advanced photoshop

Use Dodge and Burn like a pro

Posted in:
Tips & Tutorials, by Rebecca Greig

Discover how the professionals use dodge and burn to creatively retouch their imagery


Proper use of Dodge and Burn is key when firmly embedding one photo into another. Creative retoucher Barry Craig  suggests that to get the most out of the technique, investing in a Wacom tablet is vital. “Using a mouse simply doesn’t give you the control necessary to apply accurate corrections,” he tells us. “As well as dodging and burning, a Wacom will help you to grow in all areas of your Photoshop development. Pen mode can feel weird at first, but the results will speak for themselves.”

When it comes to non-destructive editing, Craig states that the main thing to remember is that you are always able to undo or alter your changes quickly and easily. “The Photoshop Dodge and Burn tools should never be used straight onto the pixels of an image, as this leaves no easy way to alter what you have done at a later date,” he tells us. “I always work with two Curves, one with a lightening correction representing Dodge and another with a darkening correction representing Burn. By painting into the masks of these layers, you can create the same effects as brushing directly onto the image, but you’re also free to alter, undo and tweak the correction later.

“I often see people suggesting dodging and burning onto a layer filled with 50% grey and an Overlay blending mode. While this is certainly non-destructive, it isn’t as versatile or as quickly editable as the two-Curves system.”

Creating balanced lighting in a newly edited photo can be incredibly tough, and while Dodge and Burn can go a long way to making an image really stand out, sometimes it’s best to start preparing long before you even enter Photoshop. “Balanced lighting is always going to come primarily from the lighting setup,” says Craig. “A few small changes before the original photograph is taken can save hours in post.

“However, if you’re stuck with having to correct later, then think about what shape things should be. If you’re selectively removing shadow from a portrait, remember that certain shadows create the shape of the face, and without them things can start to look pretty weird. Look at reference and always flip your corrections on and off to make sure you’re heading in the right direction.”

Similarly to Craig, Robert Frolich, founder of Filtre, doesn’t tend to use the Dodge and Burn tools in his work very much at all, but instead focuses on Curves. “I like to create two Curves layers,” he explains. “One layer increases midtone brightness (the Dodge Curves layer), the second layer darkens the midtones (Burn Curves layer). Both layers are then given layer masks that are filled completely with black, so that they now have no effect. I’ll then use the Airbrush tool with white paint, and set the brush to a very low Opacity. I’ll slowly build up brush strokes onto the layer mask of the Dodge Curves to brighten the areas that need lightening. This is especially useful in evening out skin tones, lightening wrinkles in clothing and so on. Conversely, when I need to darken an area, I’ll brush onto the layer mask for the Curves layer that darkens. It’s a very gradual process, but offers a great deal of control in a non-destructive fashion.”