Dodging and Burning Pro Tips in Photoshop


What Is Dodging and Burning?

Dodging and Burning will bring your images ALIVE!

Dodging and Burning in Photoshop is a term that was taken from the old film days of photography. Simply put, dodging is lightening pixels in today’s digital world and burning is the darkening of the pixels. It is all about adding contrast to images. Contrast is king, after all.

It isn’t the same as using a contrast slider such as the contrast adjustment in the basic tool within the Adobe Lightroom develop module or Adobe Camera RAW or any RAW image converter for that matter. Those sliders are global meaning that the entire image has the adjustment applied to it.

The beauty of dodging and burning is that you can be very selective as to where you want the contrast manipulated. Utilizing the various methods in Adobe Photoshop can help you achieve the exact look and feel you are trying to obtain.

But Dodging and Burning doesn’t end with just contrast. You will see that there is a technique called COLOR DODGE & BURN where you dodge and burn but with color to add not only contrast but a boost in color and “feel” in your scene.

Creating Depth in your images

Adding depth and a 3D like dimension to a digital image is simply not possible without some really good dodging and burning. It can take your subject or any part of your image from a flat,  two-dimensional look and feel and turn it into a really compelling 3D image that appears to have objects or parts of the image wanting to pop out of the screen or print when printed.

Creating Depth that isn't shown with a camera alone can be done with Dodge and Burn techniques.

The basic idea behind dodging and burning is brightening highlights and higher end midtones and also you're able to darken shadow or darker areas. 

What type images are best suited for dodging and burning?

This question was added because it seems as though some think that there are certain genres in Photography that are better served by using dodging and burning techniques. This simply isn’t true!

From wide, sweeping landscape vistas to a portrait of a child’s face, dodging and burning is probably the single most effective way to take your images from “Oh that’s nice” to “WOW! Look at this!”

When reviewing some landscape portfolios here at Improve Photography, I can confidently say that 90% of the images submitted for review that are very well done could get that extra 5% of the “little something” that makes them truly great. Adding selective contrast via dodging and burning is simply the best way to do this.

Dodging and Burning Tools

Since we know dodging and burning is simply darkening and lightening parts of the image, what tools do we use for this in post-production?

This is the drop down box in Lightroom and as you can see, there is a dodge and burn preset for the adjustment brush.

Without even going into Photoshop, you can use the adjustment brush in Lightroom to paint in some darkening or lightening on certain areas of the image you are working on. This can, of course, be done using the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom. This may be ok for simple edits here and there but there are a few problems with the Lightroom Develop Module. First, you’re working with a RAW image and not actually working on PIXEL based layers like you do in Photoshop. This creates a considerably less responsive brush because Lightroom (and Adobe Camera RAW) works differently than Photoshop when working on RASTERIZED PIXEL based layers. Don’t worry if that seems like a big word or phrase!! RASTERIZED simply means made into a “Pixel Based” layer.

Working with the file in Photoshop as pixel based layer will always be faster than editing in Lightroom because every adjustment you make in Lightroom is being saved and then the image updated to show these changes. In Photoshop, any adjustment or brush stroke is instant and very smooth and that is important when dodging and burning.

Secondly, in Photoshop, there are so many ways to Dodge & Burn and more options are always better. Lightroom is a very capable editing application but when you really want to bring that extra level of detail to your images, Photoshop has no equal! In fact, Dodging and Burning in Photoshop is easily my personal favorite part of image editing because it is where your image will come alive!

Photoshop Dodge and Burn Tools

Photoshop has Dodge and Burn tools built right into the Photoshop toolbar. They are pretty good to work with as you can target highlights, midtones or shadows – somewhat. The bleed over into other tones isn’t very well controlled.

Another problem with these older Photoshop tools is that they are part of a destructive workflow where you are working on the pixel containing layer itself. This is not part of a non destructive workflow and the beauty and power of Photoshop is doing just that; working non destructively on your images with layers.

The original Photoshop Dodge and Burn Tools. The Tool bar that is at top when using the tool is shown here next to the tools for clarity; they aren't this close inside of Photoshop.

When you select the DODGE tool, and have HIGHLIGHTS selected as the tonal range you want to alter, when you make a brush stroke over the brighter areas of the image, they will receive more of the adjustment than midtone and shadow areas. Alternatively, if you BURN and have SHADOW selected as the range, the darker areas will be altered more than the mid and highlight tones.

The EXPOSURE setting on the DODGE & BURN tools is very important as this is basically the equivalent to OPACITY BRUSH setting on the paint brush tool. The Protect Tones check box should be checked when working with the dodge and burn tools because it gives a much more natural look in photographic images.

Drawbacks with the Basic Dodge and Burn Tools in Photoshop

The problem is there is no way to control exactly where the adjustments “bleed” into. Dodging with Shadows selected will still have strong effect on midtones and even highlight. And, again, we are working on the pixel layer and that is a destructive workflow. If we want to go back and make simple changes, we cannot. You’d have to do it all over again or use your history states by hitting Shift/CTRL (or CMD) & Z over and over to go back.

There is also no way to add color with this method. In general, it is very limited and not flexible at all. This is why we will move to the much more powerful and effective methods as we continue through this article.

More Advanced Methods for Dodging and Burning

The above described Dodge and Burn tool in Photoshop is the most basic and simple way to D&B (Dodge and Burn) in Photoshop but hardly the best. Listed below are some more powerful and advanced ways to add D&B adjustments to your images.

Curves Dodge and Burn Layers

Adjustment layers are the heart of Photoshop and it is where all the flexibility and power come into play. Curves adjustments are great for both tonal adjustments as well as color editing. To dodge and burn using Curves, simply add a two Curves adjustment layers. One will be for the LIGHTER (Dodge) Curve and the other for the DARKER (Burn) curve. In the example below, the NUMBER 1 ARROW is pointing at the curve point that is used to adjust the BRIGHTNESS in this case since this is the DODGE Layer. The NUMBER 2 Arrow is pointing to this Curve Layer with the Black Mask attached to it. Painting white on that layer mask will reveal the adjustment to the pixels in that area of the image.

Using Curves with a BLACK layer mask is an effective way to add localized contrast via Dodge and Burn.

Important to note is you should make sure the layer BLEND MODE is set to LUMINOSITY when doing this. This will help protect colors without dulling or over-saturating them.

To create a Dodge Layer, simply go to the center point on the curve and click and drag up to brighten the image. Now add a BLACK LAYER MASK to this layer. This will hide any adjustment that you just made. Do the same with the BURN layer but make it darker by dragging Curves adjustment down. Again, ADD a BLACK LAYER MASK to this layer. Your image will look unchanged since both layers are hidden with the black layer masks.

To dodge, you simply need to paint with WHITE paint on the dodge layer’s mask, which is black, using the “B” Paint Brush Tool. This will reveal the brightening that the curves layer created. It is always best to brush in with a very subtle brush (Low Opacity or Flow on Brush) so you build up the changes slowly.

To burn, do the same but just on the BURN LAYER. This will be allowing the darkening of the burn layer to show through. You have a few levels of adjustment with this technique. You can go to the CURVE and adjust that and the painted areas of white on the mask will reveal the changes as you move around the curve.

Also, you always have the OPACITY of the layer that can be altered that will allow you to dial in just how much of that adjustment you wish to have applied to the image.

You can alter the contrast of the dodge and burn adjustments by going into the CURVES  Properties panel and see, in real time, the adjustments being made.

Dodge & Burn with 50% Gray Layer(s)

Another popular method to Dodge and Burn is using Blank Layers filled in with 50% grey and then these layers are changed to either Soft Light or Overlay Blend Modes. With these two blend modes and 50% grey filling them, they appear as totally transparent layers as if nothing has been altered in your image. Choosing Overlay or Soft Light as the blend mode really is personal preference as some like the more punchy effect you get from Overlay Mode and others like the more subtle Soft Light Mode. Personally, I (along with many others) prefer to use Overlay for the DODGE layer and SOFT LIGHT for the burn layer. Experiment with different images since every image is a whole new canvas to create your vision upon.

Color Dodging is great for adding mood and dimension to your images. The bow/side of this boat was enhanced with color dodging to give a look that a camera alone doesn't create.

Creation of 50% Gray Layers

To make 50% Gray Layers:

  • CREATE NEW LAYER and put it in the Overlay or Soft Light Blend Mode
  • If you want separate Dodge and Burn layers, Create two. Call them DODGE and then BURN or DODGE & BURN if you want to keep them on the same layer. Naming them is for organizational reasons only; you don’t have to but it’s good practice.
  • Go To EDIT>FILL and make sure CONTENTS displays 50% Gray. Leave Mode at Normal and Opacity to 100%.
  • Click OK

To Dodge, simply use a lighter color or white paint brush. This differs and gives us much more power immediately over the other DODGE and BURN listed above because now we can use color along with black or white to darken or lighten our images.

Selecting Colors to DODGE with is simple with the Eye Dropper which can be accessed by holding the ALT/OPT key when using the Brush tool and then clicking to sample colors. Adjust Brightness and Saturation to taste.

If you are going to Dodge with COLOR, make sure to choose a color that is similar to one already in the image. Being subtle here is key. The best and fastest way I have found to do this is by using the HSB Sliders in the COLOR WINDOW. While using the Paint Brush, choose a color by sampling within the image by holding down OPT/ALT key and you’ll see a little eye dropper appear. Click and this becomes your foreground color.

Now simply slide the “S” Saturation slider to the left to deduce saturation and the “B” Brightness Slider to the right to increase Brightness. It is important to note that to dodge, the color must be brighter than 50% and to burn it must be less than 50% brightness. Your dodge color is now set. The same process goes for the BURN color if you choose to do so – just opposite of course. To be clear, when burning, use colors that will have a brightness less than 50% (bottom slider). When burning, many times black works well or a darker color from within the image close to black so the color isn't as important as the Dodging.

When viewing the Dodge or Burn work you've done, it is just a matter of ALT/OPT clicking on the layer eyeball to isolate that layer for viewing.

One nice thing that many like about the 50% gray layers is that you can see the dodging and burning on a separate layer totally isolated from the image if you want to see exactly where it is you have made brush strokes. Simply by holding the ALT/OPTION key and clicking the little EYEBALL on that layer, you will show ONLY that layer and since it is the sole layer being shown, the blend mode will not matter and you will see the Gray Layer WITH the brush strokes painted on. This works for either the dodge or the burn and you can see the shadows brushed in the image above. A DARK luminosity mask selection was active here to constrain the adjustments ONLY to those chosen tones. 

While this is a more advanced way to work, there is another method that is very similar but offers even a more powerful workflow.


This method for dodging and burning is exactly like the 50% Gray layers yet it doesn’t require us to add the 50% Gray layer fill. It also affords us with a few KEY benefits that cannot be done with any other technique.

We begin by creating the layer or layers for Dodge and Burn but, as stated, we will not have to fill in the layers with grey. Again, just make sure that the blend mode is set to OVERLAY (I use this for Dodging) or SOFT LIGHT (Burning).

Painting with either black or white on these layers will darken or brighten the image below. Again, as stated above, we can use color with this method as well.

One REAL advantage to this workflow is if you make an error, simply use the “E” ERASE tool and wipe the brush stroke clean. Boom – DONE! Now hit “B” for brush to return to your work.

If you want to see your dodging and burning you can also press the OPT/ALT key while clicking on the layer’s eye ball to have an isolation view of that layer. The problem is with dodging, it may be very hard to see white or light colors on a transparent layer. There is a simple and temporary fix for that!

To make a TEMP/TOGGLE ON/OFF visualization layer (my own fancy name I have made up!) just create a NEW LAYER under your dodge and burn layers and fill it with 50% grey. Leave it in normal blend mode. This will block you from seeing the image (since the image is BELOW this) but you will be able to see your DODGE and BURN strokes.

The GRAY IMAGE on right is simply showing where the dodge and burn was applied – darker is burning and lighter is dodging. These strokes were done WHILE luminosity selections are active and they basically become a stencil to guide your strokes with the brush tool. It may seem complex but it makes it much easier!!

Just click the layer eyeball to shut this temp layer off since it is only there for aiding us in seeing our work with Dodge and Burn.

Create Selections of Your Dodge and Burn Brush Strokes!

One of the MOST powerful things about using the blank layers to dodge and burn is you can turn those exact brush strokes into selections since they are on blank pixel layers. Anytime there is pixel information on a layer, it can be selected by choosing that layer and CMD or CTRL clicking the layer. What this means is you can CMD or CTRL Click the dodge layer, for example, and then create a new HUE/SAT Layer. When you have an active selection and create a new Layer Adjustment, a mask is immediately applied. This will now contrain the adjustments you make in the adjustment layer to ONLY the portion you dodged. And obviously, that is just one of MANY things that can be done. Curves Adjustments (both Tonal and Color) are usually a good candidate for this technique because it will allow you to add another level of control over these areas.

Advanced Selections with Dodging and Burning

If you are starting to get more advanced with your post production, you have most likely toyed with Luminosity Masks/Selections. I bring this up as a final point and won't get into all of that here since it is outside of the scope of this article. It should be noted, however, that the REAL power, when dodging and burning, comes into play once you begin to learn about tonal selections and then applying these darkening and brightening techniques to your images. It will take your image making to a whole new level and QUICKLY!

Please feel free to leave comments or questions below!!











7 thoughts on “Dodging and Burning Pro Tips in Photoshop”

  1. This is a wonderfully informative article Brian. I am not a newby to PS but certainly haven’t explored the burn & dodge elements nearly enough. I am going to trying these techniques today! Thank you.

  2. Very nice write up Brian! I love how you explained multiple different methods of dodging and burning instead of just one.

    That last part about combining luminosity masks with dodging and burning was the perfect way to end the article. Any possibility of an advanced part 2 coming down the road?

  3. Tom, I am thinking about creating a YouTube video on that topic. There are some very specific things to keep in mind when using advanced D&B techniques – such as dodging darker shadow areas and subatracting the really dark areas from the darker selection so you maintain contrast and pop. I have 500 videos I’ve made in my mind – just need to make them 🙂

  4. Brian, please allow me to define this comment with my first statement. I am a senior and have recently acquired Photoshop. I am not a neophyte to photography as I have been taking pictures most of my life but dodging and burning with pixels is quite new to me as is Photoshop. Is there a beginners course on the use of Photoshop I may get or do you offer one? This really interests me but is very confusing. Help, plese.

  5. Hello Thomas!! Photoshop is certainly a very complex and terribly confusing application at first glance. It is not intuitive at all and in comparison to Lightroom, it’s like flying a commercial jet vs driving a car.

    There is a ton of information out on the web on Photoshop but learning in bits and pieces is not very helpful. ImprovePhotography plus has a Photoshop course for starters available. Also, to learn the nuts and bolts I’ve found Lynda.com to be the most extensive way to learn the actual operation of Photoshop and you can often get a FREE membership via your local library using an electronic library numbers thay allows access.

    Adobe Press also has some intro books that are very good as they come with a code that allows you to work on files that you can download and follow along the lessons.

    If you want to personally contact me, I am Brian Pex on Facebook – the link is above near my name 🙂

  6. Great inspirational article. Although I have watched many tutorials on the subject I never seem to put the techniques to work. Definitely going to make time to try them out now. Looking forward to more articles. Really impressed by everybody involved with Improve Photography.

  7. Thank you so much for this article. So many dodge/burn articles focus only on the “how”, and not the “why”. The latter is something I’ve been missing is I appreciate that you included both in this article!

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