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How to Dodge and Burn in Photoshop

Dodging and burning are techniques that were once used extensively in the photographic darkroom to improve the appearance of photographs, sometimes quite dramatically. The term Dodging refers to lightening an area of the image whilst Burning is darkening. These techniques have now made their way through to image editing tools such as Photoshop, which even includes a dodge and burn brush.

Unfortunately the Photoshop dodge and burn brushes are what we call destructive in that they work on the image directly and therefore can’t be adjusted or removed later. This tutorial will introduce you to an alternative approach to dodging and burning that is non-destructive.

Non-destructive Photoshop Dodge and Burn

This technique uses layers and blending modes. If you don’t understand how it is working, don’t worry, you only need to know how to use it. The steps are:

  1. Open the image you want to dodge and burn in Photoshop.
  2. Add a new layer by selecting “Layer | New | Layer…” from the menu. This will cause the New layer dialog box to be displayed.
  3. Call this new layer “Dodge” and in the “Mode:” drop down list select “Overlay”. When you do this the checkbox directly below the Mode drop down will become enabled and should be selected. You can see an example below.
    New Layer Dialog Completed

    New Layer Dialog Completed

  4. You can now click the “OK” button to create a new layer which will be filled with grey. You should see the new layer added to the Layers window similar to the screen shot shown below.
    Layers Window

    Layers Window

  5. You can now duplicate the Dodge layer by clicking on it and pressing Ctrl + J on the keyboard (Command + J on a Mac). When the new layer appears in the Layers Window rename this to “Burn”. You can see an example below.
    Layers Window with Dodge and Burn Layers

    Layers Window with Dodge and Burn Layers

  6. Now select the paintbrush tool and set the colour to white. It’s also helpful to set the brush to have a soft edge and the opacity to about 12%. These settings help you to blend the adjustment you will make. You can see some typical settings in the following screen shot.
    Toolbar showing paintbrush settings

    Toolbar showing paintbrush settings

    Paintbrush settings

    Paintbrush settings

  7. Now select the Dodge layer by clicking on it. Once selected you can start to paint on the image in the areas that you would like to lighten. As you paint you should notice these areas become lighter with each brush stroke. If you find a single brush stoke is making the image too light, reduce the brush opacity. It’s quite helpful to use a low opacity and then build up the effect with multiple brush strokes.
  8. Once you have lightened all the areas you want to switch the colour to black. You can now paint onto the Burn layer in the areas that you want to darken.

Other Photohop Dodge and Burn Tips

Here are a few more tips that might help you:

  • If you find the effect is too strong you can adjust the opacity setting of the layer to control this.
  • Take a moment to experiment with other blending modes. Overlay offers a good starting point but don’t overlook modes such as Soft Light.
  • If you find you can see the brush strokes despite using a soft edge brush you can apply a blur to the layer. This can help soften the edges even further and blend the effect.


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Photo Editing Tutorials How to Dodge and Burn in Photoshop