The Best Tools For Processing

There are endless debates about what the best processing software is for deep sky astrophotography, but I’ve found that the best software depends a little on what it is you’re trying to accomplish. I hear three big programs that encompasses what most people are using, Photoshop, PixInsight, and Astro pixel Processor. I’ve not personally used APP for any of my images so I can’t speak specifically for it, but I think I may give it a go at some point in the near future. As for the other two, I use both Photoshop and Pixinsight to process my images. I’ve found that Photoshop can give you a great looking image rather quickly if you have the right tools with it which I’ll go over in the Photoshop section of this post. Pixinsight can really get you a fine tuned image but it comes at the cost of added time processing. Again this is my own experience and maybe some of you are real wizards with Pixinsight and can get an image done in an hour or two. Below I’ve laid out some of the pros and cons of each, and gone into depth a little bit on useful tools and practices for both.


Photoshop is probably the most commonly used software for processing out there. It’s fairly intuitive and not in depth enough to scare people off who are learning. However, if all you’re using is the normal Photoshop you downloaded straight from Adobe, you’re making things harder for yourself.

This is a screenshot of my photoshop window and as you can see highlighted on the right side is my actions panel. In it is an action set with a ton of really useful actions specific for astrophotography. Basically, these are automated tasks that Photoshop can perform that are tuned to make your astrophotos better, such as space noise reduction, contrast enhancements, curves edits etc. All you have to do is select one and hit run, and if you’ve copied your layer you can change the opacity of the edits and delete them if you don’t like the look. For beginners, this is a must have and can really elevate your photos if you’re not a Photoshop pro. It’s also only $21.95 and can be bought at Seriously if you’re apprehensive about this purchase just do it, it’s one of the most helpful purchases I’ve made.

But Photoshop isn’t just about this action set, manual controls like the Camera Raw settings and color range masks are both easy to use and can greatly increase the quality of your final image. Camera Raw’s noise reduction is really smart these days and, when tuned right, can really clean up a noisy image better and faster than most other techniques I’ve seen. If you’re new to this, here’s a really fast step by step to get you going processing your first image once you open it. Open –> Crop –> Black level to edge of data –> convert to 16 bits/channel, and now you’re ready to play with curves and your action set. I go through this same process for every image but I’ll have a more in depth tutorial on photoshop processing later on.

If you’re just starting out, there’s no better tool to use than Photoshop to get some quick edits in and get some good pictures. I do suggest taking some time to learn more advanced Photoshop tools like masking as that will give you the best result and you’ll really make the most of the software.


Pixinsight has gained a huge following over the years as the advanced option for processing your images. For everything you do, there’s tons of settings you can tweak and you can get the exact image you want. That’s the real draw to it though, the level of control you have over everything. In Photoshop, the idea behind everything is very click and drag to get what you want with some levels of finer control. In Pixinsight, you type in exact values for every setting and really fine tune everything. There’s an enormous learning curve to it, and it takes practice to get good looking images, but I learned most of the ins and outs in a couple of days, albeit very involved days. Below you can see the processing for a photo I took recently, and I still exported to Photoshop for finishing touches since I’m not an expert in Pixinsight quite yet.

Dynamic Background Extraction, for example, is irreplaceable to people like me in very light polluted areas for getting a rich black background, and some of the noise reduction tools in the software are really good when you know how to use them. There are a few really good tutorials on YouTube going through Pixinsight workflows such as this one from Astrphotography Tutorials. If you follow what some of these people are doing for different functions of the software you’ll pick it up pretty quickly and playing around with your own data helps a ton as well.

I will be coming out with a full tutorial on my image processing pipeline so stay tuned for that, but in the meantime I highly suggest you look up tutorials on Pixinsight noise reduction, stretching, color masks and if you have a mono camera, look up the article on image combination with a mono camera from vortex astronomy, that’s where I learned and developed my own method from.

So What Should You Use?

If you haven’t been imaging for that long, use Photoshop for now and get used to some of the things you do to images every time. No matter what you’re processing in, you’ll always be adjusting color, curves, black levels etc. so getting used to that kind of thing is easier in Photoshop and good to learn. Many people never stop using Photoshop and use both software in conjunction to get the best image they can, which is what I personally do now. Pixinsight is also almost $300, which is scary for a lot of people. Many people would much prefer to put that money into gear for acquisition which is understandable and in which case they should stick to Photoshop. However, if you’re constantly on the lookout for a way to get the absolute best possible images, Pixinsight is hard to beat and I would highly recommend looking into it.

As a side note once again, I know many people use AstroPixel Processor these days, but I’ve never personally used it and it seems to be much less widely used than these two programs so I’ve left it out for today. I would like to try it in the future, but for now it’s between these two.


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