Burning and Dodging

Layer Masks | Smart Objects | Advanced Masking | Image Sharpening | Burning and Dodging

Ansel Adams did it, you know you probably should too, but you may be wondering why burning and dodging is such a beloved tool of the masters. Fear not, this tutorial will help you take control of burning and dodging by explaining the aesthetics of burning and dodging and providing the technical know-how to transform knowledge into action.

What is Burning and Dodging?

Let’s start with the basics—burning and dodging is really nothing more than darkening (burning) and lightening (dodging) specific areas within a print. While the traditional darkroom used a host of esoteric tools and odd hand gestures to manipulate the amount of light applied to a print, you’ll primarily use the brush, burn and dodge tools in Photoshop. If you’re working in Lightroom or Aperture, your selective adjustment tools will perform essentially the same task, even though the commands will be slightly different.

Though the tools for burning and dodging are easily accessible in Photoshop, as Ansel Adams clearly articulates in the following quote, the effect these corrections can have on your image is far more grandiose. “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.”

Burning and dodging helps to give your photos life and vibrancy. The care you take in burning and dodging your photos is a part of what separates your best photos from all the rest in your collection.

Burning and dodging is most commonly used to add shadows or light to specific areas within a photo to help guide a viewer’s eye through your composition. It is used to improve the appearance of textures or shapes within a photo, or provide tonal separation between specific areas within a photo.

Most often, I’ll dodge areas I want the viewer’s eye to linger on a little longer or burn shadows to improve the depth of a photo.

The concept of burning and dodging is a direct extension of the artistic concepts of chiaroscuro, a term used to describe both the global contrast between light and dark within a painting (or photo) as well as the regional contrasts within a painting or photo to give a sense of depth or volume to three-dimensional objects.

In a digital photograph, you have the ability to adjust four types of contrast within the photo. Each stage adjusts the contrast between increasingly smaller regions within the photo.

  1. Global Contrast: The range between the lightest and darkest portions of your image and the distribution of contrast through the tonal range to accentuate the most important elements within the photo. Global contrast is most commonly set within your camera raw processing software, or using Levels within Photoshop followed by a Curves adjustment to precisely add contrast to specific portions of the tonal range.
  2. Regional Contrast: The tonal separation between objects within your photo, e.g. your subject and the background. Regional contrast adjustments are selectively applied to one portion of the image and excluded from others. A Curve correction applied through a layer mask is an example of regional contrast.
  3. Local Contrast: Applied to selected highlights and shadows within a photo, local contrast aims to improve the appearance of depth and dimension in a photo, or to call attention to specific details, like the eyes in a portrait. Burning and dodging primarily affects local contrast.
  4. Sharpening/Edge Contrast: Image sharpening works by increasing the contrast along the finest edges within your image. By making one side of an edge slightly darker and the corresponding edge lighter, the edge is perceived as sharper and the image more detailed.

If we study this portrait of a water skier during a moment of quiet reflection (Image 1), the full picture shows a full range of tones, from a bright highlight on the side of his face, to a deep shadow on his life jacket. Between these two tones lies the entire possible range of lightness values or shades of gray. This indicates that the global contrast corrections have been successfully applied—there is a bright highlight, a deep shadow and contrast applied to the midtones to improve the contrast on the water skier.


Zooming in on his face (Image 2), we see a similar range of tones, with the left side of his face bathed in bright light and the right side of his face more softly lit from the light reflecting off the water and off the dock he’s sitting on. It is this regional contrast range that gives his face a three-dimensional appearance in the photo. If you squint slightly while looking at the photo, you can clearly make out the shape of his nose. Look for the small highlight running vertically along his right cheek past his eye and up toward his hairline. This subtle line tells your brain where the front of his face ends and the side of his head begins.


If we artificially decrease the contrast in the scene and perform the same squint test (Image 3), the three-dimensionality of the photo diminishes and the shaded sides of his face merge into one two-dimensional mass. This shows the effect contrast has in providing our visual system the clues necessary to infer three-dimensionality from a 2D photo.

One tool to help you identify which areas within the photo will benefit from additional contrast adjustments is the Proof Colors feature in Photoshop, more commonly referred to as Soft Proofing.

Using the Grayscale Soft Proof

The Soft Proof feature within Photoshop (View > Proof Setup > Custom) is most commonly used for predicting color and tonal changes when printing to an inkjet printer or printing press. (See Color Management 4 article for more information.)

If you’d like to follow along, click on the water-skier.jpg image link and right click on the image to save to your desktop. Open the image in Photoshop.

Instead of previewing the effect of an output process, for this article, we’ll use the Soft Proof feature and a Grayscale ICC profile to look at the tonal differences within our photos to unearth clues of where we should perform regional contrast, or look at details which will benefit from burning and dodging.

But first, a little background…

Our ability to see is dependent upon two visual systems working together in tandem. In Margaret Livingstone’s insightful book Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, she explains, “The biological basis for the fact that color and luminance can play distinct roles in the perception of art or real live is that color and luminance are analyzed by different parts of the visual system, each of which is responsible for different aspects of visual perception. The areas of our brain that process information about color are located several inches away from the areas that analyze luminance—they are as anatomically different as vision is from hearing.” (p. 38)

For a photo to be successful, it needs to satisfy both visual our luminance and color-based systems. Every good color image needs to have a good black and white image hidden beneath. The Grayscale Soft Proof allows us to temporarily hide the color and make adjustments to the black and white components of our photos to improve both the luminance and color of the photo.

With your image open in Photoshop, activate the Soft Proof feature (View > Proof Setup > Custom) and select a grayscale ICC profile from the menu. I typically use Gray Gamma 2.2 since it matches the gamma setting I use when calibrating my monitor.


In our working image (Image 5—cropped for clarity), the man’s face reveals a good range of tones across his face with clear differentiation between the highlights on the side of his face and his nose. The highlight we referred to earlier along the right side of his face is subtle, but visible. By increasing the contrast along this line, we’ll give his face a little more depth and dimension.

A more immediate problem, however, is the similarity between the skier’s skin tone and the water behind him.

In color the two regions are distinct, satisfying the color portion of our visual system, but in grayscale, the two tones are very similar, making it harder for the luminance portion of our visual system to determine where one shape ends and the other begins. In fact, if the strong light along the side of the skier’s face wasn’t present, his face would be very difficult for our luminance visual system to distinguish the skier from the background. Darkening the blue of the water and lightening the skier’s face will make it easier for our luminance system to make sense of the photo.

Step 1: A quick and effective way to perform this adjustment is to use the Black and White adjustment layer within Photoshop CS3 and CS4.

Step 2: Within the Black and White adjustment dialog, decrease the Cyan and Blue slider slightly and boost the Red and Yellow sliders. This lightens his skin tones and darkens the background.

Step 3: Change the layer blending mode from Normal to Luminosity. This applies your change to the tonal portions of your image, leaving the color relatively unaffected. Otherwise, your photo will remain in grayscale once you’ve exited the Grayscale Soft Proof.


Step 4: Check to make sure the Black and White correction hasn’t negatively impacted the color within the photo by temporarily turning off the Soft Proof (Window > Proof Colors) or by pressing CMD/CTRL+Y. Look for any artificial colors or abrupt transitions between colors within your photo. Be sure to toggle the layer visibility for the Black and White layer on and off for a before-and-after preview of your change.

Boosting the Red and Yellow sliders lightened the tones in the skier’s face, creating better tonal separation between the skier and the background (Image 9). Unfortunately, it didn’t improve the tonal separation between the front and side of the man’s face. Removing a small portion of the lightness correction on the side of the face will solve this problem.


Step 5: Select your Brush tool, choose a soft brush and set your brush Opacity to 50 percent. With black as your foreground color, brush along the shadowed side of the man’s face. This will remove some of the lightening effect from his face, restoring the original tonality (Image 10).

With the Grayscale Soft Proof enabled, you can see how this change improves the tonal differences between the front and side of his face. This makes his face appear three-dimensional and more lifelike.

Using the grayscale soft proof combined with this type of regional correction helps you make slight adjustments to the lightness and contrast of specific areas to separate your subject from the background. The same philosophy holds true for burning and dodging, only this time, you’ll apply this philosophy to a smaller portion of your image.

Burning and Dodging using the Brush Tool

Perhaps the biggest difference between burning and dodging in the wet darkroom and the digital one is the precision and control you have over the tonal relationships within your photos. In a wet darkroom, an experienced photographer could lighten the skier’s face and darken the background with reasonable success. When burning and dodging in the digital darkroom, you have the ability to apply changes to even smaller areas, like the shadows within the wrinkles of the man’s face, or the highlights along his eyes. This degree of precision would be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in a traditional darkroom.

Emboldened by the powerful tools at our disposal, let’s look at the ways burning and dodging can be used to enhance, and call attention to, the most subtle details within your photos.

Step 1: With the Grayscale Soft Proof active, zoom in to 100 percent view and center your display on the skier’s eye. The eyes are the most expressive portion of a person’s face and therefore require the most attention by a photographer.


Step 2: Spend a moment studying the changes in tone across the man’s face and observe how these changes give you clues to the shape of his face. Frequently, burning and dodging is nothing more than lightening the light edges and darkening the dark edges. I’ve marked up a copy of the image using red to show areas I’ll dodge (lighten) and blue to show areas for burning (darkening). I selected these areas because they are key to the shape of his face, his expression and the tonal relationships to other areas of the photo.

Step 3: To perform the burning and dodging, you’ll want to create a burn and dodge layer. Hold the Option/Alt key while clicking on the Create New Layer icon at the base of the Layer panel. Name the layer “Burn and Dodge”, set the layer Blending mode to Overlay and check the Fill With Overlay Neutral Color (50% Gray) option. Press OK.

Blending modes change the way a given layer interacts with the layer below it in the Layer panel. Using the Overlay calculations, any pixel on the layer that is lighter than 50 percent gray lightens the appearance of the pixels on layers below. Any pixel darker than 50 percent gray darkens the appearance of pixels on layers below. This allows you to paint with white to lighten (dodge) portions of your image, or black to darken (burn) portions of your image.

Step 4: Since the Overlay calculations are very strong, you’ll want to set your brush opacity to a very low setting so as not to overwhelm the photo with your correction.

Step 5: Choose your Brush tool, select a soft brush and set your brush opacity to 10 percent. Most of your burning and dodging will require a brush opacity between five and 10 percent, though some subtle adjustments warrant a brush opacity as low as three percent.

Step 6: Set your default foreground and background colors by pressing “D” on your keyboard to begin burning your image. Or press “X” to swap your foreground and background colors to begin dodging.

Step 7: Click and drag across the image to apply long, smooth brush strokes to the image. If you have access to a graphics tablet, it will make this process easier and your brush strokes appear more natural.

Step 8: Repeat this process to perform your burning and dodging on the skier’s face. Save the eyes and hair for later. We’ll use a different technique for burning and dodging these areas. Should you make a mistake, step back through history to remove the brush stroke. If you’ve exceeded the number of history states, you can brush out your corrections using middle gray.

Tip: The middle gray used for the Overlay layer isn’t exactly middle gray. To select a neutral gray for the layer, double-click on your foreground color swatch and in the Lab portion of the Color picker, enter 54,0,0.


I accentuated the highlight along the side of the skier’s face and deepened the shadows slightly along the age lines in his face. This helps accentuate the contours of his face (Image 14).

Burning and Dodging using the Burn and Dodge Tools

The Brush tool does an effective job of burning and dodging medium-sized regions within a photo, where you can effectively run your brush over similarly toned pixels. For more difficult, heavily detailed regions, like eyes and hair, it is useful to switch to the Burn and Dodge tools. These allow you restrict your burning or dodging to the highlights, midtones or shadows.

Step 1: Begin by selecting the Dodge tool, which looks like a black lollipop. You’ll find it approximately halfway down the toolbox, near the Pen tool. If the Dodge tool isn’t on top, you can click and hold the icon to find the hidden tools.

Step 2: In the Options Bar, set your Exposure to eight percent and the Range to Highlights. In Photoshop CS4, make sure the Protect Tones option is checked. This will improve the accuracy of the Range calculations.


Step 3: Using the same Burn and Dodge layer used in the previous step, brush over the highlights in the skier’s hair. Be judicious with your corrections, you don’t want him to look like he just stepped out of a salon! Then brush over the catchlight in his eye to make it more visible (Image 17).

Step 4: Next, switch to the Burn tool and change the Range to Shadows. Again, set the Exposure to around eight percent. Burn the dark portions of his hair, around his eye socket and the darker part of his iris.

Step 5: When you’re finished, toggle the layer visibility for your burn and dodge layer on and off. Are there any mistakes that stand out or brush strokes that are too intense? Often, after toggling the layer on and off, I’ll notice a few corrections that are too strong. To correct this I’ll reduce the Burn and Dodge layer’s opacity to 80 percent to make my corrections blend more effectively.


By carefully burning and dodging the most important areas within your images, you can give your photos more depth, inviting your viewers into your photos. This kind of engagement with your audience will make your photos even more extraordinary.


Color Management Primer by Jay Kinghorn

Jay Kinghorn is an Adobe Photoshop Certified Expert, Olympus Visionary photographer and full-time digital workflow consultant and trainer. He specializes in helping corporations use their photos efficiently and effectively by streamlining workflow processes and improving employee’s skills using Adobe Photoshop. Jay is co-author of Perfect Digital Photography and author of two Photoshop training DVDs, Photoshop CS3 New Feature Training and Beginning Photoshop for Digital Photographers. Jay lectures and presents to businesses and universities internationally. His presentations focus on digital photography workflows, color management, image optimization and the future of photography. His clients include Olympus, Sony, Adobe, Cabela’s, Vail Resorts and the Rocky Mountain News. Jay is often found climbing the rock walls, running the trails or scaling the mountains near his home in Boulder, Colorado.

Text ©2009 Jay Kinghorn.

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    • You don't say whether it covers Photoshop Elements, specifically v 6.
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    • Michael, I don't believe you can perform these techniques in Photoshop Elements. If I remember correctly, Photoshop Elements supports Adjustment layers, but not Pixel layers. I'm not sure about the blending modes necessary to create the burn and dodge layer. Best regards, Jay
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    • It would be great if you also added some notes on how to perform the improvements you suggest in a mask-free tool like Nikon Capture NX2. For instance, while I have found how to apply burning and dodging, I am left clueless about how to see the image in black and white, modify that version and then incorporate the result as luminiscence as you suggested in your article for PhotoShop.
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    • Fabrizio, Thanks for your comment. Outside of Photoshop, there are very few applications that can provide a soft proof like the Grayscale simulation shown in this article. In Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw, you can select the Grayscale Treatment and replicate the steps shown here. Since I'm not a Nikon shooter, I haven't worked much with Nikon Capture, I can't say for sure whether or not you will be able to perform exactly the same steps with your Nikon Capture as is shown in this article. Best regards, Jay
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    • well explained, i never took dodgind and burning at this level, thank you.
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    • Very helpful. It was fantastic to see the subtle changes come about and how much control is actually available using these methods. Thank you.
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    • Can this be done in Lightroom? Joe Faust
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    • Joe, Thanks for your comment. You can perform most of the techniques in Lightroom. You'll want to set the Treatment to Grayscale (to act as the Soft Proof) then use the selective editing tools in Lightroom 2 for the burning and dodging. Jay
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    • Excellent tutorial, Jay. I often use Overlay with black and white "paint" to burn and dodge, but sometimes using a neutral tone looks artificial and lowers the saturation of the affected areas. I really like the way that you've used the original tonal relationships of the image to make very subtle adjustments. Using the black and white proof view is pretty ingenious too.

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    • Robert,

      I'm glad you like the tutorial. You are correct that colors can sometimes shift using overlay. What you might try is to substitute a lighter or darker version of the color being adjusted in place of white or black. This better preserves the color relationships.

      For example, when dodging skin tones, use the eyedropper to click on the skin tone, then in the color picker select the same hue and saturation, but a lighter brightness (HSB values). Paint with this color to dodge without adjusting color. 

      I hope this little refinement helps. 


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