect” dropdown from “none” to your saved selection.
  8. <shift>-click and drag to scale the image without being constrained to the original proportions. Watch out for artifacts with significant resizing, especially in the main subject or areas you cannot easily clone.
  9. You may wish to compare setting “protect” to none or try a few different selections to see which produces the best result, especially when you are first learning the tool or working with complicated images.
  10. Click the check mark when you are finished.
  11. Delete your saved selection by dragging it to the trashcan in the Channels Panel. Keeping it increases the saved file size.
  12. If you were not able to stretch as far as you needed. You have several options:
    • Use the double-stretching technique below to repair artifacts that show up with large stretches.
    • Use Content-Aware Crop to expand further at this point (without adding artifacts to your existing work).**
    • OR, use a little Content-Aware Crop BEFORE you use CAS. In this workflow, you expand the canvas a little (within the limits of what the cropping tool does well) and then expand it further using CAS. This is a great approach that often works best by making the most of two great tools.
    • Use the spot healing brush, regular healing brush, or clone stamp. This works well when there are just a few artifacts or they are mostly in simple areas like clouds.
    • Use a Edit / Transform or Image / Image Size to finish expanding. This will affect the entire image, but you’re working from a better starting point than using these tools directly on the original image.

** You can of course increase the sky using just the content-aware crop tool without CAS. This has the advantage of simplicity as you don’t have to create a channel. It also avoids any stretching of the original image and only fills in the expanded canvas. It’s a great tool for slight expansions or for images where you absolutely want to avoid stretching or distortion. However, it can create strange artifacts and CAS often excels for more significant expansions. CAS can also be used for shrinking/compressing the image as well. Ultimately, they are both great tools and using them together is often an ideal way to get the best results.

 

If you push CAS too far, you are going to run into artifacts. If you run into more significant artifacts, you can use some creative blending to things work in order to achieve greater enlargement. As shown in the tutorial above, the following double-stretching technique is a great workflow to push the limits with CAS:

  1. Duplicate your original layer and then use the CAS workflow above on one of the layers. You’ll use the other layer for the rest of the steps below to create a stretched version without artifacts in your subject.
  2. Put the unstretched layer on top, change it to “difference” blend mode, and use <ctrl/cmd>-T to transform it. As with the CAS tool, hold <shift> to resize without constraint. The goal here is to stretch this copy until it covers the edge where the subject meets the sky (and the difference blend mode will help you easily assess the alignment). The transform tool will not create artifacts, so this is your clean copy and you just need to blend it into the CAS version now.
  3. When it is aligned, accept the changes and switch back to “normal” blend mode.
  4. Add a white layer mask to your cleanly transformed layer.
  5. If you want to protect the subject when blending, create a selection of the sky and contract/feather it.
  6. Now paint black on that layer mask to hide the clean sky. This will reveal the CAS sky and eliminate any edges shown between the two.
  7. If you have any artifacts in the CAS sky, you should be able to easily fix them with the spot healing tool.

Create beautiful web-sharpened images with grain

I’ve received a lot of great feedback and suggestions since I originally launched my free web sharpening utility. My friend Suhail had an excellent suggestion to add the ability to add some grain to the final output. This can help give the finished image a bit of a dreamy, nostalgic quality that is reminiscent of shooting with film. In this tutorial you’ll learn how you can easily use the new version to add some grain while creating perfectly sharpened images for the web.

 

Controls for grain include:

  • Amount: Controls the amount of grain applied overall. 7-15% is typically ideal. Set to 0% to disable grain.
  • Size: Controls grain particle size. 25% is the default. Try much higher values to make the grain look softer / less noisy (note that values >25% may slightly blur the image detail).
  • Roughness: Controls the regularity / uniformity of the grain. 50% is default and often ideal. Try higher values if you want a slightly textured look (this may appear blotchy on very smooth areas).

For ultimate control, hold <ctrl/cmd> while clicking “Sharpen” to leave a layered version of the image open. This allows you to control the local sharpening and grain using the following workflow:

  1. Optimize the grain on the sharpened layer by double-clicking the “Camera RAW Filter” on the top layer, heading to “Effects” and adjusting the grain, size, and roughness. This allows you to optimize these sliders visually. It is best to do this first, as the grain affects the apparent sharpness and therefore affects how much you might paint on the masks.
  2. Use a soft brush (and selections as needed) to paint dark gray on the filter mask in areas where you wish to reduce grain. Using dark grey paint (rather than black) helps ensure you retain a minimum amount of grain in all parts of the image.
  3. Use a soft brush (and selections as needed) to paint black on the layer mask in areas where you wish to reduce sharpening (as this will allow the “no sharpening” layer to be visible from below).
  4. You may now wish to apply the same grain values from the sharpened layer to the “no sharpening” layer. Failure to do so may reveal inconsistent results or may look noisy if the underlying area retains grain you just removed.
    • Duplicate the Filter Mask so that the areas that get grain are consistent between the layers. Hold down <alt/option> and then click and drag the top filter mask down over the lower layer. You may continue painting on the Filter Mask if you need to further reduce grain, but that’s generally not necessary. **
    • If you significantly adjusted the values in ACR, you may also wish to apply the same slider values to the lower layer. A quick way to do that is to delete or hide (click the eyeball icon) the existing Camera RAW Filter and then hold <alt/option> to click and drag from the top layer to the bottom to duplicate the filter just like you did with the mask. **

** When duplicating masks or filters in Photoshop, you must hold down <alt/options> BEFORE to click and drag. If you start holding that key after clicking, it will be ignored and you will move the mask/filter instead of duplicating it.

 

For a more complete demo on the web sharpening utility, please see the original tutorial and demo. This script has received several bug fixes and enhancements since the original launch and you may read more about them in the version history text file in the download.

Perfect Finishing Touches with Nik Color Efex Pro

Want to take a good landscape image and give it a couple of finishing touches that will make it perfect? I love using Nik Color Efex Pro (CEP) to make my images pop in Photoshop. It has a handful of extremely useful and easy to use filters to help get exactly the right enhancements. And you can use it on Smart Objects to work non-destructively to keep your options wide open.

In this this tutorial, you’ll learn how to use CEP, which filters you should use, and how to optimize them to their full potential. If you don’t already have CEP, it is part of the recently updated Nik Collection 3 from DXO. You can get a free demo of CEP and the whole collection, which also includes tools for black and white (Silver Efex Pro), sharpening, noise reduction (Dfine), precise color adjustment (Viveza), distortion correction (Perspective Efex), and more.

 

Here’s the basic workflow:

  1. Convert to a Smart Object.
    • Smart Objects are much better than working with flattened layers. This gives you the freedom to come back and make changes to any settings you choose in Nik (filters, slider settings, control points, etc), as well as perfectly preserving all the layers you already created. This way you can change any of the work you previously did and everything will automatically update when you’re done. You will inevitably find something you want to clone out, change your mind on color balance, or some other tweak that will be so much easier to do with this non-destructive workflow.
    • To do this, <shift>-click to select all your layers, then right-click and choose “Convert to a Smart Object”.
  2. Start CEP by going to Filter / Nik Collection / Color Efex Pro.
  3. Choose the first filter you want to use.
    • This is best done via the “Favorites” tab on the left after clicking the stars on your favorite filters (the best ones are listed below). After experimentation, you’ll probably setting on just a few that you use over and over.
    • Adjust the filter as needed per recommendations below.
  4. Use the “control points” to apply the filters locally where they enhance the image and avoid causing unwanted changes elsewhere.
  5. Click Add Filter to keep adding more effects. Be sure to do this before clicking on another filter or you will accidentally replace the current one with another. If you make this mistake, just undo and then add a new filter.

 

Some general tips:

  • Control points are used to apply a given filter locally (like an invisible layer mask)
    • No matter how many control points you use, they all use the same master slider settings for your filter. If you want to use different filter values in different parts of the image, click the “add filter” and add the same filter again with different settings and control points.
    • Control points only do two things: set opacity of a given filter and determine where it is applied in the image.
      • The opacity of a given filter is controlled by the lower o slider when you add a point. Click and drag it left or right to change opacity of the filter at that control point. By default, a + control point starts at 100% opacity and a – control point starts at 0% opacity.
      • The placement of a given control point determines not only where in the image to apply the filter, but it also tries to automatically select similar neighboring pixels. Effectively, this is form of luminosity masking within the Nik filters (not the same as luminosity masks in general, as controls are limited and you can’t apply this outside Nik). So placing it on white water will affect other bright areas, but not shadows. And there is a radius control, which you can set by clicking and dragging the top slider.
      • The master “opacity” slider in in the the filter itself determines the default opacity for any part of the image not affected by a control point. It starts at 100%, but will be switched to 0% for you if you add a + control point first (as this is the only way for other parts of the image not to get the filter).
      • You can view the hidden mask created by your control points by clicking the triangle to open the list of control points and then clicking the little box with a dot to the far right. Just like layer masks in Photoshop, white shows where the filter is revealed and black is where it is concealed.
    • <alt/option>-click to duplicate a control point. This is a very handy way to target in more complex ways, such as increasing tonal selection or expanding the selection in a way that isn’t uniformly round.
    • <shift>-click and drag to select multiple control points at once so that you can change all their slider values at once or delete all (via <del> key).
  • Double-click any slider to set it to its default value.
  • You can change the order the filters are applied by clicking and dragging their titles.
  • You can delete an unused filter by clicking the “x” right of its title.
  • You can undo via <ctrl/cmd>-Z. There is no “redo”.
  • It helps to compare before and after, and there are a few good ways to do this:
    • Click the “compare” button at the top to see before and after.
    • Alternatively, click the split preview button at top and then move the red vertical line where you like to see before and after at the same time. You can click and drag to wipe it back and fore to compare as well.
    • Use the check mark by the filters to turn individual filters off and on. This is very helpful when working with multiple filters.
    • This is especially helpful to do at the end to ensure you haven’t overdone things, which is easy to do when you keep making incremental changes.
  • Use the typical <ctrl/cmd> + and – to zoom and <space> for the hand tool to move around while zoomed in.

 

Tips for using the best filters:

  • Tonal Contrast
    • This allows you to make targeted contrast adjustments for shadows, midtones and highlights.
    • Start by setting all the sliders to 0 and then moving them one at a time to get a feel for what each affects in your image. In general, the midtones slider is typically the most useful.
  • Pro Contrast
    • This gives you nice control over local contrast via the Dynamic Contrast slider.
    • The other sliders are something you should use as often, but try them to get a feel for how they affect your image.
  • Detail Extractor
    • This can be a great tool for showing increased shadow detail at the default values. It ultimately acts like an HDR tone compressor and will try to create maximum local contrast.
    • Adjust the Detail Extractor slider for the desired amount of effect, and you should generally leave the rest at default values.
  • Glamor Glow
    • This is a great way to add glow and drama to the sun.
    • To get a sense of the sun emanating from the sky: place a large + control point at the center of the brightest part of the sky, then make duplicates around it to help target a range of tones.
    • You may then try increasing Glow for more intensity in the sun. This is one of the rare times when you might wish to increase the Shadows slider, which helps enforce a minimum black to avoid crushing the shadows.
    • Increasing the Glow Warmth is often also helpful to add color to the sky
    • Saturation may be helpful, but don’t overdo it.
  • Foliage
    • This can be useful for enhancing soft forest greens.
    • Change the Method for different colors and Enhance Foliage for the amount. Don’t overdo it, as you will lose the subtle color variation the image probably needs to look natural.
  •  Sunlight
    • This filter also lets you add add glow and drama to the sky. It’s a bit confusing to learn, as there is no set of slider values where the filter is not adjusting the image.
    • Light Strength creates a sense of glow by lightening the shadows, while Brightness affects overall brightness.
    • Temperature, Contrast, and Saturation do pretty much what you’d expect.
    • Watch out for color casts outside the sky if you increase Saturation.
    • To get a sense of the sun emanating from the sky: place a large + control point at the center of the brightest part of the sky, then make duplicates around it to help target a range of tones.
  • White Neutralizer
    • This is a great way to help minimize color casts, especially ones you may create via CEP.
    • Click the color sampler and then click on a neutral gray in the image. This will determine a white balance correction that tries to make the target color gray, while everything else moves a relative amount (ie, you are not desaturating, just applying a custom white balance).
    • Neutralize Whites controls the amount of correction.
    • Adjust Whole Image is used to create the equivalent of a color range mask. Slide to the left for precise correction of the just the sampled color or to the right to affect the entire range of colors in the image.
  • Brilliance / Warmth
    • The warmth slider is a great way to tweak the overall white balance in the image. (I generally leave the other sliders at 0).
    • Like the Skylight Filter, this is often best done as one of the last filters.
  • Skylight Filter
    • This simple slider lets you increase sunset color.
    • Its often best to add this filter to the bottom of the stack, so that you can optimize color at once without further changes from other filters.
  • The rest of the filters can generally be ignored for landscape work (skin softener may be helpful for portraits, and many of the other filters can be used for stylistic effects on abstract work).
  • It is often best to use these filters in the same order they are listed here (or at least to apply tonal changes before color changes).
  • Don’t use them all or push them too hard, a little goes a long way.

 

Be sure to take advantage of their free trial of CEP and the Nik Collection (look for the little yellow text link towards the bottom of the initial page).

 

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