The Best Techniques to Dodge and Burn in Photoshop

When it comes to delivering a good photo, an essential part of the process is editing in post-production. When photography only existed on film, editing techniques were a lot more time-consuming. Plus, you had to be really handy to achieve an impressive result.

One of the techniques photographers would use when projecting the film on photo paper was to enhance the contrast. They would do this by exposing the highlights more while under-exposing the shadows. Hence the name of the process – Dodging and Burning.

Today we do this with tools like Photoshop and other photo editors. With these tools, you can achieve similar effects using a few different methods. Dodging and Burning (or D&B) is a technique used for adding contrast selectively as opposed to using a slider where contrast is applied to the whole image. It’s a powerful way to get your image from good to fantastic.

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What is Dodging and Burning Used For?

You will find that dodge and burning is used primarily for portraits. However, it’s actually great for any other photography purposes – architecture, landscape, interior and products.

It is an easy way to add dimension to your capture, make the highlights pop, deepen the shadows and accentuate the details in your photograph. We’ll have a look at a few non-destructive techniques for dodge and burning using Photoshop.

The best part of it is that there are multiple ways to get your image to look how you want and most of them do not take a huge amount of time.

Dodging and Burning using 50% Grey Layers

The first technique we’re going to have a look at is using a 50% grey layer. This is done by creating new layers above the original image and filling them with 50% grey colour. We want to work on our photographs in non-destructive ways and have the ability to edit or erase any of the changes we make.

New layer for dodge and burn technique

Start by creating a new layer. From the pop-up menu, you can rename the layer and then switch the blending mode to either Overlay or Soft Light. The Overlay blend mode will be more punchy, therefore a quicker option to add dodge and burn effect. Soft Light will help you gradually build up the effect at the cost of time. Don’t forget to tick the 50% grey option to fill the layer!

Copy the already created layers and name them Dodge and Burn, then group them for your convenience.

If you find yourself using this workflow a lot it would be smart to create an action for this or simply purchase the photoshop actions package we offer here on the website.

From here, start with the shadows – once you define them, you will find it to be generally easier to determine how much you have to brighten the highlights.

Burn tool

Starting with the burn tool, make sure you’re using a soft brush with 0% hardness, from the range dropdown you can choose between shadows, mid-tones and highlights (generally you would use mid-tones unless you want to go into super details) and then set the exposure anywhere between 3-5%.

Notice there is an additional option to tick the ‘protect tones’ option. When working on a 50% grey layers this doesn’t do anything, so we’ll come back to it in later techniques.

Dodge tool

When you’re done defining the shadows – switch to the dodge tool and paint the highlights in the dodge layer. Use the same settings, 5-6% exposure.

You can compare the before and after below.

The Downside to Using 50% Grey Layers

Dodging and Burning with a 50% grey layer is a useful and powerful way to add contrast to your images. However, there is one downside.

When burning too much or using a high percentage of exposure you can quickly start messing with the colors in the mid-tones. That’s where the protect tones option should come in handy. But since you’re painting on a neutral grey layer it won’t do anything.

The limitation of this method mainly comes from the fact that you can only work on the existing shadows and highlights. If you’re planning on pushing it too far, it won’t work. It will change the hue and saturation of the colors and leave you less satisfied with the outcome.

Dodging and Burning Using Curve Adjustment Layers

Before we even start – this won’t be the perfect solution for those who dislike using the curves. If you’re the kind of person who prefers sliders over curves, you may find the other methods listed here better suit your workflow.

Using curves for dodge and burn

You’ll start by creating a curves adjustment layer and pull down the shadows on the curve. This makes the image seem underexposed. This will be your ‘Burn’ layer.

Preserve colour tones using luminosity blending mode

You can change the blending mode from Normal to Luminosity. This will help preserve the color tones of your photo and bring down the luminosity of the tones as opposed to the hue and saturation.

Create dodge layer brightening the image using the curve.

Then, copy the layer and do the opposite – brighten up the image using the curve. This will serve you as a ‘Dodge’ layer. Next, invert the masks so you can paint the effect back on the photo using the brush tool. You can do this as subtly as you want or push it as far as the curve will go.

Downsides to Using Curve Adjustment Layers

The possible downside of this method is that you can only go so far as you’ve set the curve layers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. Now that you are aware of the worst possible outcome, you can use the brush tool to paint the shadows and the highlights. The cool thing here is that you can just change the brush color from white to black and undo the effect by painting on the relevant layer.

Make sure you’ve selected the ‘protect tones’ option because in this case, it does actually matter. You can still break the colors of the image, but this option does make it more difficult.

Dodging and Burning Directly on the Image Layer

Another straightforward way to apply the dodge and burn technique is directly on the layer. Relax, as we mentioned we’re only doing non-destructive editing here, so that means you copy your original layer (CTRL/CMD + J) and then use the dodge and burn tools on the copy as if it was a 50% grey layer.

Protect tones for the dodge and burn technique directly on the image layer

Again, ensure that you’ve selected the ‘protect tones’ option as it does matter here too.

This method is most useful when you want to correct something small, and you don’t want to go in detail. It will become handy if you’re in a hurry, or it is the type of shot that you’re generally okay with and just want to correct a small part of it.

I promise you, this will save you a ton of time, especially when you don’t want to go into details, but still want to give your photo a slightly punchy, contrasty feel.

Remember: opacity is your friend. If you think you’re overdoing it just pull the opacity of the copied layer down, as much as you like and – voila. Done deal.

Dodging and Burning Using Frequency Separation 

This is the most time-consuming way of doing a dodge and burn. However, it introduces something new to the technique that none of the above methods has.

dodge and burn using frequency separation

Copy the layer you want to apply the technique to twice. You can then re-name the layers so you know which one is which. Practically, it can be any name you feel like, but following the logic behind the frequency terminology – the upper layer should be High, and the lower layer should be Low.

Gaussian blur

Disable the top layer and select the Low layer, then go to Filter -> Gaussian Blur. Modify the radius, so that you take out all the detail from the photo, leaving it pretty blurry. Apply the filter to the Low layer.

Linear light blending mode for the High layer

Now, select the top layer (High), and change the blending mode to Linear Light. Then, go to Image -> Apply Image -> and make sure the layer selected in the Source Layer field is set to the Low layer you created earlier.

Dodge and burn stage of editing
Don’t be scared of the effect you’ll see right away.

Ensure the inverted checkbox is checked

Ensure the inverted checkbox is checked and the blending mode is ‘Add’. Finally, the scale should be set to 2.

Fill the blank layer above the low layer with white for your dodge layer.

Group the layers, and then create a blank layer above the Low layer. Fill it with white color, so that it can serve you as Dodge layer. Add a black mask to it. Continue with creating one more layer and filling it with black. This will serve the purpose of a Burn layer. Then add a black mask to it.

Enhance With Natural Colors

The cool thing using this method is that you can actually use any color you like. Instead of filling the layers with black and white you can sample colors from the photo. This allows you to enhance the highlights or shadows with their true color that has already been captured through the lens. You’re slowly introducing the color on a layer above your photo using the frequency separation technique. This means you are preserving all the details and texture of your original shot.

It is important to remember to set the flow of your brush really low, something like 1-2% and then take it away from there.

You can go into precise detail that way and work on separate parts of the photo using different colors. Naturally, the number of layers you’d create using this technique will be far more and will take a greater amount of time. However, this method is considered to be the most detailed. So if you really need to get down to the nitty-gritty, this may as well be the technique you’re looking for.

Expert Tip

I want to leave you with one last tip that is applicable to all dodging and burning techniques. If you ever go a little too far with the brush strokes so they become visible on the canvas, add a mask to the layer and press opt/alt + right click to see the actual layer. Then apply Gaussian Blur to it to make the strokes smoother and even out the effect.

So Which is the Best Way After All?

We have discussed the four best ways to get your shot in the best-looking shape. We have looked at how to make the highlights pop, smooth out the shadows and have your photographs make a lasting impression on your viewers.

It’s hard to say that there is the BEST way to achieve this. After all, the best way is the one that suits your needs. Fortunately, using Photoshop, there will always be at least a few ways to achieve the result that you want in post-production.

In Conclusion

Using the 50% grey layers is considered to be the go-to way. It does not take a lot of time, it’s completely non-destructive and has a considerable impact on your image. However, if you’re more of a fan of using the curves, you’ll be happy to find that it has the same effect on the image with the benefit of controlling how far you can go – that’s definitely something to consider.

If you’re in a hurry, or you just want to enhance or correct a thing or two – maybe a bad transition of skin tone or you wish to draw attention to the eyes of your model – the perfect solution is to duplicate the background layer, dodge and burn on it and then, if necessary, pull the opacity down.

If you are preparing something for print or you are working on a costly project, or you just have the time to spare and want to make the absolute best of your image, then go with the frequency separation technique. After all, it’s the only one listed here that not only can dodge and burn, but also add color to help achieve the best contrast possible.

Author Details

Hey, my name is Krassy Dimitrov. I’m a commercial photographer based in Bulgaria. Among the things I like shooting you’ll see a lot of travel, product, wedding and portrait photographs. I’m also an author and contributor to the ever-growing Photography-RAW website here. 

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Hey, my name is Krassy Dimitrov. I’m a commercial photographer based in Bulgaria. Among the things I like shooting you’ll see a lot of travel, product, wedding and portrait photographs. I’m also an author and contributor to the ever-growing Photography-RAW website here. 

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