By Starlight in ON1 Photo 10

By Star Light – Milky Way Astrophotography Composting in ON1 Photo 10  Final Composite Milky Way Image

Soooo, you know those amazing images you see of the Milky Way with that awesome foreground and the caption next to it says…Lit by Starlight. OK ehheemmm. OK sorry to break this to you but, well, They are 100% bull@#$%…Yep. Having spent many a night during a New Moon (No Moon) out in the middle of the desert. I can tell you, the stars don’t light up much. In fact you don’t really know how dark  dark is till you’ve done just that.

Now that’s not to say you can’t get an image of a scene lit by just starlight. It is VERY possible. But you need a very long exposure to do so. The problem with that is…well stars move…ok not really, but the Earth rotates so you really have only a maximum of about 30 seconds to capture stars before they become streaks in the sky. Which, when shooting the Milky Way, most often you do not. Now of course there are other ways such as shooting with a small low crescent moon, light painting and a few other methods. But most want to bypass those for something easier

So how are these amazing shots done? Well, people “cheat”. So now all you people just starting out in photography can rest easy…No, you don’t suck. People cheat. And they do so by compositing (or Blending cuz it sounds nicer) two or more images. The thing is, these days compositing is something done very often in photography. It’s just become the norm so it’s something that I (being old school) have just had to accept. In my work, though rare, I’ve done it. I have a few shots that are composited, but in my case I always say so or at least the images are labeled “Fantasy Image”.

In a way it’s not all that much cheating really. It may actually show more of how our eyes see. It may be possible for our eyes to see more light on the foreground than our cameras can pick up, but then again, the camera can pick up more of the Milky Way than our eyes see. So in a way it might just be replicating what our eyes see. I’m just saying, it’s NOT what the camera sees. But that may just be the perfect justification.

 How you feel about it is up  to you. BUT, if you are ok with it or if you wish to be like me and state what they really are, I’m going to show you how they are done or at least one way to achieve them in ON1 Photo 10. If you have Lightroom only, you know the need of another program to do Layers and Composting, On1 Photo 10 gives you that ability at a reasonable non-subscription price.

This tutorial assumes you have a basic knowledge of working in ON1, either earlier versions or the current 10.5. If you don’t, here are the basics from Matt Kloskowski and yes if you want to do the image editing part in Lightroom, that’s perfectly fine too, but you will need ON1 Photo 10 to do the layers and masking needed to do composites or blends.

If you don’t know how to shoot the Milky Way, I explain how here

Let’s get started on our composite

To do this we need two images. A Foreground and the Milky Way Sky. Mine were shot out at Joshua Tree National Park. The foreground needs to be shot earlier in the day. In my instance I shot it just as the sun set but when there stills was plenty of light. The second shot is shot when the scene has the peak of the Milky Way visible. On this  night it was about an hour after Astronomical Dusk (get the app “Sol” to tell you what time that is) In August when this was shot that is a peak time in my area of the world. There are advantages to compositing in that you can now have two points of focus and you can also have more control of DOF. In my two images, the Background was focused at infinity and shot at f/2.8. The foreground was focused on the subject (still infinity due to a 14mm lens) and f/16.

Now, the way I like to do things is that I want both my shots of the same exact scene. I want a tripod set up and not moved and take both images from the exact same spot just at different times. That would be my ideal. Unfortunately, It didn’t really work out as I hoped that evening  thanks to a bad compass app. So just remember if your life depends on it, you may not want a Compass App to find your way…Grrrr. So what happened was  where I needed the milky way to be was further to my right than I thought and  so therefore I did have to shift my tripod to the right. Stuff happens.

These are the two starting images

Foreground Image

Foreground Image

This image gives you a pretty good idea of  what foreground elements look like in reality in a single shot. Nothing but a silhouette

Background Image

Background Image


To start off we want to bring these images in ON1 Photo 10 as a layered document. You can do this in the standalone but I prefer using Lightroom as my browser so it takes a little bit of a different workflow. Select your two images in Lightroom  then go up to File> Plug In Extras > Open as Layers in ON1 Photo 10 Layers. Photo 10 will open and your two images will be stacked as two layers in a single image. You can drag the layers in the layers panel to put which ever layer you want on top. I prefer the Foreground on top.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 12.40.49 PM

We have a lot of things to do here but the first thing I want to do is do my masking because  with the foreground image as it is currently, it’s much easier to make a mask now than later when lines of contrast may not be as apparent.

So grabbing the Quick Mask Brush I make quick work of masking out that blue sky. Working back and forth with the Paint In and Paint out brushes and then touching up the refinements with the Refine Edge tool , I get a great mask to mask out the sky to reveal the layer below (Milky Way Sky)

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 12.43.14 PM

Things don’t look that great yet so now is where we need to work on the two images to make them  blend together like they were shot all at once.

The first thing I want to do is work on the Milky Way sky background because that will determine our tone for the foreground, much easier to work this way.

I’m going to hide the top layer (click the eye)

Please note something, I don’t really want to give you a formula or a recipe for this. Like we always say, every image is different so what works for this  may not work for yours. It’s to give you thought and hopefully free thought so you use your artistic eye and opinion on what you want to see. It’s merely to give you an idea of things to think about and keep in mind when processing through.

So working on the Background Milky Way, I first turn to an Enhance Layer ( I like using smart layers but you don’t have to) by clicking on the enhance icon. ModulesHere I took down the highlights completely and boosted the white level completely to try to bring out as much of the nebula as possible, unfortunately this brings up the light pollution from 50 mile away Palm Springs but we will deal with that a bit later. I then brought down the black point to add some definition to it all. It was also at this point I chose to deal with some of the inherent noise with high ISO/long exposures, so I went down to the Noise Reduction module and made adjustments – looking at 100% view – to find the best balance of reduced nose without losing detail.

Next I want to do some detail enhancements to the background so I turned to an Effects Layer and I used Filters under Dynamic Contrast  and chose the Grunge Filter, it wasn’t quite right so I used the controls within that filter preset to modify it’s adjustment till it looked best for me. The final thing I did was to go to the adjustment brush filter and used a bit of desaturation and exposure to  bring down the bright area of light pollution we talked about earlier.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 12.55.11 PM

With that done, I now have Enhance Layers and Effects layers on the background now it’s time to fine tune the foreground to make it look like it “might” have been shot at the same time as the background.

I again turned first to an enhance layer and brought down the exposure, but we have to be aware of a couple things that relate to how our eyes see when it’s dark. In the first place our eyes are more sensitive to blue in low light so to compensate for that I cooled off the image quite a bit using the Temperature slider. Secondly, overall our eyes are less sensitive to color itself so I also desaturated the foreground image a  bit using the saturation slider.

Next with that enhance layer made I now went to the effects layer for the foreground and wanted some enhancement just to make the foreground fit better with the background. For this I found using the Tone Enhancer Filter set to Mid-tone Darken, brought things just about where I wanted.

The final stage, which I REALLY should have done first is to use the Move tool to align the images more to my liking and then I used the clone tool to take the airplane strobe trail out of the image.

I made one final adjustment to just darken the foreground a bit more and was mostly pleased with the image

Here’s the final composite image:

Final Composite Milky Way Image

Now as Composting goes you can take an image anywhere you want it to go but this was just some fast, easy, clean workflows to a pleasing “Fantasy” image. Some may want the foreground lighter, some darker. For me I thought this the most realistic to how you can see after about an hour in the dark and your eyes adjust and you get night vision and also when there is some light in the sky due to light pollution which is the case in Joshua Tree NP from nearby Palm Springs.

Hope that is enough to het you started.

Cheers, PT

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  1. Marty July 8, 2016 at 1:32 am #

    Yup. It (obvious composites being passed off as single shots) is so prevalent these days, I don’t get irritated any more – I just shake my head and move on. I heard that even Lik tried to pass his “Bella Luna” off as a single shot when it was first released. Tch tch tch.
    But on the upbeat side, thanks for sharing your work flow. I like to see how others process star shots – gives me some alternatives when I do mine. Had not considered On1 10 (I do most of my work in native LR/PS) – I’ll have to give On1 a try.

    • Peter July 8, 2016 at 10:22 am #

      Thanks Marty,
      Yeah, I have to just understand that it is what it is and everyone has a different vision and the only thing I can do is ti help them the best way I can to fulfill that vision. Thanks for always haveing a good word to say and taking the time to comment. Always deeply appreciated !