Non Destructive Dodge and Burn

Dodging and burning really is just as much of an essential part of photography in today’s digital age as it was in the darkroom days. For me learning photography in the darkroom, dodging and burning was always an important part of the final print. It was never an exact science I remember making makeshift dodging tools from old scraps of paper or even cardboard pizza boxes. I had a stack of pretty funky looking tools that I would use to block out the light while printing with the enlarger. The experience of waving around a little cardboard circle for a few seconds to “lighten” up part of the image was always a fun mystery, you would never know exactly how it looked until a few minutes later when the image would come back to life in the developer. Dodging and burning is much more refined in the digital darkroom now and the great thing is we really have a lot more control over it vs the darkroom days.

So why is dodging and burning so important? Simply put the lightness and darkness of an image are a key to how the people viewing your image “see” the photo. Peoples eyes are automatically drawn to the lightest part of a print and making parts of the image lighter or darker really guide your viewers eye around certain parts of the photo. Although Photoshop has the Dodge and Burn tool in Photoshop that you can use to lighten or darken images there are a few downfalls to using those tools:

1) You are darkening and lightening the actual image. Since you are editing the pixels on the image if you need to go back and make changes you are much more limited since those pixels have been changed.
2) These tools are pretty limited to what you can do. Although you can set the exposure in this tool to have some control over how much dodging and burning you are doing you can’t easily correct something you did steps earlier. You can have more control when you use the method below.

Non Destructive Dodging and Burning is done by basically done by creating a new overlay layer in photoshop that we will use to paint in more light or to darken area. We will start with a fairly typical outdoor photo that was taken in natural light so the lighting isn’t the best and there are some subtle things we can do to really improve this image. I’ll keep this tutorial very simple and straightforward, if you have any questions just use the comments below:

Step 1: Create a new Layer

The first step is to create a new layer in Photoshop that will serve as the layer we paint in the areas to dodge and burn.

To create a new layer hold down “Alt” (Win) or “Option” (Mac) and click on the New Layer icon in the Layer palette. This will not only add a new layer to Photoshop but also open up the new Layer settings where we can customize the layer first. The Layer settings box will allow you to do a few things. You can name the Layer and more importantly change the Layer mode to Overlay with the fill a neutral grey (50% gray). Changing the Layer mode to overlay will let you change the contrast of the image. For areas lighter than 50% gray it will lighten the image and areas over 50% gray will darken the image, and any any at 50% gray will be totally transparent.

Step 2 – Paint with white to dodge

Now that we have a layer filled with 50% gray on top of our main image layer we will pick the brush tool (the shortcut is B on your keyboard) and set the foreground color to white. Shortcuts are always key to saving time when using Photoshop, to set the foreground and background colors back to their defaults hit the D button which will reset them to Black as the foreground and White as the background. Then hit the X button to swap the foreground and background colors so you now have white as the foreground. You can see a list of shortcuts here Photoshop shortcuts.

The best way to dodge and burn is to gradually paint over the image so I will normally set the brush opacity to around 15%.

Then just start painting parts of the image you want to lighten up. I’ll brush over her face a few times to lighten the darkest areas up.

Step 3 – Paint with black to darken

Now that we have lightened up parts of the image we need to burn the image to darken the background which will give more focus on the subject. Switch your foreground color to Black by clicking the X key. And just like we lightened the image with the brush we will do the same exact thing now to darken the image. Once you are done you will see the Dodge and Burn Layer we created has different shades of gray to reflect where we are lightening and darkening the image.

That’s it! A pretty quick and easy way to do a non destructive dodge and burn in Photoshop. Here is a sample of the final image.

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Author: Mark

Mark is a fine art wedding and portrait photographer from Northern California. He has been passionate about photography since childhood and started his studio 12 years ago to bring a fresh style of photography to the wedding and portrait world.

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  1. Excellent tutorial, explained very simply and concisely. I use Adobe Lightroom which is easier to do things like this, and more straightforward for a photographer not well versed with Photoshop.

  2. That was a very nice tutorial. Simple, but very useful!

  3. Thanks, glad you enjoyed it!


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