Four ways to Burn & Dodge in Photoshop

Every photographer should know at least one of these techniques…

Arguably some of the most valuable tools in Photoshop, burning and dodging refers to darkening or lightening areas of an image. This technique can be used to enhance your imagery by creating three dimensionality and guide the viewer’s eye.

This technique, which derives from the days of film and dark room printing, is useful for any genre of photography. As with many Photoshop tools, there are multiple methods to burn and dodge. Here I look at the different ways to burn and dodge in Photoshop and when to use which. You can also watch how to apply the different methods in our Burning & Dodging Photoshop class.

Portrait image before burning and dodging.
Portrait image before burning and dodging.
Portrait image after burning and dodging.
Portrait image after burning and dodging.

What is burning and dodging in the darkroom?

The terms burning and dodging refer to the darkroom techniques used in the printing process for controlling the exposure of selected areas of an image (nowadays, we use a similar technique in Photoshop, but enjoy far greater precision).

‘Burning’ refers to the process used to darken certain areas of an image when printing from negatives. This was done by allowing more light to reach a particular area. This could be done by holding a sheet of cardboard with a hole in it, which would then be positioned over the area that needed to be darker.

‘Dodging’ does the opposite of burning — it lightens certain areas of an image. By holding card or paper (usually attached to a thin handle), light would be blocked from a certain area and thereby brighten that part of the picture.

Burning: Decreasing exposure in parts of an image.
Dodging: Increasing exposure in parts of an image.

    Burning process illustration
    An illustration of the burning process when printing from negatives.
    Dodging process illustration

    An illustration of the dodging process when printing from negatives.

    Illustrations by Jeffery Saddoris from 'Photography by the Letter'.
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    When to use Burn and Dodge

    When we take a photo, we essentially create a 2D image, but in order for that image to be aesthetically pleasing, it’s important that we make it look as three dimensional as possible. We can do this by adjusting brightness and contrast in an image. However, using the Brightness and Contrast adjustments in Photoshop can result in a very artificial-looking image. This is why burning and dodging is so useful — these techniques allow us to make subtle yet effective changes that can change the shape and form of an image.

      Burning process illustration
      This image of two circles appears flat and two dimensional.
      Dodging process illustration
      After burning and dodging has been applied, the same two circles now appear three dimensional.

      The images above are the exact same. The only difference is that the image on the right has had burning and dodging applied, creating a 3D feel to what is in fact a 2D image.

      You can see exactly how this was achieved in the ‘Burning and Dodging’ Photoshop class.

      These techniques can be used on any image and, as you can see, are particularly useful when wanting to increase three dimensionality. Using the techniques of lightening and darkening parts of an image, it’s also possible to guide the viewers eye through an image.

        How to burn and dodge in Photoshop

        Often, retouching to remove blemishes such as pimples doesn’t always require the Clone or Healing Brush tools. In actual fact, many imperfections such as this can instead be fixed with burning and dodging.

        Depending on your skill level, there are different ways to burn and dodge in Photoshop. Each of these have their own advantages and disadvantages and you’ll have to experiment with each to find which works best for you.

          Headphones product image before burning and dodging
          The original headphones product shot taken during a live show. Before retouching, the plastic looks uneven and marked, while the leather earpiece looks lumpy.
          Headphones product image after burning and dodging
          The same image, after retouching. Having applied burning and dodging, the plastic now appears more even and the leather earpiece much smoother.

          1. Burn and Dodge tool

          The most simple method of burning and dodging is simply to use the Burn and Dodge tools in Photoshop. To use these tools, simply select the tool you want to use, then set the brush you want to use and the range (Midtones, Shadows or Highlights) from the options bar. You can also change the exposure of the tool. Once you’ve set these, you simply brush over the area you want to lighten or darken.

          This is a useful technique for those new to Photoshop because it’s simple to use and easy to understand. However, I tend not to recommend it simply because there are far more accurate and effective ways of burning and dodging.

            Photoshop burn and dodge tools
            The Burn and Dodge tools can be found in the Tools panel.

            One of the disadvantages to this method is that it is a destructive method of editing. To edit images nondestructively, make sure to work on a new or duplicate layer. This will also allow you to go back and alter the changes to an extent too.

            Destructive editing: This means you’re changing the original file and once you exceed the History panel’s limit, those changes are permanent.
            Nondestructive editing: This means although you’re making changes, you’re not making them directly to the original file. Software such as Lightroom and Capture One allow for nondestructive editing, while Photoshop allows for destructive and nondestructive editing. Methods for nondestructive editing in Photoshop include working with adjustment layers, converting layers to smart objects, cropping nondestructively and using masks.

              2. Burn and dodge using curves

              This is my preferred method of burning and dodging as it allows for much greater precision than the Burn and Dodge tools (and it’s also nondestructive). However, it does require a knowledge of using layers and masks.

              This method requires creating two new Curves adjustment layers — one lighter and one darker — and applying a mask to each. After inverting the masks, the Brush tool can be used to reveal the Curves adjustments through the image.

              This method is clearly demonstrated in the ‘Burning and Dodging’ Photoshop class.

              One of the advantages of this method is that you can make an action to create Burn and Dodge layers (or you can save yourself even more time and download them here). It’s also a highly precise method of retouching as not only can you select the Brush settings, you can also change the opacity settings of the layer and even adjust the Curves adjustment after you’ve created it.

                Burn and dodge layers
                Two Curves adjustment layers with inverted masks for burning and dodging.

                3. Burn and dodge using selections

                This method allows you to make adjustments to very precise areas of an image. Using a selection tool, simply select the area of an image you want to edit and create a new adjustment layer. This you can then change according to the effect you want to achieve. As with the previous method, you can also control the opacity of the layer and adjust it afterwards.

                  Headphones product image before burning and dodging
                  Using the Selection tools in Photoshop allows you to precisely select the area you want to edit.
                  Using selections and curves for burn and dodge

                  Once you've selected a particular area, you can then make changes to just that part of the image.

                  4. Soft light blend mode

                  This fourth method involves creating a new layer and selecting either the Soft Light or Overlay Blend Mode. To do this, go to Layer - New - Layer. In the New Layer dialogue box, select either Soft Light or Overlay blend mode. Once the new layer is created, using the Brush tool in white or black, paint over the area you want to dodge or burn respectively. Again, I don’t tend to use this method as I find it much slower than dodging and burning using Curves.

                  Soft light blend mode: Part of the contrast blend group, Soft Light blend mode darkens or lightens the colors of an image, depending on the blend color (the colour being applied with the brush).
                  Overlay blend mode: Also part of the contrast blend group, Overlay blend mode multiplies or screens the colours (depending on the base colour), boosting the overall contrast.

                    Burn and dodge using blend modes
                    A third technique for burning and dodging involves creating a new layer set to Soft Light or Overlay blend mode.

                    How to burn and dodge in Lightroom

                    Although Photoshop is the most popular choice of software for adjustments like burning and dodging, you can also achieve similar results using Lightroom’s Adjustment brush. By painting over areas of the image you want to change, you can adjust the exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites and blacks (effectively burning or dodging, depending on which you change).
                      Burning and dodging in Lightroom
                      Although it doesn't offer the same level as control as Photoshop, it is possible to achieve similar results using Lightroom.

                      Regardless of whether you’re working in Lightroom or Photoshop, using selections or curves, Burn and Dodge are important techniques for any type of photography. This article provides an overview of why they’re so important and the different techniques, but you can see more practical examples throughout various classes in our Post Production section.

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                        To learn more about Burning and Dodging, make sure to visit our Post Production section. There you'll find a variety of practical examples on how to use this and other useful Photoshop techniques.

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