You have been up all night, taking images of the Milky Way. Tomorrow, hours of editing probably lie ahead. Light pollution, noise, and a lack of contrast can make most nightscape photos feel lackluster. If you’re familiar with doing landscape astrophotography, then you’ve no doubt experienced the amount of effort needed in post-processing to make your images shine. Even with today’s digital cameras, no picture comes out of the camera the way you’ve imagined them to. Enter OrionH; a panel for Adobe Photoshop dedicated to natural night photography and meant to decrease the amount of time you sit at the computer.
Disclosure and Installation
After being given a promotional code by the Milky Way Hunters, the creators of OrionH, I’ve tried my hand at processing a nightscape with this panel for Photoshop.
If you’re familiar with panels like Tony Kuyper’s TKActions panel or Raya Pro by Jimmy McIntyre, then the goal of this panel doesn't need much explanation. It essentially hosts a set of macro functions under a sleek designed panel. These macros (or actions, as Photoshop calls them) are frequently used operations in post-processing images. OrionH is a panel that features actions specifically geared towards astrophotography, nightscapes, and star trail shots.
Installation is pretty straight-forward. You’ll be downloading a .ZXP-file that installs through the Adobe Extension Manager. After restarting Photoshop, OrionH is located under Window > Extensions > OrionH. As the panel appears in your workspace, OrionH asks for your credentials that you’ve entered when purchasing it.
Having a background in design myself, I hold clear and recognizable UI design in high regard. Without any tutorial, readme, or YouTube video, it immediately becomes clear how each action works. There’s also a button that changes the UI color to grayscale that helps to concentrate more on the image you’re working on.
Let’s go through a couple of the actions and their functions and see what’s in store for you. On the Milky Way panel, we find “Boost Contrast.” This setting features three levels of effect strength that brings the Milky Way more to the foreground for a three-dimensional effect. It works by adding a contrast and clarity boost to a new layer with a black mask. With just the stroke of a soft white brush, you then paint in the effect. Basically, each of the actions in this panel works in this manner. What’s great about the way these actions work, is that you can lower the opacity of each layer, as well as the brush to your personal taste.
“Dark sky” will darken the night sky around the Milky Way, enhancing the visual impact of our galaxy. Creative effects can be attained with the “Quick Selection” set of actions. These create luminosity selections, much like the TKActions Panel of Tony Kuyper. Each of those selections can limit specific adjustments to only that portion of brightness in the image. Stars can be enhanced or, with the “Filter Stars” action, their brightness lowered. With the built-in “Dodge and Burn” actions, you can make fine adjustments to the nebulosity in the Milky Way to enhance detail.
The Best Features
The prize for best feature goes to the “Light Pollution” action. This one makes your light polluted city skies more uniform in color and brightness if handled with care. The “Saturation” feature also works quite well to enhance particular colors in the stars or nebulae. And the “Banding Noise” action in the Deep Sky panel works a treat in removing unsightly posterization artifacts that are a frequent result of overprocesssing with limited data.
Loss of Detail
Update: Please read the conclusion of this article. Due to an important update, the following paragraph is not descriptive of the latest version of OrionH any longer.
This is also one of my gripes with the panel. My workflow is as much in 16-bit mode as possible (even 32-bit whenever available). From exporting to Lightroom, all the way to exporting for the web or print. In earlier OrionH verions, some actions like the “Quick Select Stars” change your image to 8-bit mode without warning. This will lead to a higher loss of image data with each consecutive adjustment. I’d really wish for this entire panel to work in 16-bit mode to minimize the risk of loss of data, detail, and the introduction of more artifacts towards the end of processing.
A couple of fun tricks are also included. We have a “H-alpha and OIII Simulation” that is supposed to enhance particular colors of the image. It targets the same colors a combination of Ha and OIII-sensitive cameras and filters do, but it doesn't actually enhances those natural emissions. The “Star Spikes” action is also fun. It runs a ton of adjustments in the background to recreate the effect of diffraction spikes found in astrophotography images taken with a telescope that features a secondary mirror held in place by thin wires. The effect targets the brightest stars, so that’s a big plus. But apart from four presets, there’s no fine control over the rotation, thickness or length of the spikes.
Conclusions: Is OrionH For You?
This panel for Adobe Photoshop may well save you countless hours of doing the same, repetitive tasks over and over. For that, the concept of this or any action panel is priceless.
Update: There was one overlooked aspect of this panel that grinded my gears. During the review, the 8-bit mode conversion was the one thing that kept me from using it again, particularly for deep-sky astrophotography where every pixel (noise or star) counts. The team at Milky Way Hunters have worked day and night (of course; they're the Milky Way Hunters) to remedy this apparent bug. There's now a full end-to-end 16-bit workflow available.
I think that budding nightscape photographers and star trailers alike won’t see or mind the difference in a couple of pixels. It all depends on the amount of fun you get from working with your images in post-processing. No two images are the same, so no panel can ever feature a button that gives you and your viewers instant gratification.
The panel did have a couple of bugs soon after the release, but the team at Milky Way Hunters are hard at work providing support and patching the panel in the process. In fact, within a day of posting this review, the creators of this panel have updated their product to provide another essential feature: A full 16-bit workflow.
The OrionH panel is intuitive, feature rich, and doesn't cost an arm and a leg. It’s available in English and Italian for € 30 at milkywayhunters.com.