Elements Dodge And Burn

Elements dodge and burn is generally used to improve areas 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 sytle 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.

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.

Back in the day a burn tool 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.  

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 subtracing from the dodging times.  

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

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 Elements dodge and burn tools first ...

The Elements Dodge and Burn Tools

dodge and burn toolsThe Elements 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 Elements dodge and burn tools - they are the same for both.

dodge and burn elements options

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

In general, it's 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's best if you are using a Wacom tablet with a brush that will change opacity with pressure.  The tablet will give you precision and the pressure sensitivity that will make your work much easier.

Using The Elements Dodge and Burn Tools

OK - time to try out the Elements dodge and burn tools with an actual image.
dodge burn church
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.

dodge burn church pre dodge burn church post
Church as shot Church dodged

Now thats better for sure!  Fine tuning the image at this point can be accomplished by working with the Color Curves adjustment.

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.

dodge burn church elements dodge burn layers dodge burn screen
Original Blend mode changed
to Screen
After Blend Mode Change

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 (the Blend Mode is outlined in red) and then Burning the sky back in.

dodge burn screen and burn

The settings for the burn tool were

  • Range - Highlights, Midtones 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 is what you can do with the Dodge and Burn Tools.

Elements Dodge and Burn With a Soft LIght Layer

There are distinct advantages in using a Soft Light layer to do your Elements 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 ondodge and burn max and tabs that layer.

This is the image that will be modified using a Screen Blend mode and a Soft LIght layer.  It's a shot of two 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 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 on 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).

elements dodge burn soflight layer dodge burn softlight layer
Layers Result with Screen Blend Mode
and Soft Light Layer

Soft Light Layer
From Adobe

Darkens or lightens the colors, depending on the blend color. The effect is similar to shining a diffused spotlight on the image.

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.

To lighten this image I painted white on Max and the background and black on the foreground to darken it up a bit.  I used a Wacom tablet set to opacity which made the process much easier and faster.

This is the end result with the Soft Light Layer.

dodge burn end

Ain't it great - I can rescue a really bad shot I took using Photoshop!

Soft Light Layer To Remove Blemishes

You can also use a Soft Light layer to remove blemishes from the skin.

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.
  • 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 becuase they include a highlight that needs to be burned on one side and a dark area thet needs to be dodged on the other side.

dodge burn neck creases dodge burn creases gone
Creases on the neck Creases removed with
Soft Light Layer Technique


The video was produced with Photoshop, however the technique is exactly the same in a Photoshop Elements dodge and burn project.

Soft Light Layer Dodge and Burn

Page Links

Elements Dodge and Burn Tools

Using The Tools

Using Blend Modes

Soft Light Layer

Soft Light Layer For Blemishes


dodge and burn

Where to use Elements
Dodge and Burn

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

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