Mike, this is beautiful. Thank you so much for your thoughtful feedback. I've been at astronomy/astrophotography for about 5 months now.
Yeah, the file is big because I was sort of shooting all over the place and kept all of it in the stack. Nice crop.
My stars were certainly eggs, at best. My lowly manual/clock drive CG-5 can't do any better. How did you make the stars so small and faint? I feel like they compliment the DSO really well in your edit, as opposed to overpower it.
Your edit is inspiring that I might be able to create some truly beautiful pics at some point.
I'm not too far ahead of you! I goofed around (literally not much more than that) in years past every now and then, but just now coming up on a year since I started pointing the camera skyward more often and started some basic research. But it was last fall by the time I got my mount, and then processing software, and finally the ED scope.
If you're having fun, enjoy the challenge, and can handle things going sideways every now and then (they just do), you'll be well on your way. Just takes practice, experimentation, reading, and sometimes a bit of a shopping spree too. Oh and before the shopping, just proper expectations of what your equipment can do, and what it can't readily do, absent a lot of extra time and work.
There are a lot of ways to shrink, dim, or push back stars in order to enhance the prominence of a DSO target. For your data, in Startools, I used the Shrink module and Super Structure module with settings I thought appropriate to the task. I also went easy on the initial stretching. If the data doesn't support it, as here, a big stretch just to see as much of the target as you can will also stretch out all the stars and unwanted noise as well. I probably could have tried to warp the egg stars back into normal space lol, but really didn't think it was too necessary. All is good as long as you don't lean too close to the screen and start staring at the little things.
Another popular trick is to process starry and starless layers separately, then bring them back together afterwards.
For Gimp - well I'm not real sure, as I gave up on Gimp for processing pretty early on, even though I had the two main astro plugins for it (which don't compare to the plugins available for PS). Mind the stretching, as noted. I also think I remember one of the Youtubers - Astrofarsography - had a couple Gimp tutorials, one of which covered shrinking and/or dimming (unsure which it was) of stars. So you might look into those techniques.