Photoshop Dodge and Burn Tools

In the past I have written articles on how to dodge and burn using layers and blending modes in Photoshop. This is partly because people seem to have such difficulties with the standard Photoshop Dodge and Burn tools. If you have experienced problems, hopefully the following article will help correct that.

Dodging and Burning is a technique that came out of the darkroom. You apply dodging and burning to selective areas of an image to either lighten or darken these which helps give your images more impact and appeal. The way your brain works when looking at an image is to direct your gaze towards light areas and away from dark. In this way you are able to direct the viewers’ attention unconsciously and make the image more interesting.

When you dodge an area in the traditional darkroom you are decreasing the exposure of that area to light which makes it lighter in the final print. In the dark room this would involve place something between the negative and paper so that the light doesn’t reach the paper and you would prevent that area from being exposed. Burning is the opposite technique where an area is exposed to more light to make it darker. This is sometimes referred to as “burning in”.

The Photoshop Dodge and Burn tools work pretty much like the darkroom techniques except its more powerful and precise. Typically Dodging and Burning is thought of as being a technique for black and white images however it is also equally as effective with colour. The tools themselves are found in the Photoshop toolbox as shown in the following diagram.

When using these tools there are a few things you need to be aware of:

Tip 1 - Use Layers

Dodge and Burn tools are best applied to a copy of the image on a new layer. They are destructive edits which can’t easily be adjusted once they have been applied. I therefore suggest before using these tools you make a duplicate layer and then apply the tools to this layer. If you find you are too heavy handed with the tools you can reduce the opacity of the layer to lessen the effect. The best way to create the new layer is to click on the top layer in the “Layers Window” and then press CTRL-Shift – Alt and E on the keyboard together (on a Windows PC). This produces a new layer from all the layers below it and places it on top of the layer stack.

Tip 2 - Don't use the Default Settings

The default strength of the Photoshop Dodge and Burn tools is far too strong and it will ruin your images. I suggest changing the tools opacity to 3%; yes that’s right, 3%. This will allow you to build up the effect slowly and more naturally. There are a few other useful setting that can be adjusted using the toolbar (just below the menu) as shown in the screen shot below.

Over to the right of the exposure slider is an airbrush symbol. When this is clicked the tools work like an airbrush so the longer you hold the mouse down the more the effect is applied. When this option isn’t selected you need to keep painting strokes with the tools and the effect only builds each time you make a new mouse click. With a little practice the airbrush setting becomes very effective.

Over to the left of the toolbar you can see the brush size. I suggest you use a large soft edge brush to apply the effects as this will blend most naturally into the image.

Finally there is the “Range” dropdown. Here you can select the tonal range the tool will target so you can work specifically on the Shadows, Highlights or Midtones. Personally I find the Midtone range is most effective but don’t rule out using the others once you get used to what is happening when you apply the tools.

Tip 3 - Use with Care

It’s actually quite easy to overdo the use of these tools and areas of your image will become pure black or white depending on the tool you are using. This loss of detail from the image is something that needs to be avoided. A good way to check if you are losing detail is to add a threshold layers to the top of your image by selecting “Layers | New adjustment layer | Threshold...” from the menu.

Once added the threshold layer will appear black where the tone of the image is darker than the threshold level you set and white where it is lighter. The two values I suggest you try are 8 to see if areas are getting too dark or 249 to check for areas that are too light. I tend to use these values as I find them pretty good when I am printing my images.

Here you can see the threshold level set to 249 and only a few spots of light appear. This is fine; what I want to avoid for this image are large patches of white at this level (you may need to look very closely at the screenshot).

When you have finished checking the threshold levels just click on the eye icon to the left of the threshold layer in the layers window to turn it off. You can then continue working on your image until you want to check it again. Here is my finished image having applied Dodging and Burning with Photoshop.

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