What is Dodge and Burn?

The concept of ‘dodge and burn’ is not new. When people predominantly used a chemical process it was common practice to manually filter out the light exposing the paper to either let the light ‘burn’ into the paper. The more light, the darker the exposure is. The same idea is used to make something lighter. Blocking the light hitting the paper or dodging, would result in a lighter exposure.

In simple terms, parts of the image were exposed longer or shorter than the rest. As a result, these areas became lighter or darker. Very simple.

But why?

The image above is all about contrast. It is the differences in brightness that helps us understand the size and position of the elements in three-dimensional space. We naturally learn that where a bright surface and a dark surface meet is an edge, and accordingly, this is interpreted as “depth”. We can think of this as contrast creates depth too.

The size of an element results from its position in space, so it is only indirectly influenced by the brightness.

The conclusion we can draw to this is that Dodge & Burn is a technique we can use to change not only the ‘contrast’ in an image be also change the perceived depth that an image has.

Check out the example below.

Use the arrows in the image to jump back and forth.

Picture 1: A simple gray area. There is no depth information here.
Picture 2: The lightening of a round surface creates a highlight
Picture 3: Darkened edges create the illusion of a sphere
Picture 4: The shadow defines the space. One perceives a floor
Fig. 5: The contact shadow determines the distance between the ball and the floor
Fig. 6: The edge between wall and floor is created by a brightness gradient in the floor area.

Why use this technique ?

The example above is an example of using the Dodge and Burn technique to manipulation of light and shadow to create depth and shape.

Looking at this from the perspective of a beauty retoucher or a portrait. Shadows that result from slight bumps in the skin or bones can be lightened. Highlights that are created there are darkened. Done correctly, this creates the impression of smoother skin and overall depth to an image. This is useful when trying to enhance a jawline or cheekbones for example.

Highlights and shadows are created on skin folds; if these are removed, the fold is gone too. If they are mitigated, a fold is no longer significant.

Here some examples. With the slider, you can switch between Without and With Dodge & Burn.

Benefits of Dodge & Burn

Without fail, any working retoucher or photographer is using a Dodge and Burn technique at the very core of their workflow, but, why is this technique so powerful that portrait photographers, landscape photographers, wedding photographers, and all commercial photographers learn about D&B and use it in their post-production.

The dodge and burn technique is very effective. In skilled hands, it can transform images quickly. Why is that, what makes Dodge & Burn so powerful?

Dodge & Burn is completely non-destructive, as long as you do not do it with Photoshop’s own tools.

This means you can always go back to the step before or take back certain areas we would like to.

This creates security for the retoucher and allows a very quick work.

Dodge & Burn does not change any skin texture – at least if you have a good workflow.
The pixels stay in place and are only made lighter or darker – so pushed in the depth forward or backward. This allows extremely high clarity and artifact-free working.

The Methods of Dodge and Burn

The history of Dodge and Burn: in the digital domain & The dodge and post-exposure as a Photoshop tool.

Initially, people used the purposely designed tools that PS gave us, this was back when people just worked on the original layer + PS was installed using floppy disks.

In the tool, the Alt key could be used to switch between the dodge and the post-exposure modes, and the tool offers the option of affecting lights, mid tones, or shadows.

The great advantage of this tool is the automatic adjustment of the color saturation, which is naturally higher in shadows of the image than in highlights and must be taken into account when manipulating brightnesses.

A big disadvantage is, of course, the destructive workflow. Here, directly in the picture is lightened and darkened, if you do something wrong helps only the gradual undo – take a step without affecting the subsequent steps is not possible.

Dodge and re-exposure on the neutral gray level.

To circumvent the described destructive, working on a neutral gray plane in the “soft light” plane mode spread. Now it was very easy to take back positions that were not successful by painting the change away with a neutral gray brush.

This is also the great advantage of this method: it is non-destructive.

As a big disadvantage, you have to see the missing saturation adjustment – unfortunately, the tool can not see here which colors underlie. For the tool, all pixels are gray. As a result, the adjustment of lights and shadows has no effect – only the mid-tones are processed.

Brush on a neutral gray level

Photoshop’s brush engine is sensationally good, so it was natural to swap the Dodge and Post-Exposure tool with a regular brush. Use the X key to toggle between foreground and background colors and simply paint on the neutral gray level. The Soft Light mode of this layer will partially brighten or darken everything below it.

The advantage of this technique is the great brush engine, which dwarfs dodge and re-exposure. A comfortable switch between lightning and darkening is also given.

However, there are two disadvantages: On the one hand, it is not possible with simple means to insert a saturation adjustment. This must, therefore, be painted separately and that means twice the work.

The second drawback is of a technical nature and primarily affects 8bit images: “neutral” is considered to be 50% gray, that is 128 in values. Accordingly, there are 128 available levels in the bright area and 128 levels in the dark area. In the case of very large changes, this can lead to tone drop off or banding.

I split Dodge & Burn into two groups and layered those groups. On this mask, I paint with a white brush then the change in one direction – or just on the other group mask in the other direction. Everything in the group is now painted on the picture.
In the groups, there is a gradation curve and a hue-saturation adjustment level.
The values were taken from the Retouching Toolkit.

The advantages here are pretty clear:

  • Full circumference over the entire tonal range.
  • Saturation correction.
  • Add more tonal contrast.
  • Use your favorite PS Brush.

The only problem with this dodge and burn technique is that it is not that fast to switch from making one adjust to the other. You have to manually select the layer you want to work on, that is such a small problem to have for such a powerful workflow technique.

If you like this article you are going to love the downloadable tutorial. Check out the link below.


Tutorial: Dodge&Burn

Rated 5.00 out of 5

One hour tutorial
Everything you need to know about Dodge & Burn
Watch offline, or stream from our servers
D&B-Toolkit for OSX/Windows included

The Brush

For Dodge & Burn I use a normal, standard round brush with 0% hardness and 100% opacity. The flow varies between 1% and 8%.

The latter has proved to be a clean solution for me, but here the industry shares in about 50/50: some like river, the other opacity.

My standard is certainly 1% flow. Should I notice that I need more changes, I increase to 2%. With that, I applied twice the amount of “paint” in a stroke. If that’s still not enough, increase to 4% (one stroke equals 2x 2% or 4x 1%) or just 8% (one stroke is 2 × 4%, 4x 2% or 8x 1%).

That may be due to my computer science background, but I like to double that and halve it.

Mouse or Tablet

The dodge and burn technique is essentially painting and that’s exactly graphics tablets are for. The mouse is great for dragging things from A to B and clicking buttons, but really really smooth movements are tricky if not impossible. Using a pen gives you all the range, flexibility and control you need.

I only use tablets from Wacom (yes, I have tested others) and have since turned off all the extra features. So there is no pressure sensitivity, no pen position, and no special keys. Some people like to use all the added functions that, and some people like the more simple approach. The great thing about the tablets is that everyone can find a way to use them that works for them,

When switching from a mouse or trackpad to a graphics tablet for the first time, it should be noted that there is a learning curve, and it can be a steep one too. Much patience and practice are needed in the early days. Put in the time though and you will soon not understand how you worked without one.

Using a blend of both mouse and pen is the way to go for many people. Using a mouse for the day to day use of the computer is awesome, then picking up the pen as and when you need it is amazing. The best of both worlds.

Tools for editing

Our perception is not particularly practiced in seeing independent brightnesses. In the photographic & print world, the saturation and the hue-specific brightness (the luminance) plays a significant role.

When editing, it helps to temporarily discard the color saturation information to see the pure luminosity of the color and then edit the brightness based on it. This is quite simple:

In the layer list, a new layer in the “Color” mode is created at the top. Color, Photoshop understands the combination of saturation and hue. This level is filled with white or gray or black. The exact color does not matter as long as the saturation is 0%.

What happens now: The hue and chroma information is transferred from this new layer to all of them. Since the saturation here is 0%, everything turns gray – we only see the perceived brightness.

Brightness v's Luminance

Luminance is the perceived brightness of a color, while brightness is just the numerical brightness in Photoshop.

As an example, I have created the primary and secondary colors here:

Left: The original colors with 100% brightness and 100% saturation
Center: Luminance view with a plane filled with white in the mode Color
Right: Saturation reduced with the hue-saturation adjustment layer

In the direct comparison, yellow is much brighter than blue – and this must be taken into account at D & B to rule out that color deviations affect the result!

The Dangers of D&B

Uncle Ben said, “with great power is a great responsibility.” Regardless of whether the quote is actually from the Spiderman authors or from Nixon – there is a lot of truth in it!

The way we need to think of this is that this technique is very powerful. It is very easy to overdo it and ruin images. Overuse of dodge and burn is quick to spot and very avoidable.

Here are the common mistakes:

Too much D & B

Be careful –  A gentle approach is necessary and checking your work regularly is vital. The good news is that undoing mistakes is super easy.  Take some regular breaks, step back and reflect on your progress.

Change of anatomy

There is a reasone for every shadow and every highligh in a face: the Anatomy. If you cahnge it, you are changing the anatomy of the model. You need to make shure not to change the models face / anatomy / bone structure by changing light and shadow. You need to constantly check your edits to make sure you don’t change important face / body geatures

Too high zoom factor

Working to close to your image, as in you are zoomed in too far, for too long means that you might overwork a specific part of the image. This results in uneven work and mistakes are made.

Patchy areas

There is a learning process, just like anything. Time and training are needed to get where you want to be. Finding ways to practice can be fun, I once freed a golf ball around of all the indents – a great, abstract exercise! I can highly recommend.

The Conclusion

The dodge and burn techniques are used and loved the world over by landscape photographers, wedding photographers, automotive photographers and pretty much everyone. It is with the beauty world though that the finest most detailed use of this technique is used.

Put the time and effort into mastering it and it will help you work more efficiently and effectively.

Remember the learning process. Stick with it and you will soon see the results.

Take regular breaks and take time to reflect on your work. Don’t rush your work and you will make fewer mistakes, which mean less time sat editing. Work smarter not harder.

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Tutorial: Dodge&Burn

Rated 5.00 out of 5

One hour tutorial
Everything you need to know about Dodge & Burn
Watch offline, or stream from our servers
D&B-Toolkit for OSX/Windows included

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