Editing Northern Lights Photos for Instagram

Recently someone commented on one of my Instagram posts, asking if I used any editing tools. So I thought I'd take you through how I post process my photos for Instagram.

This is just a quick recap of what I normally do, and what I look for when I edit my photos.

Please note that I hardly ever use tools like Adobe Photoshop, and that I'd state clearly if a picture is photoshopped in a way that it looks nothing like it did in reality. My goal with my northern light photography is to show you what it looked like out there in the night, while the aurora was dancing across the sky. 

When I first started posting night photos on my Instagram account, I used to process my photos as if they were to be seen on a big screen or a canvass. Not realizing that this would make the pictures far too dark to really be enjoyed on a small phone screen. And while the way I post process my northern light pictures is ever-changing, there are a few things I always do to make my pictures Instagram ready.

Lightroom (ad)
I always shoot in RAW, something I highly recommend you do too. Sure, it's easier to just shoot in JPEG and be able to use the photos straight from your camera without having to deal with the conversion process. But if you shoot in RAW, the camera will store so much more information about the picture, making it easier to edit and adjust things that didn't turn out quite the way you wanted.

And since I shoot in RAW, all my photos need to be converted before I can post them here on my website, on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. While my camera, a Canon one, came with its own editing tool, I decided to buy Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (affiliate link).

Lightroom, and programs like it, are great tools to help you adjust exposure, white balance, cropping and to make other small adjustments. It's meant to be a bit like developing physical pictures in a a darkroom.

Northern lights - before and after post processing in Lightroom
The before and after - Click on the picture for a larger version.
This was taken with my Canon 6d, with a Sigma 35mm Art lens:
ISO 2500, 1.6 seconds, f/1.6.
Above is the before and after of one of my recent Instagram posts. The biggest difference between the two images, is the color. I'm very lazy when it comes to setting my white balance in the camera, so I normally let the camera make a decision, and then I change it when I develop my pictures.

And my camera tends to go with a warmer white balance than I would have picked, so that's something I always edit during the post processing. I prefer the cooler white balance in my northern light photos, both because the actual aurora I can see has a cooler color than what my camera normally will choose, and because northern light photography is a cold hobby. Most of the time I'll be sitting outside at night during fall, spring or winter for hours and hours. And maybe the cooler colors reflect how I feel at the end of those nights: ice cold! πŸ˜†

After cropping the photo and chancing the white balance, I always enable the lens corrections:
Since this picture was shot with the lens almost wide open, at f/1.6, the corners of the photo are quite dark. But adding the right lens profile to the lens corrections tool will fix problems with distortion, chromatic aberration, vignetting and perspective correction.

After playing around with some of the other settings - my favorites being Clarity, Dehaze, Shadows and Luminance (to reduce noise) - I tend to use a graduated filter to brighten the foreground.

Keep in mind that this is how I edit the pictures for Instagram. I would not do this with pictures I wanted to print, as it adds a lot of noise.

But since most people will look at the Instagram posts on a phone, which is a rather small screen, I want them to see more than a black blob with some green in it.

Just imagine seeing the picture on the left on your phone. It's really hard to make out what it is, right?

So I tend to up the exposure of the whole picture, if needed. After doing that, I add a graduated filter to separate the foreground from the northern lights and increase the exposure of this part of the image even more. It will look horrible and noisy on a big screen. But it will make the picture look better on Instagram.

I hope you've enjoyed this sneak peak into how I post process my images for Instagram. And as always, don't hesitate to ask questions or comments, either here or on my Instagram posts. I always try to reply and help out when I can. Keep in mind that I'm just an amateur who enjoys taking pictures. This is a continuing learning process for me. And I'm so happy that I can share this with you.