The best photo editing apps can transform average snaps into works of photographic art. All kinds of photography benefits from good image editing, especially astrophotographs. When we look up into the night sky with our naked eyes, we can make out faint sources of light, the bright light from the moon, and perhaps a sighting of a nearby planet on a clear night if we’re lucky. But 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 post-shoot editing using photo editing apps can.
Photo editing apps can transform your average-looking astro images into spectacular masterpieces by bringing out hidden elements. While some consider using the best photo apps to edit images to be cheating, that just isn’t the case. As 99% of astrophotographers will be shooting in RAW, the raw data captured will be just that, and often looks dull and lifeless before any editing is done to enhance what’s already there. It’s just an extra means of polishing the finished product beyond the in-camera shot.
Even if the photographer only employed the in-camera filters, cropping, or stacking, that is still a form of editing. Photo editing apps can be an astrophotographer’s best friend, and editing software has shot up in popularity in the digital photography community.
Many different photo editing apps are available, with varying abilities and tools which need consideration, especially regarding astrophotography’s specific requirements. In this guide, 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.
Best photo editing apps for astrophotography 2023
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Aiming at professionals, Lightroom is primarily a raw image organizing, cataloging, and developing tool. Users can dump their memory cards into it at the end of the day to quickly get a database of the shots taken that day with geotags and facial recognition. They can search and rate files to select the best ones and return to them later. This is what makes Lightroom different from many other editing apps.
When it comes to editing in Lightroom, the user has creative control over contrast, brightness, color saturation, and the option to smooth out lens idiosyncrasies. You can also create presets, edit with masks and heal any unwanted dust spots in your images. Lightroom is a very powerful app and has many features that can speed up your workflow and make post-processing easier. Once you’re finished editing, a high-quality JPEG image can be watermarked, exported and shared. To read more about the things Lightroom can do, check out our Adobe Lightroom review.
However, it’s perfectly possible to use Lightroom differently. Its workflow is entirely non-destructive, so you’re always left with your original file as a kind of digital negative rather than overwriting the original. Your changes only become permanent when you export an edited image; even then, your original image is safe.
You don’t have to work with raw files, although astrophotographers should because of the increased color depth that’s captured. Lightroom also excels at batch processing images, you can load in all 300 of your star trail images at once, batch edit (kind of like copying and pasting the same settings onto each image), then export them to another app for stacking.
Much like Lightroom, Photoshop CC is the app that other image-editing software makers use to model their interfaces. It’s a great tool for astrophotographers and is the industry-standard photo editing app, used extensively worldwide — although there is a learning curve. We looked at all the pros and cons in our Adobe Photoshop review.
Photoshop’s editing method utilizes selections and layers, meaning you can, for example, select only the sky in an image and edit this separately from the land — though Lightroom has recently also adopted this feature. Selections can be automatically identified using Adobe Sensei, a 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 if you’d rather!
Layers give you the option to build complex effects in your images. The layers can be moved around, merged, painted, hidden, or have holes cut in them. Layers are essential for creating a star trail image where hundreds of photos are combined or revealing the soft light of a nebula from many stacked frames.
Adobe plans are relatively inexpensive for the range of tools you can access, for $19.99 a month you can get a subscription to Photoshop and Lightroom together, which is a great deal if you regularly use both programs. If you don’t want the full-fat version of Photoshop, you may find Photoshop Elements a bit easier to get on with — keep reading to see if it’s better suited to you.
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 Affinity 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. You can read more about these to get a better understanding in our Affinity Photo review.
This essentially means that you can import calibration and light frames into Affinity Photo, which will then stack them automatically at the press of a button, ready to be transferred to the app’s primary Photo persona for color correction and image sharpening. Advanced users can delve much deeper into the settings, to the extent of manually choosing the Bayer pattern used during raw decode or using frame analysis to reject those with star trails or other unwanted flaws.
A dedicated ‘Remove Background’ filter is a nice astro-specific feature. This feature will help in returning the sky between the stars to its original black tone if a background color cast has crept into your photographs.
Skylum, the developer of Luminar, has taken a slightly different approach to image editing than Adobe and many other software houses in the sector. It prefers to provide a series of pre-set ‘looks’ (much like Instagram filters) and background images that you can apply to your image, scale to achieve the level of intensity you want, and even selectively apply these looks. The ‘looks’ are simple to add to the entire image or just a specific area, like the sky. AI programs have the creative ability to change your photos in ways you might not have thought of.
Traditional image-editing tools are available, but they aren’t the application’s core function. For that, you will want to consider Luminar Neo.
Luminar AI is a user-friendly, fast app built around the company’s AI tools but Neo now takes center stage as the company’s flagship product, bringing a new editing engine and the ability to create more refined images.
Neo has introduced the ability to add layers to your edits, much like photoshop. It also has a developer module, similar to Lightroom. Which version you get depends on whether you want to make quick edits using preset adjustments or more complex changes like adjusting the sharpness and vibrance. To help you decide, check out our Luminar AI review. There is a difference of approximately $40, but for a lifetime license, that cost is negligible.
Calling PhotoDirector 14 feature-packed would be a huge understatement, and we must be approaching the limit in the number of ways an image file can be poked, prodded, shrunk, stretched, and generally manipulated. It begs the question of how many additional features can be crammed into one program and how many of them are actually used. This most recent version is even more feature-packed than the previous PhotoDirector 13, though sadly they still don’t offer much for astrophotography editing. Think of it as a jack of all trades, master of none.
Though, for an astrophotographer, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. PhotoDirector 14 is a beginner-friendly application that can turn its hand to editing almost any image, astro included. Still, its attempts to appeal to as many people as possible make it tricky to whittle down to the useful tools you want for editing your night-sky shots.
You can purchase PhotoDirector 14 for a one-off fee, much like its rivals, but you can also purchase a subscription version (PhotoDirector 365) which is more expensive. You get a generous 50GB of cloud storage for the duration of your subscription.
Photoshop 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 — Photoshop and Lightroom on this list — are subscription software. That means you pay a fixed amount each month (currently $19.99 per month, which is pretty reasonable for what you get), and if you unsubscribe, the software stops working. The advantage of this is that you always have access to the most recent version of the application, which is updated often to include bug fixes and new features.
With Photoshop Elements you pay a one-off fee, which also has a video-editing brother called Premiere Elements. The downside of paying a one-off fee is that it’s only a matter of time before 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 you’d need a good reason to purchase Elements instead. 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 — if you think Elements may be more suited to you, check out our Photoshop Elements review.
Even though Photoshop’s layer and selection approach is replicated almost perfectly here in Elements, along with some neat new Sensei AI features, there’s not much on offer to attract astrophotographers specifically.
ACDSee is a very versatile app, making it a great choice for a general-purpose image editor — see how it fared in our ACDSee review. It has a catalog management interface broadly similar to Lightroom and is split into a series of modules in the same way Affinity Photo has personas. There are several tools available to help you enhance your night sky photographs between the Develop module, which decodes your raw images, and the main edit module, which operates more like Photoshop.
ACDSee offers raw image processing so you won’t need a separate app if you’re shooting raw files, and its Ultimate incarnation has some Photoshop-like layers for you to stack images. There’s also an Advanced Lighting EQ tool that can be applied selectively. This helps to bring out the best in soft, dim glows from the night sky or to darken night skies back to black.
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 impressive differences to astrophotos — check out our Corel Paintshop Pro review for more information.
Even though it isn’t designed specifically for this kind of photography, this general-purpose picture editing app has many tools that can be utilized to enhance your astrophotos. While the app has a specialist workspace with custom tools for editing underwater photos and drones, night-sky shots sadly don’t get the same attention. This is particularly true of its noise reduction tools. As we all know, taking photos of the night sky often requires raising the ISO to uncomfortable levels, so we need this function to get rid of unwanted noise while preserving the sharpness of the stars. They have added focus stacking into their most recent update, though, which would be good for stacking astro shots with different exposures for the sky and foreground.
Photolab can be considered more of a digital darkroom rather than a full-fledged image editing app and has one particular feature that will be music to an astrophotographer’s ears. Its updated AI-powered DeepPRIME XD noise reduction can retrieve previously unseen detail like “nothing you’ve seen before”, they claim, and the haze-reducing Clearview tool can effectively improve your deep-sky images’ contrast and color saturation. Comprehensive lens correction also smooths out the distortion that camera lenses, especially those with ultrawide angles, add to photographs.
You will need to shoot in raw, though. The additional color depth provided by these unprocessed files is always welcome when it comes to astrophotos. Still, some find the extra strain on their computer’s processor, and the requirement for more storage space makes shooting in JPEG more convenient.
Advanced users can 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.
Another app that follows the Lightroom template rather than the Photoshop one, tethering and studio photography is Capture One Pro’s specialty. It is remarked for the high quality of its raw image decoding, and it’s also compatible with many other image formats, including the HEIC files produced by recent iPhones.
This software is aimed at 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 that, by offering a series of in-camera tutorials, helps make it less intimidating for beginners. Though Capture One Pro does seem to be a great tool for improving workflow, many of its latest updates seem to be catered more toward organization rather than editing, making it better for photographers who photograph people or events and need to cull images quickly.
The downside? Capture One is expensive. You could get two or more of the other apps for the same price so it’s probably not worth it unless you are a studio pro.