When we look up into the night sky with our naked eyes, we can see faint light sources with the occasional moon or perhaps a sighting of a nearby planet if we’re lucky. While with the help of the best cameras for astrophotography, we can see the much fainter glows of nebulae and galaxies, even the best telescopes and best binoculars can't reveal all the subtle colors and patterns that enhancement in photo editing apps can.
Using photo editing apps can transform your astro images into masterpieces by bringing out hidden elements in them. Whilst some might consider using the best photo apps to edit images to be cheating, it isn't. it’s just an extra means of polishing the finished product beyond what can be achieved in-camera.
Even if the photographer weren't to use any apps but used in-camera filters, cropping or stacking, that is still a form of editing. Photo editing apps really can be an astrophotographer's best friend and such software has shot up in popularity in the digital photography community.
There are a host of different photo editing apps on the market, of varying abilities and tools, especially when it comes to the specific requirements of astrophotography. We've included off-the-shelf software that can be modified to meet the needs of astrophotographers, some do this better than others. Here are the best photo editing apps for astrophotography that we'd recommend you try.
Adobe Lightroom: Best photo editing app overall
Lightroom is essentially a raw image organizing, cataloging, and developing app aimed at professionals who can dump their memory cards into it at the end of the day, and quickly get a catalog of the day’s shooting with geotags and facial recognition. They can search and rate files to select the best ones. and come back to them later. This is what makes Lightroom different from many other editing apps.
The raw files can then be enhanced in the Develop Module. The user has creative control over contrast, brightness and color saturation to name a few. There’s also the option to smooth out lens idiosyncrasies such as vignetting and distortions. From here, a high-quality JPEG image can be exported and shared.
However, it’s perfectly possible to use Lightroom differently. Its workflow is completely non-destructive, so you’re always left with your original file as a kind of digital negative rather than overwriting the original. Your changes are only made permanent when you export a new image, and even then your original image is safe.
You don’t have to work with raw files either, though astrophotographers may like to because of the increased color depth that’s captured. Lightroom also excels at batch processing images, so all 300 of your star trail images can be loaded in, automatically edited (kind of like copy and pasting the same settings onto each image), then exported to another app for stacking.
Adobe Photoshop CC: Best for large projects
Like Lightroom, Photoshop CC is the app most copied by other image-editing software. It is the industry-standard photo editing app, used extensively around the world, and as such, a great tool for the astrophotographer.
Photoshop’s method of editing is based on selections and layers, meaning you can, for example, select only the sky in an image and edit this separately from the land. Selections can be automatically identified as they can be identified using Adobe Sensei, cloud AI tech that allows the subject of a photo to be accurately selected just by choosing a menu option phenomenal. Of course, it can also be painstakingly manually created like in the good old days.
Layers allow you to build up complex effects. Think of them as a vertical stack of acetate sheets ready to go on an overhead projector and you won’t go far wrong. Layers can be moved around, blended, painted on, completely hidden, or have holes cut in them, and for something like a star trail image that merges hundreds of slightly different photos, or reveals the soft light of a nebula from many stacked frames of the same thing, they are essential.
Affinity Photo: Budget option for astro enthusiasts
Serif Software’s rival to Photoshop takes Adobe’s selection and layer method of photo editing and applies it directly to night-sky images through its Astrophotography Stack persona (the personas are Photo’s way of reconfiguring its user interface for specific tasks, it has one for exporting images, another for decoding raw files, and so on).
At its simplest, this means you can import light and calibration frames into Affinity Photo, then click a button and have them automatically stacked, ready to be moved to the app’s main Photo persona for color editing and image sharpening. Advanced users can delve much deeper into the options, to the extent of manually choosing the Bayer pattern used during raw decode, or using frame analysis to reject those with star trailing or other flaws.
There's a dedicated 'Remove Background' filter which is a nice astro-specific feature. If a background color cast has crept into your images, this feature will help the sky between the stars return to black.
Luminar AI: Best for speedy editing
Skylum, the developer of Luminar, has taken a slightly different line on image-editing than Adobe and many of the other software houses in the sector. It prefers to provide a series of pre-set ‘looks’ (much like Instagram filters) that you can apply to your image, scale them to achieve the look you want, and even apply these looks selectively. This makes it easy to apply changes to the entire image, or just the sky, and there are AI tools that can creatively alter your pictures in ways you may not have considered.
Traditional image-editing tools are available to you, but they aren’t the application’s core function. It also suffers from a bit of fragmentation, with Luminar 4 and Luminar AI being joined by the recently announced but not yet available Luminar Neo. The company has since ‘retired’ Luminar 4 but insisted in an online briefing that Neo is somehow not its replacement.
So which version you get depends on what you want. Luminar AI is a user-friendly, faster app built around the company’s AI tools, while Neo will take center stage as the company’s flagship product, bringing a new editing engine and the ability to create more refined images. It’s a complicated situation entirely of Skylum’s making, so be sure to read up on exactly what you’re buying before you make any downloads.
PhotoDirector 13: Best for beginners
To call PhotoDirector 13 feature-packed would be an understatement, and we must surely be approaching the limit in the number of ways an image file can be poked, prodded, shrunk, stretched, and generally messed with. We’re not there yet though, as we’re sure the next version will have even more tools and functions, but it makes you wonder how many more features can be squeezed into one app and how many of them are effectively utilized.
For an astrophotographer, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. PhotoDirector 13 is a beginner-friendly application that can turn its hand to editing just about any image, astro included, but its attempts to appeal to as many people as possible make it tricky to whittle down to the tools you need for editing your night-sky shots.
For this, it's a one-off fee much like its rivals but you can also purchase a subscription version (PhotoDirector 365) which is more expensive but it does give you 50GB of cloud storage for the duration of your subscription.
Adobe Photoshop Elements: Best for amateurs
Elements is the scaled-back, beginner-friendly, version of Photoshop aimed at beginners and enthusiastic amateurs rather than professionals. The differences are stark, especially in the way you pay for it. Adobe’s Creative Cloud apps - that’s Photoshop and Lightroom on this list - are subscription software. That means you pay a set amount each month (which is pretty reasonable for what you get), and if you stop paying the software stops working. The payback for this is that you always have the very latest version of the application, with bug fixes and features being continuously updated.
With Elements, which also has a video-editing brother called Premiere Elements, you pay a one-off fee. For that, you might get a couple of big fixing updates, but next year there will be a new version of the app available that you’ll need to buy again if you want to make use of any new features. Lightroom and Photoshop are available in the good-value Photographer’s Bundle, so to buy Elements instead you’d need a good reason. That may be the app’s ability to teach you image editing through its Guided mode, or maybe you strongly believe in being able to keep your software without having to pay a subscription.
Even though Photoshop’s layer and selection approach is replicated almost perfectly here, along with some neat new Sensei AI features, there's not much on offer to specifically attract astrophotographers.
ACDSee: Best for organization
Corel PaintShop Pro: Best for learning techniques
Paintshop Pro, a long-time member of the image-editing club, takes a similar layer-based editing approach to Photoshop. There's raw image support, and it’s starting to get the kind of AI and content-aware tools that can make all the difference to astrophotos.
Whilst the app has a specialist workspace with custom tools for editing underwater photos and those taken by drone, night-sky shots, unfortunately, don’t get the same kind of attention. When used as a more general-purpose image editing app, there are plenty of tools and effects that can be used to enhance your astro images, even if they aren't specifically tailored to this kind of photography. This is particularly true of its noise reduction tools. As we know, night sky photography sometimes involves pushing the camera’s ISO uncomfortably high.
DxO Photolab: Best for noise reduction
Photolab can be considered a digital darkroom rather than a full-fledged image editing app and has one particular feature that will make astrophotographers happy. Its AI-powered DeepPRIME noise reduction. Along with the haze-reducing Clearview tool, it can effectively improve the contrast and color saturation of your deep-sky images. There's comprehensive lens correction too, to smooth out the distortion added to images by camera lenses, particularly ultrawide-angles.
You’ll need to shoot in raw, though. The additional color depth provided by these unprocessed files is always welcome, but some find the extra strain on their computer's processor, and the requirement for more storage space makes shooting in JPEG a more attractive option.
Advanced users will be able to install Photolab as a plugin for Lightroom, so they can spend most of their time there but transfer over to Photolab to utilize its impressive AI tools.
Capture One Pro: Best for powerful editing tools
Another app that follows the Lightroom template rather than the Photoshop one, Capture One Pro makes tethered and studio photography its specialty, and is noted for the high quality of its raw image decoding. It is also compatible with a wide range of other image formats, including the HEIC files produced by recent iPhones.
It’s aimed at the professionals, however, once you’ve got to grips with it, it’s uniquely powerful, bringing together the best of Lightroom and Photoshop (with its adjustment layer-based editing system). It does have a ‘learn’ feature which makes it a little less intimidating for beginners by providing a set of tutorials.
Capture One is expensive. You could get two or more of the other apps for the same price, so if you have a rare or rather expensive camera, it might be the only option or at least very useful. However, for those using Canons, Nikons, Sonys and the other big names, it might not be worth the extra cash.