Photoshop Basics: Two Ways to Dodge and Burn

Original image on the left, dodged/burned version on the right. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

Original image on the left, dodged/burned version on the right. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

THE TRADITIONAL APPROACH

Becoming proficient at dodging and burning ranks high on the list of basic Photoshop skills that all beginning PS users need to master. This tutorial gets complicated, because we’re going to look at two ways to handle this basic chore. So today I’ll show you the time-honored ‘traditional’ method to dodge and burn in Photoshop. Then tomorrow we’ll run a second article looking at a newer, ‘nondestructive’ way to accomplish the same thing.

DODGING AND BURNING: TERMINOLOGY

First though: ‘Dodging’ a photograph refers to an old darkroom technique in which something was held in the path of the enlarger’s light source – a coin soldered on a length of clothes hanger wire was a common dodge tool—to lessen the amount of light hitting a particular area of the light-sensitive paper. This resulted in a lightening of that area in the final print. Under a person’s cap, where a face might be in shadow, would be a good example of something that might require dodging.

‘Burning’ was the opposite: darkening part of a photo print, by adding extra light from the enlarger on specific parts of the photo paper. A sky might need some ‘burning down’ to look good, or possibly a white shirt; many photographers always burned the edges of their photos 10-15% to ensure that there would be a bit of tone there. Burning was usually done just with your hands, making holes for light to pass through, or simply holding up a fist when you wanted to burn around the edge of the print.

DODGING AND BURNING INSTRUCTIONS

Photoshop has retained these old icons and terms for digital burning and dodging. We’ll start by dodging and burning a backlit photograph that’s also a bit underexposed. When accomplishing this in Photoshop, you’ll be choosing the Dodge tool from the toolbar, selecting a Brush Size that’s appropriate for your image, selecting a ‘Range’ (Shadow, Midtone or Highlight that you want to affect) and selecting an ‘Exposure’ percentage. A good starting place to learn this technique will be with the proper-sized brush (you’ll see the brush size appear as a circle on your image as you change the brush size), and the Range set for Midtone and the Exposure set for 20%.

The basic settings you'll need for dodging: brush size, brush hardness/softness, range and exposure. I give some suggestions for a starting point for your experiments. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

The basic settings you'll need for dodging: brush size, brush hardness/softness, range and exposure. I give some suggestions for a starting point for your experiments. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

This will give you discernable results without doing too much damage if it’s wrong for the image. Now click and drag your mouse around the area that you want to dodge. It’s very important to keep the Dodge circle moving! If you sit in one place you won’t get smooth results.

It's important to keep the dodge 'circle' moving as you click and drag the brush around the area that you need to lighten. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

It's important to keep the dodge 'circle' moving as you click and drag the brush around the area that you need to lighten. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

Burning does just the opposite: areas that you click and drag with the ‘Burn’ tool will get darker. Here you’ll want to first make the same choices on the brush settings. A good place to start will once again be 20% on the Exposure, set for the Midtones range of the image. A word of caution: dodging and burning in the Highlights and Shadow ranges can be tricky! It’s easy to take both of these too far, resulting in visible ‘halos’ for dodges or overly dark ‘Hand of God’ darkened skies with burns. So proceed cautiously! In the example photograph, I’m burning just the top, brightest parts of the background, up around the windows behind my subjects.

[Note: I explain a related dodge/burn technique in another post that describes using the Lab Lightness color channel for a more sophisticated burn/dodge approach; try that once you’ve mastered this straightforward way to do it in the standard RGB color space.]

The finished image, dodged and burned to maximize the available tonal range. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

The finished image, dodged and burned to maximize the available tonal range. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: Photoshop

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

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