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Burning and Dodging

The difference that Burning & Dodging can have on your image.

(Photo © Glyn Dewis)

Ever since Photoshop came out it copied many of the tools and ways of film photography. One of these was the old darkroom trick of Burning and Dodging. In the darkroom we would use our hands, arms, cardboard or pretty much anything we could get our hands on to hold back the light from the paper to make an area of the print lighter (dodging) or concentrate the light to make something darker (burning). Using these techniques can help photos that may fall a little flat due to too much light or a lack of contrast.

Photoshop carried this over with a couple of tools for burning (a hand with a circle in the fingers) to darken and something that looks like a black lollipop for dodging (makes things lighter). Unfortunately these tools never worked very well for a couple of reasons. When you used the Dodge tool, it would make a white haze. The Burn tool would sometimes cause color crossover as it darkened. Plus, you could only use them on an image layer, which means that if you make a mistake you could only correct it by going back in the History state or starting over completely.

With new versions, Adobe did improve these tools with the Luminosity checkbox, but you still can only use them on the image layer.

There is a better way – one that not only will give you more control, but will also let you fix your mistakes easily. Let’s go through the step-by-step process:

  1. Go to the top menu bar and click on the Layer>New Layer. This will bring up a menu box.
  2. Change the Layer name to Burn and Dodge.
  3. Go to the Layer Mode box, and from the drop down menu change the mode to Overlay. When you do this, a new option will pop up at the bottom of the menu box for a check box to Fill with 50% Neutral Gray – click to check it. Then click OK.

Now you will have new layer technically filled with the “invisible” color gray – the color is acting as a blank layer, and is therefore invisible to the image itself. In this way, it does not change the image…yet.

Now, when you paint on it with Brush Tool in black or white, you are doing the same effects as burning and dodging.  For example: Take the brush tool, reduce the opacity of it to about 12%, and with a soft edge brush you are adding depth and highlights to any image.

If you make a mistake, just paint it out with the opposite color. You can paint over the same spot a few times to add to your brush stokes and build up the effect.

Want to reduce the effect? Just reduce the opacity of this layer.

Looking for a different effect? Change the mode to Soft Light for an even more gentle effect.

Want to bump it up? Use Vivid Light.

Burning and Dodging in this way will ultimately help you enhance “flat” images, giving them more contrast and helping you balance the light in each area of the photo. And remember: Don’t fear the shadows and highlights! They are very useful tools that give your images depth.

Need more help on these techniques? Be sure to check out our upcoming classes on Adobe Photoshop!