Photoshop Dodge and Burn

Dodge and burn has a long history in the photographic arena.  It is generally used to improve an area of an image that for some reason or other, is too dark or too light. 

Dodging and burning is all about expanding the dynamic range in a picture. 

What expanding the dynamic range does is lighten the shadows and darken the highlights - and that's exactly what an HDR (high dynamic range) technique is doing.

In the old style wet darkroom it was done by preventing the enlarger light from hitting the paper or allowing one portion of the paper to receive more light.

Back in the day a burn tools was generally a ragged hole punched in a small piece of cardboard and a dodge tool was a round piece of cardboard attached to a very thin wire.  Both of these homemade tools were held between the light of the enlarger and the paper on the easel.   

To dodge a print is to hold back some of the light falling on the paper to selectively lighten an area.

To burn a print is to expose a specific area to more light to make that area darker.

It really was a hit and miss affair.  One could dodge like crazy, run the print through the chemicals only to discover that not enough or too much dodging was done.  

The print went into the trash and the process was started all over again either adding or subtracting from the dodging times.  

Dodge and Burn

  • Lighten Dark Areas
  • Darken Light Areas
  • Restore Old and Faded Family Photographs
  • Vignetting
  • Rescue Poor Photographs
  • Restore Detail
  • Special Effects
  • Creating High Key Images

With Photoshop and Photoshop Elements you can do the same thing with the Dodge and Burn Tools and a Wacom tablet quickly and easily in your digital darkroom.  The tools work quite well and there is a reasonable amount of adjustments available.

The downside of the tools is that you must be working directly on the background or a copy of the background - no layers are allowed with dodge and burn.  

There is another way to achieve similar or better results and that is to use a Soft Light Layer filled with 50% gray.  There are distinct advantages to using layers and they are listed in that part of this page but lets look at the dodge and burn tools first ... 

Dodge and Burn Tools

The dodge and burn tools live in the tool bar and the keyboard shortcut is O.  This is what they look like ...

According to Adobe, the tools do the following:

Dodge Tool and Burn Tool - Used to lighten or darken areas of the image, the Dodge tool and the Burn tool are based on a traditional photographer’s technique for regulating exposure on specific areas of a print. Photographers hold back light to lighten an area on the print (dodging) or increase the exposure to darken areas on a print (burning).

Sponge Tool - The Sponge tool subtly changes the color saturation of an area. In Grayscale mode, the tool increases or decreases contrast by moving gray levels away from or toward the middle gray. 


These are the options available when using the dodge and burn tools - they are the same for both Photoshop and Photoshop Elements. 

As you can see there are three ranges available (shadows, mid tones and highlights) as well as an exposure setting.

In general, it is best to work with a very low exposure setting so that your burning or dodging blends seamlessly with adjacent areas of the image.

As with any tool that requires some painting on your image it is best if you are using a Wacom Bamboo or Wacom Intuos tablet.  They give you precision and the pressure sensitivity that will make your work much easier.

Probably the most useful setting is to select Other Dynamics (Opacity) and set the Flow Jitter to Pen Pressure. 

Using The Dodge and Burn Tools

OK - time to try out the tools with an actual image.

This is a picture I took and when it was downloaded the result was disappointing - not at all the picture I thought I was taking. 

The sky is great but the church in the foreground is way too dark.

The first thought with an image like this is to pitch it in the trash but maybe we can fix it with a bit of dodging!

The settings for the dodge tool with this image were:

  • Range - Midtones
  • Exposure - 10%
  • Wacom Brush - change opacity with pressure
  • Brush Size - large

It is then a simple matter to work around the church and the trees to slowly return some of the detail in the image.  The person crossing the street in the mid foreground is a bit too bright so the burn tool was used to darken up his shirt. 

Now that's better for sure!  Fine tuning the image at this point can be accomplished by adding a Curves Adjustment Layer and lightening the mid-tones even more. 

Another Method Using Blend Modes

Layer Blend Modes are really useful and they can help in a situation such as this.  Here's how to use one of the Blend Modes to lighten a dark image.

  • Open your dark image and make a copy.
  • Change the top layers blend mode to Screen.

The church sure looks better but the sky is blown out so that needs fixing with the Burn Tool.

Here is the image after changing the blend mode to Screen and then Burning the sky back in. 

 The settings for the burn tool were

  • Range - Highlights, Mid tones and Shadows.
  • Exposure - 34% to 50%.
  • Wacom Brush - set to change opacity with pressure.
  • Brush Size - small for tight areas and large for most of the sky.

There you go - that's just a small taste of what you can do with the Dodge and Burn Tools.  As you work with them other uses for them will present themselves exactly when you need them ... 

Soft Light Layer
Dodge and Burn

Soft Light Layer

Darkens or lightens the appearance of the underlying colors, depending on the blend color applied to the Soft Light layer. 

If the blend color (light source) is lighter than 50% gray, the image is lightened as if it were dodged. If the blend color is darker than 50% gray, the image is darkened as if it were burned in. Painting with pure black or white produces a distinctly darker or lighter area but does not result in pure black or white. 

What all that means is if you paint white on a soft light layer the image gets lighter and if you paint black on  a soft light layer the image gets darker.

There are distinct advantages in using a Soft Light layer to do your dodging and burning.

  • When you are working on a layer you are not working on the original.
  • If you make an error on a layer it is easy to get rid of it and start over.
  • If you have a lot of work to do then you can create multiple layers.
  • You can change the opacity of a layer to modify the adjustments done on that layer.

Max and Tabitha

This is the image that will be modified using a Screen Blend mode and a Soft Light layer.  It's a shot of my two dogs (Tabitha the Miniature Bull Terrier on the left and Max the Staffordshire Bull Terrier on the right) playing tug of war with Max's prize toy. 

Unfortunately the photographer did a really crappy job taking the shot and it needs a lot of fixing. 

  • The first step is to duplicate the original layer by dragging it to the new layer icon on the bottom of the layers palette or going to Layer > Duplicate Layer.

  • Now change the Blend Mode to Screen.  This will lighten the image a lot but it is still too dark.

  • Add a new Soft Light Layer by pressing the ALT key and clicking on the New Layer Icon at the bottom of the layers palette or Layer > New Layer.  When the layer palette comes up select Soft Light in the mode drop down box and then placing a check mark in the Fill with soft light neutral color (50% gray).

To lighten this image I painted white on both Max (the black guy on the right) and the background and then black on the foreground to darken it up a bit.

I used a Wacom Intuos Pro Medium tablet set to opacity which made the process much easier and faster.

This is the end result with the Soft Light Layer and a dash of Curves thrown in to improve the contrast. 

It's highly likely that if your need to do some dodging and burning then there will be other issues with the image as well.  In this case a slight contrast improvement was created using the Curves adjustment. 

Remember - before trashing an image, take a closer look because some creative dodging and burning my be just what you need for a fabulous rescue!


This is a prime example of a picture that was begging to be thrown out.  It's a scan of a negative of an abandoned fishing boat - here's how it looked and its Histogram ... 

This scan of a black and white print that was over 20 years old is an accurate representation of the state of the original negative.  Flat and boring.  It sure is a candidate for the trash can, isn't it? 

Here's the Layers Palette for this poor boat - it's a trip from hopeless to acceptable.  Here's the layer summary.

After copying the Background Layer, a new Soft Light Raster Layer was added and the Paint Bucket was used to fill the layer with black - it helped.

The next Soft Light Raster Layer was added to paint in the top of the image with black, the background. This was in a mountainous  area in BC, Canada and there were trees back there.

On the next Soft Light layer I dragged a Foreground to Transparent Gradient from the bottom to give some life to the water - gradients  (black to white, black to transparent and white to transparent) work perfectly with Soft Light layers.  The trees in the background and some parts of the boat were burned in with black using a soft edge brush.

The final layer was a contrast adjustment with a Curves Adjustment layer and here's how the image and the Histogram look after these few adjustments. 

After dodging and burning.After Dodging and Burning.

This is far more appealing and interesting after being modified with Soft Light dodge and burn (mostly burn) layers and a Curves adjustment

So now your task is to go rooting around through your old pictures to find one that needs some TLC dodging and burning. 

Remove Blemishes with
Soft Light Layers

You can also use a Soft Light layer to remove blemishes from the skin.  This is where your Wacom tablet really shines!

The set-up is exactly the same as I used to lighten the Max and Tabitha picture with a couple of modifications.

  • Zoom in to about 1600% to do the work.
  • Use a very small brush size and a Wacom Graphics tablet.
  • Lower the brush opacity to about 5% or less.

The method is especially effective with creases under the eyes or on the neck.  

Creases can be difficult because they include dark and light areas that needs to be

  1. burned on the light side and
  2. dodged on the dark side. 


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