Using Dodge and Burn techniques

Light is always key factor in photography. The biggest challenge any photographer faces is acquiring skill to control and modify light. While we usually take light for granted in our daily lives, it takes years of practice and experience to actually recognize the flow of light, reflections of different surfaces and dispersion of light, to be able to frame the camera and capture that awe inspiring shot. This is one of the main skills that separate a professional photographer from a guy/gal with a camera who just takes snapshots. But even the most skillful photographer cannot always nail down lighting, whether it is because there is no way to control light or perhaps, there is not enough equipment, time or experience to modify it. Furthermore, often the lighting is perfect but there are still visual elements that cast shadows or some areas that are too bright, which reduce the true beauty of an image. This is where post-processing comes in. One of most useful techniques to control light is called Dodge and Burn. Yes, I know they sound like things you might do during a house fire but in photography these are actually steps that turn a good images into exceptional ones. Virtually all of the high fashion and beauty images you see in ads and magazines have had some level of dodge & burn technique applied to them, but it doesn’t only apply to these styles, many other photos can also benefit from this technique. This is why I would like to dedicate this tutorial to all the different ways you can employ dodge & burn to improve the look of your photos.

The terms Dodge and Burn come to us from film photography. Back in the days of film there were very few post-processing tricks you could perform to improve your photos during development. Dodge and burn was one of those few methods. Basically, when the light was shining through the negative onto the photo paper some parts of the image could be exposed to light for a longer/ shorter period of time thus resulting in darker/lighter areas on the final photo. The longer the section was exposed to light during this process the darker that section would become. So photographers would use objects to block some areas of an image during this process to make them lighter or vice versa. So when you wanted to have a certain area lighter you would cut out a piece of paper close to the shape of that area and block some of the light falling onto paper, thus the term Dodge, where you are effectively dodging light. If you wanted to make a certain spot on your image darker, you would cut a hole in a piece of paper and only have a small area of photograph be exposed to light through that hole, basically burning a section of your photo, thus the term Burn. However, these were very basic and often imprecise techniques which required a lot of practice and wasted tons of paper in the process. With digital technology and software such as Adobe Photoshop it became much easier to edit and improve photos.

Adobe Photoshop has retained the names of these techniques and even implemented icons mimicking the procedure. Photoshop even uses Exposure scale to set the power of the effect, referring back to the time when the exposure of light on paper would dictate the lighting on a photograph. However, with digital technology you get a lot more control and precision with this technique and there are even several different ways with which you can accomplish the final result. The first method is to use tools specifically designed for this procedure: Dodge tool and Burn tool. Photoshop also includes Sponge tool which can saturate/desaturate an area after Dodge or Burn have been performed (when D&B is performed on darker areas, a slight color shift becomes apparent). The second method for D&B is using 50% gray Layer set to soft light or overlay blending mode. And the third method is using two Curves Adjustment Layers. All of these techniques are discussed in detail below, all of them have their own positives and negatives and it’s completely up to you which one you would prefer to use. By the way, before we start I wanted to give you a simple way to distinguish between the two terms, since many people often confuse Dodge with Burn and vice versa. Just remember, when you burn a paper it gets dark so Burn tool makes things darker and Dodge does the opposite.

Using Dodge and Burn Tools

Dodge and Burn tools can be used for virtually any type of images from nature landscape to high fashion shots. These tools basically work just like a Brush tool, where you just paint over the areas you would like to affect. And just like a Brush tool you have full control over the size and brush type. Exposure scale, located on the top settings panel, works similar to opacity scale on brush tool, where you essentially set how strong the effect would be. I recommend setting exposure scale on these tools to a low number, around 5-20%, because anything higher might be too strong of a change. Besides, you can always brush over an area several times to achieve a stronger effect if the first stroke wasn’t enough. Choosing the correct range is essential. You have an option to select Highlights, Midtones or Shadows. Once selected your Dodge or Burn tool will mostly affect the chosen range. For most novices I recommend sticking to Midtones, since this is where most of the information is held and is usually what you would want a change anyway. However, there are plenty of situations where you might want to change either darker or brighter areas. Once you feel comfortable with D&B concept fell free to experiment with all of these ranges. Additionally, Protecting Tones option should be checked for most of the time. It minimizes clipping in shadows/highlights and often keeps colors from shifting hue. Without it being checked you will often have a bleached out effect where colors would wash out. However, there are certain cases where the effect could look better with Protecting Tones option disabled (occasionally, in darker areas).

Dodge and Burn tools can be used on both Macro and Micro levels, where macro affects the entire image and micro is responsible for a very select area (often down to pixel level). To do this, all you have to do is change brush size. However, be careful with macro changes, since overuse of D&B tools can lead to degradation in image quality. You might not notice this degradation when working in zoomed out state. Always check your images at full resolution to make sure no loss of quality occurred during editing.

Sponge Tool

This might actually be a good time to mention Sponge tool. Using Dodge and Burn tools extensively can often lead to some areas developing color shifts or loss of saturation. You can use the Sponge tool to correct both of these problems in those specific areas. Once the Sponge tool is selected make sure to choose saturation or desaturation option on the top Tool Option panel to achieve the desired effect. By the way, all three tools, Dodge, Burn and Sponge tools are located in the same group on the tools panel. You can circle through them by pressing [Shift]+[O] keys.

How to Pin Point Problematic Areas

You can use a little trick to help you pin point problematic areas on portraits. Since most beauty images are being retouched using D&B technique, this is a good trick to know. All you have to do is create a Black and White Adjustment Layer. Then adjust the colors most prevalent in your editing area. For example: if you are working on a portrait, skin tones usually have plenty of reds and yellows so try getting red scale down and yellow scale up. There is no magic number for this adjustment, just go down until you see some spots becoming darker than others. Most of those dark spots will have to be Dodged and too bright spots will have to be Burned. But don’t do any Dodging on the Adjustment Layer. Instead, do all your editing on the layer below it. Frequently disable the Adjustment Layer to see the progress on your “normal” image. Once you are satisfied with the result just delete that Adjustment Layer. If you are not familiar with Adjustment Layers, check out this article.

By the way, never do any D&B on a background layer, always create a duplicate and work on that. This will guarantee that you always have the original image to fall back to while editing.

This is all there is to Dodge and Burn tools, once you understand the concept and practice enough times, it will feel like a second nature to you. Some files will need only minor adjustments, while others might need hundreds of strokes.

Using Soft Light Blending mode

Using D&B tools can be very convenient for quick edits but when more detailed and precise retouching is required, many professionals turn to another technique. This technique involves usage of additional layers set to Soft Light blending mode. While this technique typically does not use Dodge and Burn tools, it still serves similar purpose and thus is often referred to as Dodging and Burning in the industry. Furthermore, this technique is very time consuming and is usually performed for high end retouching such as fashion and beauty. The chances are, all those images you have seen in magazines and advertisements had this technique applied to some extent. This is what makes all those faces look flawless without giving it “doll look” effect. Additionally, you can use other blending modes, such as Overlay, but Soft Light typically gives a more subtle effect and thus used more frequently.

There are two main ways this technique is usually used. Let’s start with the most common one. It involves usage of 50% gray Layer set to Soft Light blending mode, on which brush strokes with different lighting are performed, to achieve desired effect. If you are not familiar with Layers and Blending modes you should check out this article first. Here is the basic breakdown how it works. There has to be at least two Layers for a blend mode to function. Let’s say we have two Layers. When the top Layer is set to Soft Light blending mode the dark areas of the bottom Layer will darken based on the top Layer. And lighten the light areas of the bottom Layer based on the top Layer. 50% gray color, however, is neutral and thus will not have any effect and will actually be invisible. Confused yet? Don’t be, its easy to understand once you see it in action.

Let’s briefly go over this concept in practice so you can understand exactly how this works. Open a new image in Adobe Photoshop, this should preferably be a portrait, since this is typically what this technique is used on. Then hit [Shift]+[Ctrl]+[N] keys for Windows or [Shift]+[Command]+[N] for Mac users. This will prompt a New Layer window. Set a name for your new layer (something like “D&B 50% Gray”) and most importantly, set the Mode to Soft Light and check the “Fill with Soft-Light-neutral color (50% gray)” box. Hit ok and this will create exactly what you need. You should not see any difference in your image, just a new grey Layer in the Layers panel. Alternatively, you can manually create a new layer, fill it with 50% gray color and set it to Soft Light blend mode. But my initial method is more efficient.

Once you have this layer setup, you will perform all the Dodging and Burning on it. Typically, you might want to use white brush for Dodging and black brush for Burning. However, you can also sample colors from your initial image and use them to achieve color consistency where needed. Basically, the whole idea is to spot inconsistencies in the skin and “correct” them. Nobody’s skin is perfect; there are always slight discolorations, pores and shadows from all kinds of bumps. By Dodging these areas, you can effectively smoothen the skin. However, by just dodging the face might become too smooth and look unnatural. You can give the face more depth by Burning some areas with dark strokes. This is how a face can have perfect skin and yet look natural with all the shadows in the right places. I recommend setting Opacity of the brush to 80-100% and Flow to 5-15% to get the best results. If your foreground and background colors are at default black and white it is easy to quickly switch between them by hitting [X] key.

It might be very hard to detect all the areas needing D&B. To help you see problematic areas, you can use the same method described in D&B tools technique. Create a Black and White Adjustment Layer and scale down Red or Yellow tab, or both. These are the most common shades of human skin, if you are working on patterns other than skin, then change the scale of the appropriate hue. Doing this will clearly separate color shifts and you’ll have easier time seeing areas needing some Dodging. Just don’t forget to work on 50% gray Layer and not on the B&W Adjustment Layer. Also try to frequently “hide” the B&W Layer to see the progress on the actual image. You can delete the Adjustment layer when D&B is complete.

The second technique using Soft Light Blending mode is actually very similar to the first one. It is essentially the same thing but instead of using 50% gray Layer you just do all the D&B on a blank layer set to Soft Light. This will have the same effect on the image but you will have a very hard time seeing your D&B and recognizing different elements (although you can always create a solid color layer underneath to clearly see everything). On the other hand, using a blank layer can be beneficial when you want to load a selection and apply changes to parts of your D&B work. But personally, I prefer to use 50% gray layer because I can quickly see my retouching, use actual Dodge and Burn tools (although they do not detect tones in this technique) and most importantly apply different filters to just D&B areas.

Using Curves Adjustment Layers and Masking

The third D&B method involves Curves Adjustment Layers. Technically speaking you can also use other Adjustment Layers, such as Brightness/Contrast and Levels, to achieve similar results but Curves give you a lot more versatility and provide more control. To start using this technique you will need to create two Curves Adjustment Layers, one for Dodge and one for Burn. If you are not familiar with Adjustment Layers, check out this article first. Create the first Curves layer and call it “Dodge”. In the curves adjustment properties window you will need to add at least one point and move the line to the left, which will make the image look brighter. But to keep this tutorial simple and consistent, you can just set the preset of that Layer to Lighter (RGB). Then select the mask of that layer and hit [Ctrl]+[I] on PC or [Cmd]+[I] on Mac to Invert it (you can also fill mask with solid black color using Bucket tool). This will make the image look the way it did prior to shifting curves. Now you can select a Brush tool and paint over the areas needing Dodging with solid white color, just like you would in the previous 50% gray layer method.

To perform Burning you would need to create another Curves Adjustment Layer and call it “Burn”. Then shift the line to the right or set the preset to Darker (RGB) on the curves adjustments properties panel. After that, invert the mask of that layer to solid black. Then, using Brush tool, paint over areas needing Burning, with a solid white color. I know it sounds counter intuitive to brush with white color in order to darken areas but that is the way masks work. That curves layer is already making the entire image darker and you are just revealing some areas by “erasing” a covering mask with a white brush. To help you better distinguish areas needing D&B you can create B&W Adjustment Layer (the same way I have described in previous D&B methods).

This Curves method has several benefits over previous methods. First, and most important one, is that you have complete control over the level of light adjustment for both Dodging and Burning. You can simply add more points to the curve and shape it in any way you like. Previous method of Soft Light blending has very limited control over strength of lighting, all you can do is change opacity to make the effect more subtle. Secondly, you can control color shifts by going into different color channels on adjustment properties panel and changing the curve of the individual channel to match colors. And thirdly, you can easily load selection from these layers and apply various additional filtering techniques only to those select areas. On the other hand, this method also has its flaws. The major weakness of this technique is that you can’t quickly switch between Dodging and Burning, the way you can in Soft Light blending method. In that method all you had to do is press [X] key and that would instantly flip Dodge to Burn or vice versa. In this Curves method you have to switch between the two Layers to achieve the same transition. Although, this might be a blessing in disguise since this separation between D&B give you the ability to have one effect stronger than the other. For example: if you want to have you shadows be much darker than the highlights are lighter.

Personally, when I work on beauty and fashion images I like to combine two methods together to achieve best results. I would use Soft Light method for more prices editing on all the small details and overall skin texture and then use Curves method to give the skin more depth and realism. Here is the way I like to use Curves method. It is actually much quicker than doing perfect detailed retouching and can be a great alternative for those images you don’t want to spend too much time on. You start the same way you would with a Curves Layer. Create a new Layer and call it “Dodge”. Then adjust the curve to the left. Don’t be afraid to go to extreme even if the image looks too bright. Then invert the mask. Select a small brush and draw lines over areas you would like to lighten. Don’t worry if it looks like a kid drew white lines over an image. Here is how we fix it. Select Masks properties on the Adjustments panel and adjust the feather to where those lines diffuse enough to blend with the image. Do the same thing with a new “Burn” Layer but just shift the curve to the right. Voila! You should now have a much more pleasing looking image with the help of Dodge and Burn techniques.


All three methods described here are useful. All of these have their benefits and limitations. It all depends on the image in question and desired effect. Often I use all of these techniques on one image, implementing different ones for separate areas of a photo. Overall it is useful to know and understand all thee Dodge and Burn methods because all of them can help you improve your images in post-processing. However, mastering these techniques is not easy. You will need to spend a lot of time practicing to achieve the same results true professionals do. When you spend a long time editing a photo, remember to take frequent breaks to ease eye strain. Also zoom in and out of the image to see problematic areas and toggle Layers on/off to see your progress. And finally, save your project and look at it later (perhaps in a few days), you will be surprised how different an image might look to you. When you get concentrated on editing one photo you can easily get too accustomed to it and not notice evident flaws or often even over-process it.

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This entry was posted by Alex Gumerov.

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