Mastering Dodge and Burn in Photography

When you know how to dodge and burn your photos, you’ve mastered one of the most important techniques in photography – using post-production to draw a viewer’s eye through an image. There are dozens of techniques for dodging and burning, although doing it incorrectly can lead to unnatural halos and other artifacts in an image. So, what are dodging and burning, and how can you make the most of them in photography?

What Are Dodging and Burning?

Dodging and burning are two of the oldest creative post-processing techniques in photography. They originated early in the darkroom days, and they’re quite simple to understand:

  • Dodging: Brightening part of a photograph
  • Burning: Darkening part of a photograph

Dodging and burning are local adjustments, meaning that they target specific areas of a photo rather than adjusting the whole thing equally.

In the darkroom, you’d dodge an image by preventing some of the enlarger’s light from shining on your light-sensitive paper. For example, you could attach a piece of cardboard to the end of a thin handle, then hold it over the area where you want to block the light.

Or, to burn an area of your print in the darkroom, you would simply allow more light to shine on it. The easiest way to accomplish this is to use a large sheet of cardboard with a hole through the middle, then position it strategically over the area of the image you want to darken.

Even today, the dodge and burn tools in Photoshop look like a lollipop and an open-hand circle, respectively. They mimic the shape of the dodge and burn tools in the darkroom.

Photoshop Dodge and Burn Tools

Why It’s Important to Dodge and Burn Photos

A large part of post-production is emphasizing the parts of your photo that work well – and de-emphasizing the parts that don’t. For example, if your portrait subject has beautiful eyes, you want to make sure the viewer can see them well. This is where dodging and burning are very important.

By brightening or darkening part of an image, you draw attention toward it or away from it. Photographers frequently “burn” the corners of a photo (darkening them manually or with the vignetting tool in most software) to attract more attention to the center. They’ll “dodge” other areas, like people’s faces or eyes, as well as foreground subjects in a landscape that are meant to draw a viewer’s eye.

Usually, the best dodging and burning is subtle. You don’t want your viewer to notice that part of the photo is unusually bright or dark.

Sample Images

Take a look at the examples below, and see if you can guess which objects have been dodged or burned in each one. Answers shown after all four images:

Foreground Dodging
NIKON D800E + 24mm f/1.4 @ 24mm, ISO 100, 1.6 seconds, f/16.0
Sky Burning
NIKON D7000 + 24mm f/1.4 @ 24mm, ISO 800, 1/30, f/1.4
Waves Dodged and Burned
NIKON D800E + 105mm f/2.8 @ 105mm, ISO 400, 0.8 seconds, f/9.0
No Dodging or Burning Applied
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S @ 39mm, ISO 64, 4 seconds, f/11.0

The first image above is pretty easy. There, I dodged part of the foreground near the shell, making it easier to see. I burned one of the clouds in the sky that was too bright.

In the second image, I burned various areas of the sky that had faint traces of clouds, de-emphasizing them and attracting attention to the beam of light in the center. Although you may think I dodged the cloud in the very center to emphasize it more, I actually kept it mostly the same, aside from burning a bit in the center that was too bright.

What about the third image? This one is even trickier. Notice the three layers of relatively bright waves, as well as the splash around the rock on the left. I dodged the bottom-left wave significantly. The large center wave, I didn’t touch at all. The upper-right wave, I burned quite a bit. For the splash, I dodged the left half and burned the right half.

And the last image above – surely I dodged the rock? In fact, although I did do a global boost of the shadows in this image, I didn’t do any local dodging or burning to the rock itself, or anywhere else in the image.

The point here is that there is no formula you should follow for which objects to dodge and burn in a photo. Don’t always dodge faces or foregrounds; don’t always burn clouds. Instead, in a given image, ask yourself which items are too dark or too bright in the context of their surroundings. Only then should you start dodging and burning.

Avoiding Halos

One tricky aspect of dodging and burning is “coloring in the lines” – making sure that you brighten or darken the object you want, and nothing more. If you get this wrong, you might end up with bright or dark halos around the objects in a photo, and it won’t look very realistic.

Bad Dodging with Halo Example
A halo caused by bad dodging technique, turning the sky unnaturally bright around the tree

So, how do you avoid halos when you dodge and burn? Even carefully drawing your mask doesn’t always work – or it can be prohibitively difficult, like perfectly selecting all the leaves on a tree against the sky. But there are a few different techniques to get around this problem.

First, if your post-production software allows it, target areas by the brightness they already have. In other words, restrict your dodging just to areas that are already in shadow, or your burning to highlight regions alone. That way, if your subject is in front of a background with different brightness, you can color outside the lines without worrying as much.

Targeting by luminance isn’t possible in all software, though. Not to worry – you still have good options to avoid halos. The best is to use more than just the obvious method of brightening a local area of an image. You don’t always have to use the “exposure” or “brightness” slider. Instead, you can use shadow adjustments, contrast, clarity, even saturation to do something similar.

For example, say that you’re using Lightroom and you want to dodge a shadow region without creating halos around it. Although the newest versions of Lightroom have a “luminance range mask” to target specific areas, older standalone versions do not. In that case, the best way to dodge shadows is to create a small brush or gradient and simply increase the “shadows” slider. Your chances of producing an ugly halo with this method are much lower.

Recommended Dodge and Burn Methods

The best method for dodging and burning depends on the software you’re using. Different photographers also have their own preferences, particularly in complex software like Photoshop. So, although you may find the following recommendations for dodging and burning to be helpful, it’s worth experimenting to figure out your own preferred techniques as well.

Photoshop

There are dozens of ways to dodge and burn an image in Photoshop, and the specific “dodge” and “burn” tools aren’t even the best in many cases.

First, when you’re planning to dodge and burn, it’s critical that you do so on a new layer. If you dodge and burn the base layer in Photoshop, you won’t be able to adjust your changes aside from undoing them entirely.

Beyond that, though, the best practices get a bit tricky. I’m a fan of creating adjustment layers – say, curves – and masking out the areas I don’t want it to apply. That’s an easy, flexible method that doesn’t harm your base layer at all.

There are more complex methods as well. One popular option is to create a new layer and fill it with 50% gray, then set its blend mode to “overlay” rather than “normal.” By painting directly on this layer with a white or black brush, you brighten and darken the regions of the photo you want, respectively.

Photoshop Dodge and Burn Layer

Or, if you just want to do it the rough way, duplicate the base layer and use Photoshop’s built in dodge and burn tools. If you later decide that some of your dodging and burning was a bad idea, mask out those areas to reveal the base layer below.

Lightroom

Before you get to the local dodging and burning steps in Lightroom, it’s a good idea to do as much as possible with global adjustments (edits that apply to the entire image). That’s because global adjustments are far easier to change and undo. Local adjustments quickly get out of hand as you add more and more, not to mention slowing down Lightroom’s performance. 

When you do end up adding local adjustments, I recommend starting big. Do gradients (standard, then radial) before you using the brush tool. Often, a single well-placed gradient can solve the same problem as a dozen brushes.

If you’ve gone down the line and you’re using brushes, I recommend staying away from the “exposure” slider in most instances. It is the most likely to give halos, since it targets all regions of brightness fairly evenly. Instead, use “highlights,” “shadows,” “whites,” and “blacks” – and don’t stop there. One of my favorite ways to darken distracting highlights is with Lightroom’s clarity feature, which also softens up transitions around it.

If you’re still running into haloing problems, it’s time to use the new luminance range mask. But you’ll usually be able to solve your problems without it; after all, Adobe didn’t even add this feature to Lightroom until recently.

Radial-Filter-Inverted

Capture One

My suggestions for Capture One are akin to my suggestions for Lightroom in many ways. Start global, and only go to local adjustments when that fails. Do gradients, linear and circular, before moving to the brush tool. And venture beyond the standard “exposure” or “brightness” slider when dodging and burning.

Two extra points apply in Capture One that aren’t true of Lightroom. First, local adjustments require the use of Capture One’s layer capabilities, which are quite valuable. They don’t slow down in the same way as Lightroom’s local adjustments, and their opacity can be decreased if you decide later that you don’t want your edits to be as dramatic. So, don’t shy away from layers.

Second, the refined color adjustments in Capture One mean that you can target certain areas very precisely without doing local gradients or adjustment brushes – more so than is possible in Lightroom. Use this before adding local adjustments, or use it in tandem with just one or two brushes/gradients so that you don’t need dozens of them.

Capture One Dodge and Burn

Other software

The recommendations above for Lightroom and Capture One apply to most software on the market. Start global, and only do local dodging and burning when you must. Even then, don’t do too many local adjustments, and know ahead of time how you want the final image to appear. Lastly, be flexible with the type of local adjustments you do; use more sliders than just “exposure.”

Conclusion

Hopefully, the tips in this article gave you a good idea of the importance of dodging and burning. Although not every image uses these techniques, they’re some of the most valuable to have at your disposal no matter the genre of photography. Let us know below if you have any questions or comments about the best way to dodge and burn photos in various software, or anything else you have in mind!

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