Photo Tutorials

Dodging and Burning in Photoshop
© Terry Ownby

Dodging and burning techniques come from traditional black and white darkroom applications and is used to correct selective tonal issues. For instance, the photographer may wish to selectively darken or lighten particular areas of the photograph in order to improve tonal contrast. The advantage of this type of selective application is just that; it’s not a global adjustment that could affect the entire image area, resulting in unwanted contrast changes.

In the traditional darkroom, we would typically hand-make little tools from heavy wire and tape varying size disks of black construction paper to the end. These small dodging tools could then be inserted between the enlarger lens and the paper in order to “hold back” light from exposing the paper—thus lightening that particular area. Conversely, in order to darken certain areas, extra light might be needed beyond the base exposure. To accomplish this one could take a whole sheet of black construction paper (or cardboard) and cut a small hole in it to allow light to pass through. Thus, most of the paper acts as a shield from the previously exposed paper and only the light passing through the hole adds additional exposure time to selected areas, which in turn become darker.

Photoshop provides both dodge and burn tool options in the Toolbox, however, most working professionals agree these tools are rather amateurish and are not desirable in that their action is destructive in nature to the underlying pixels of the image layer. But, as we know in Photoshop there are multiple ways to tackle any problem and this is the case with dodging and burning. For example, Martin Evening uses a combination of adjustment layers employing curves and levels, combined with selections and quick masks . However, I find this a bit tedious and not localized enough, so I’ll introduce you to a method I learned while teaching at the Art Institute of Colorado.

1. At the top of the layer stack, add a new layer and rename it D&B.
2. Go to the Menu Bar and select Edit > Fill
a. From the pop-up window, select 50% Gray
b. Set Blending to Overlay or Soft Light
c. Opacity to 100%


3. Your image area will fill in completely with Gray, this is normal so don’t get excited!

4. Next, go to your Layer Palette and select your Blending Options drop-down menu: select Overlay (sometimes depending on the image, I may choose Soft Light)


5. Now you will see your image reappear, but in your Layer Palette will be your new D&B layer filled with gray
6. Now the fun begins! Select a soft brush and in your Tool Option Bar, adjust your Flow to somewhere between 6% and 9%; leave Mode: Normal and Opacity: 100%


7. Ensure your our Foreground color is set to Black (for Burning) or White (for dodging)
a. Expand or contract the brush size using your Bracket Keys, as needed for the area to be dodged or burned
b. Begin slowly and pay attention to how fast or slow the effect takes place and adjust your Flow Rate percentage accordingly
c. Remember, you can undo a mistake by using your Undo key-strokes Command + Z (Mac) or Control +Z (PC)


8. Below are before and after versions using this D & B technique

Before Version

After Version

Photography: © Tom Mitchell

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