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Photoshop dodging & burning

Dodging and burning refer to traditional darkroom techniques, with which photographers who have never worked with film may not be familiar. When exposing light-sensitive paper to make a print, dodging referred to the practice of limiting the amount of light reaching the areas of the paper and so keeping it lighter (in practice using an appropriately shaped piece of card on a stick and waving it around (dodging) between the light source and the paper. In contrast, burning was the practice of allowing additional light to certain areas to make them darker (allowing the light to ‘burn’ the paper). The purpose of this tricky craft was to allow certain parts of the image to shine through, allowing the eye to be drawn to them, and other areas to be darkened so they did not become the main focal point or distract from the main subject.

Lightroom provides a simple but relatively unsophisticated tool for achieving a similar effect by using the adjustment brush to increase or decrease the exposure in specific highlighted areas of the image. However, the level of adjustment tends to be a little on/off and lacks the subtlety available in the traditional (but time-consuming) film-based technique.

Whalley explains two approaches to dodging and burning in Photoshop. The first (and his least preferred) involves creating two curves adjustment layers; one to darken the image (burning) and one to lighten it (dodging) with inverted masks (see here for masks) attached – so the adjustments start hidden. A white brush with low opacity is then used to apply the adjustments to the areas required, with the brushing technique allowing a gradual build up of the strength of the adjustment. More subtle/craft-like than the LR approach.

The second approach, which I focus on, involves creating two new neutral (50%) grey layers (not adjustment layers) set to an ‘overlay’ blending mode, rather than ‘normal’. One layer used for dodging and the other for burning. Using a similar brush technique to that already mentioned, a white brush is applied to the dodging layer to lightened areas of the image and a black brush to the burn layer to darken areas of the image. A few important practical points:

  • To create the new layer, use the short-cut cmd-shift-N. This then allows the immediate selection of the ‘overlay’ blending effect and an option to fill with neutral grey, per screen-dump.

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 07.14.16

  • Remember to switch between the white brush (dodging) and the black brush (burning) when working on the respective layers.
  • Opacity = subtlety. Begin with very low levels of opacity to ensure the effect is not over-down. Also ensure the ‘hardness’ of the brush is reduced to avoid hard contrasts (unfortunately I forgot this important step in my example below!)
  • There seems to be an art to doing this well – a good deal of practice and experiment is needed to master it.

Finally my example, unfortunately the images are on the dark side, but they illustrate the technique:

Before: master in Lightroom, with only basic adjustments

Red Square-1

After: general contrast adjustments applied to sky and foreground. Dodge/burn of select areas to draw out figures and highlights around windows.

Red Square-2


Whalley R (2013) Essential Photoshop: how to use 9 essential tools and techniques. Amazon Kindle edition.


West Carey P (nd). What Are Burning And Dodging And How They Can Help Your Photos. Digital Photography School [website]. Available from: http://digital-photography-school.com/what-are-burning-and-dodging-and-how-they-can-help-your-photos/ [access 1.10.15]

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