Dodging and Burning

Dodging and Burning

Dodging and burning is one of the most important steps of my post-processing workflow. It is the step that puts the image together and builds the story. Dodging and burning is the process of brightening and darkening parts of an image.

While it may seem like a digital process to many, the practice and its name actually find their origin in the analog darkroom. It was used when making a print from a negative. With film, the principle was simple: exposing parts of the paper to more light (burning) would darken that section and shading parts from light (dodging) would make them lighter. It was not an easy task since you could only see the result when the print was finished.

This process was transferred to the digital darkroom in software like Photoshop and Lightroom, making the process a lot easier.

Whyte Light  |  Whyte Islet - West Vancouver, BC

Whyte Light | Whyte Islet – West Vancouver, BC

Why dodging and burning?

At its simplest form, dodging and burning is a vignette: darken the contour of an image to draw attention to the brighter center. The eye is drawn to brighter areas. You can apply this process to selective parts of an image to guide your viewer through a more elaborate story.

The next step is to examine tonal relationships in your image. This is a concept best described by fine art photographer Joel Tjintjelaar, that postulates that the differences in luminosity between parts of an image is even more powerful than a simple vignette. Basically, the eye is also drawn to contrast.

As an example, let’s have a look at the image at the top of the article. Your eye is drawn to the bright water because it’s brighter, but also because it is next to a darker area, the city. The same is true for the sky.

Dodging and burning in Lightroom 5

The simplest way to dodge and burn is to use the vignette in the Effect panel (in the Develop module). You can choose the strength of the vignette (darker to the left and brighter to the right), the shape and the gradient with a few sliders. The downside of the vignette method is that it lacks flexibility.

Effects Panel

There are several Selective Adjustment tools that will allow you to apply selective dodging and burning. You can use the Graduated Filter (the rectangle in the middle), the Radial Filter (the circle with a dot) or the Adjustment Brush (the brush on the right). All of them will help you dodge and burn selectively.

Selective tools

Dodging and burning in Photoshop CC

Photoshop provides dedicated tools for dodging and burning. You can find them in the tool bar. There easy to use, very similar to the brush.

Dodge and burn

You have a few options, including the size of the brush, the range of tones that will be affected and the strength (exposure) of the dodging or burning. The downside of this method is that it is destructive, meaning that you cannot change what you have done after you close the file.

Dodge and burn 2

There are several nondestructive techniques for dodging and burning in Photoshop. The first and simplest one is to use a brightness/contrast adjustment layer with a layer mask. You can also use a levels or curves adjustment layer. Increase (decrease) the brightness to dodge (burn). I would recommend to fill the layer mask with black and paint with a white brush over the areas you want to dodge (burn).


My favorite technique requires a little more work but allows for a lot more flexibility when painting. Start by creating a new layer. Go to Edit > Fill… In the Dialog, select “50% Gray” and “Normal”, then click OK.


Change the layer blend mode to Soft Light.

blend mode

Anything brighter than 50% gray will dodge and anything darker than 50% gray will burn. Use a brush to paint I usually work with 15% to 25% unless I want a more drastic dodging and burning. You can always come back to change the layer.

Last word

Dodging and burning is a powerful tool and it is one of my most important steps when I process an image. Most of the time it is subtle, to simply draw the viewer’s eye. Sometimes, it is more of a statement. Experiment and have fun!

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