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Dodging and Burning

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

"Dodging and burning are terms used in photography for a technique used during the printing process to manipulate the exposure of a selected area(s) on a photographic print deviating from the rest of the image's exposure.

decreases the exposure for areas of the print that the photographer wishes to be lighter, while burning increases the exposure to areas of the print that should be darker.

Ansel Adams elevated dodging and burning to an art form. Many of his famous prints were manipulated in the darkroom with these two techniques.

Adams wrote a comprehensive book on this very topic called "The Print."

(Source - Wikipedia)

Anyone who's ever worked their own black and white darkroom was certainly familiar with Ansel Adams and his unparalleled image manipulation using his hands and scraps of paper in a room lit only by a safe light! His description of holding back one area of a photo and darkening another are fascinating and a good insight into his creative genius.

Dodge and Burn to:

  • Make a dark area lighter
  • Make a light area darker
  • Remove small blemishes
  • Remove bags under the eyes
  • Eliminate skin creases
  • Enhance small details like eyelashes
  • Tone down excessive red on the nose or cheek or chin
  • Control local exposure

What this does is expand the dynamic range of a digital image.  The dynamic range is the amount of brightness between the lightest and darkest area of a picture.  In one respect it's very similar to HDR (High Dynamic Range)

Dodging and Burning Methods

Built In Tools

The first method, of course, is to use the PaintShop Pro built in tools (every digital editing program has them).  The downside of the built in tools is that they work directly on the image and if one is not particularly careful then the image can be permanently damaged.

With both tools you can select their limit (that is, working with highlights, mid-tones or shadows) as well as the opacity of the tool.  If you're using a Graphics Tablet then the Brush Dynamics will change depending on the pressure you apply and how the Brush Dynamics are set in the Brush Variance palette.

Use the built in tools at your peril and if you do be very careful and make a back up copy of the image.

Use a Soft Light Layer

The whole focus of this tutorial is to direct you to use a layer for all dodging and burning activities - specifically a Soft Light Layer.

The first advantage of this method is that the work is done on a layer so the work is non-destructive which is a good place to start.

The second advantage has to do with the Soft Light Layer itself.  This type of layer contains 50% grey (which you cannot see).  When you apply a black brush stroke then that part of the layer becomes darker and when you apply a white stroke then that part of the image becomes lighter.

A third advantage is that you can also apply shades of grey if you want to do more shading, although it seems that black and white are the most used colors.

You can, of course use either a mouse or a trackpad with this technique. The preferred technique is to use a graphics tablet like the in Intuos or in Intuos Pro. The advantage of the graphics tablet is that it is so accurate and you can change the brush dynamics according to the pressure you apply on the pen.

Without any further discussion let's give the soft light layer a go.  Here's the image for this part of the tutorial ...

I saw this old Studebaker sitting in a garage service bay and just had to go in and take some pictures.  The instrument cluster was of particular interest because it was so utilitarian compared to the high-tech present day vehicles.

These instruments did, however, do the job do the job they were intended to do quite nicely!

The dials provided the information the hip Studebaker driver of the era (1927 to be exact) needed.

All of the dials in my picture were flat and lifeless, so I chose the Spedo/Odo/Trip Odo dial for some dodging and burning attention.

Set Up

The set up is easy.  Either go to Layers > New Raster Layer and drop down the Blend Mode menu and choose Soft Light or click the new layer icon in the Layers Palette and do the same - New Raster Layer and drop down the Blend Mode menu and choose Soft Light.

You can successfully complete this with either a mouse or a trackpad but it's a whole lot easier with a Graphics tablet such as the Intuos.  

With the tablet you can set the brush stroke to change Opacity with pressure but a better approach may be to lower the brush opacity to around 50% (or lower) and set the size to change with pressure.  That way you won't overdue the burning and have to start over.

Here's a short video that demonstrates the basic Soft Light dodge and burn technique ...

Another Example

A soft light layer can be used in many different situations.  Take the following image of my buddy Phil, for instance ...

I was in a rush to take a picture of Phil taking a picture of me in Las Vegas and didn't properly expose the shot with my trusty Olympus E300. As a result, the foreground is way too dark and the background is way too light. 


Original Shot

After Dodging and Burning

Pre Adjustment Histogram - the Histogram is heavy at both ends and relatively light in the mid-tone area.

Post Adjustment Histogram - there are more pixels in the mid-tone range after dodging and burning.  The result is easy to see in the side-by-side images.


The same technique can be used to tune up a portrait.  Open an image, add a new raster layer and take a close, critical look at it. 

What needs removing?  What needs enhancing?

To help make these decisions, select a nice bright color from the Materials Palette, get a small brush and circle the areas you want to modify on the raster layer you just made. This is your guide (not necessary but useful).

In this image the areas that need dodging or burning are:

  • Bags under the eyes
  • Shiny red nose
  • Two spots on the cheek
  • The area under the lips
  • Creases on the neck

Layer Set Up

We'll be working on the image to the right.  There's really nothing wrong with it, however there are some small areas that can use some attention.

  1. Select the Background and create a duplicate of it for safe keeping.  Next add a second Raster Layer right above the background and change the blend mode to Soft Light.
  2. The best approach is to create one soft light layer for each area of the image you are going to work on and name them to maintain some kind of organization!

You will now have the background, the Soft Light Layers. 

Brush, Materials Palette and Brush Variance Set Up

Your Materials Palette should now be black and white.  If it's not then click on the little tiny black and white box on the palette.

Select the Brush (B) and lower the opacity to around 5% and the brush size to a few pixels (1 to 6 depending on the area should do just fine).  Lower the hardness to 1 so the brush has a nice soft edge.

Open the Brush Variance palette and select pen pressure for size. You can do this technique with a mouse but you will not have the control that a wise Wacom Intuos or Intuos Pro user will have and your results may not be as striking. 

Working The Soft Light Layer

  1. Make sure you have the Soft Light Layer for the area you are going to work selected!  

  2. Choose the area you want to work on and then zoom way in so you can see the offending pixels of the blemish or mark you are going to remove. Now start working on the area you want to repair.
  • In the image above (the working area) the dark spot in the middle needs to be lightened. Make sure that white is the foreground color and than start painting over the blemish.
  • Because of the very low brush opacity the blemish will take some time and work to lighten - keep at it.  Zoom in and out to see how it is coming along and when you are finished move on to the next area.
  • It is likely that the majority of your time will be spent paining white with your Wacom pen  to eliminate dark areas.  There are, of course, some times when you need to darken an area - in this case it is on the creases on the neck ...
  • Skin Creases

    If you look closely at the creases you will notice that one side of the crease is dark and the other side is light so you will need to work both parts at a very high zoom. 

    The light areas will be painted with black (burning) and the dark areas will be painted with white (dodging) on the soft light layer.

    That's pretty much it - dodging and burning with a soft light layer.  The changes are small yet significant in the overall appearance of the image. 

    So now - go find yourself a portrait image and have at it. 

    Dodging and Burning
    with Multiple techniques

    Dodging and burning is a really great standalone technique because you can make dramatic modifications to an image. However it's even greater when used in conjunction with other techniques.

    When I first learned about this technique I figured a Dodge and Burn was all I would ever had to do to improve the quality of an image. As I learned more and more about the program and how to make modifications and changes I started to realize that one technique is never a fix all, every technique is generally enhanced when it's combined with another technique.

    For instance, you can add a Levels adjustment layer to your image and see that certain parts of it are either too light or too dark so this is where you would add a soft light layer and do some dodging and burning. The same can hold true if you add a curves adjustment layer, although adding a curves adjustment layer provides a more refined adjustment and will probably not need as much dodging and burning.

    Another situation may occur if you change the Layer Blend Mode to one of the modes that really work to modify a photograph such as Screen Blend or Multiply Blend. If you're not sure how these blend modes work then visit Paint Shop Blend Modes for more information.

    The Next Step

    Now it's your turn to create some truly amazing and wonderful adjustments using this dodge and burn technique. Once you figure it out it may become a regular tool and your digital editing toolkit.

    Here's an older video for you that demonstrates the technique and proves this technique is timeless …

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