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Using the Dodge & Burn Tool In Photoshop

Have a go at Dodging and Burning the digital way with the help of Robin Whalley's tutorial.

| Adobe Photoshop

Words and images by Robin Whalley -

Original Image:
Using the Dodge & Burn Tool In Photoshop: Starting Image

In the past I have written articles for ePHOTOzine on how to dodge and burn using layers and blending modes in Photoshop. This is partly because people seem to have such difficulties with the standard Photoshop Dodge & Burn tools. If you have experienced problems, hopefully the following article will help correct that.

Dodging and Burning is a technique that came out of the darkroom. You apply dodging and burning to selective areas of an image to either lighten or darken these which helps give your images more impact and appeal. The way your brain works when looking at an image is to direct your gaze towards light areas and away from dark. In this way you are able to direct the viewers’ attention unconsciously and make the image more interesting.

When you dodge an area in the traditional darkroom you are decreasing the exposure of that area to light which makes it lighter in the final print. In the dark room this would involve place something between the negative and paper so that the light doesn’t reach the paper and you would prevent that area from being exposed. Burning is the opposite technique where an area is exposed to more light to make it darker. This is sometimes referred to as "burning in".

The Photoshop Dodge & Burn tools work pretty much like the darkroom techniques except its more powerful and precise. Typically Dodging and Burning is thought of as being a technique for black and white images however it is also equally as effective with colour. The tools themselves are found in the Photoshop toolbox as shown in the following diagram.

Using the Dodge & Burn Tool In Photoshop: Dodge and Burn tools in Photoshop

When using these tools there are a few things you need to be aware of:



Tip 1

Dodge & Burn tools are best applied to a copy of the image on a new layer. They are destructive edits which can’t easily be adjusted once they have been applied. I therefore suggest before using these tools you make a duplicate layer and then apply the tools to this layer. If you find you are too heavy handed with the tools you can reduce the opacity of the "Layers Window" and then press CTRL-Shift – Alt and E on the keyboard together (on a Windows PC). This produces a new layer from all the layers below it and places it on top of the layer stack.

Using the Dodge & Burn Tool In Photoshop: Dodge and burn




Tip 2

The default strength of the Dodge & Burn tools is far too strong and it will ruin your images. I suggest changing the tools opacity to 3%; yes that’s right, 3%. This will allow you to build up the effect slowly and more naturally. There are a few other useful setting that can be adjusted using the toolbar (just below the menu) as shown in the screen shot below.

Using the Dodge & Burn Tool In Photoshop: Reduce strength of Dodge & Burn tools

Over to the right of the exposure slider is an airbrush symbol. When this is clicked the tools work like an airbrush so the longer you hold the mouse down the more the effect is applied. When this option isn’t selected you need to keep painting strokes with the tools and the effect only builds each time you make a new mouse click. With a little practice the airbrush setting becomes very effective.

Over to the left of the toolbar you can see the brush size. I suggest you use a large soft edge brush to apply the effects as this will blend most naturally into the image.

Finally there is the "Range" dropdown. Here you can select the tonal range the tool will target so you can work specifically on the Shadows, Highlights or Midtones. Personally I find the Midtone range is most effective but don’t rule out using the others once you get used to what is happening when you apply the tools.




Tip 3

It’s actually quite easy to overdo the use of these tools and areas of your image will become pure black or white depending on the tool you are using. This loss of detail from the image is something that needs to be avoided. A good way to check if you are losing detail is to add a threshold layers to the top of your image by selecting "Layers>New Adjustment Layer>Threshold" from the menu.

Using the Dodge & Burn Tool In Photoshop: Adjust Threshold

Once added the threshold layer will appear black where the tone of the image is darker than the threshold level you set and white where it is lighter. The two values I suggest you try are 8 to see if areas are getting too dark or 249 to check for areas that are too light. I tend to use these values as I find them pretty good when I am printing my images.

Here you can see the threshold level set to 249 and only a few spots of light appear. This is fine; what I want to avoid for this image are large patches of white at this level.

Using the Dodge & Burn Tool In Photoshop: Threshold




Dodging And Burning Complete

When you have finished checking the threshold levels just click on the eye icon to the left of the threshold layer in the layers window to turn it off. You can then continue working on your image until you want to check it again. Here is my finished image having applied Dodging and Burning.

Using the Dodge & Burn Tool In Photoshop: Dodging and Burning applied

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mitchellhatpeg Avatar
13 Nov 2011 8:15AM
Thanks for these useful tips Robin, this is a very helpful article. A couple of questions:

What blending mode are you using when combining the adjusted layer with the unaltered one beneath it?

Could we see the original image for comparison purposes?

many thanks

Lenscraft Avatar
14 Nov 2011 3:37PM
Hi Simon,

I'm pleased you like the article and found it useful. To answer your question, I am just using the "Normal" blending mode. I like this as the dodge and burn adds a little saturation also. The other option you could use if you don't want to affect the colour is Luminosity.

I will ask about making the starting image available.

NikitaMorris Avatar
14 Nov 2011 3:58PM

We've now added the original image at the start of the tutorial.


dusfim Avatar
dusfim 13 Malta
16 Nov 2011 7:08PM
Thanks Robin for this helpful article, as I am still getting to know Photoshop. hpoe we keep seeing these helpful articles.


helenlinda Avatar
helenlinda Plus
16 375 22 United Kingdom
16 Nov 2011 9:04PM
Very helpful - I didn't know about the airbrush. I already use the tools at a low %, but then I click away for England - the noise is infuriating to anyone working in the same room. Wink - and now I have the solution SmileSmile
Lenscraft Avatar
16 Nov 2011 9:24PM
Great to know people are finding the articles helpful.
Thanks for the positive feedback.
adeelasd Avatar
17 Aug 2016 5:04PM
please check my site its of photoshop tutorials its new so can you tell me if its good or bad i am doing all the work my self

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