Dodging & Burning With Layers in Photoshop


Dodging and Burning are terms used in the traditional darkroom to selectively lighten (dodging) or darken (burning) areas of a photograph without affecting the appearance of the rest of the image. Photoshop provides dodging and burning tools in the tool palette, but they're crude tools that are difficult to precisely control and they do not work well when large changes are needed. They are also non-reversible once you've saved the image and closed it. The methods I will show here are completely reversible and can be changed at any time, even after an image has been saved and closed. This is achieved by the use of Adjustment Layers.

In addition to the written tutorial below, I also have three YouTube Video tutorials for using Adjustment Layers in Photoshop:

Adjustment Layers Basics

Dodging and Burning With Layer Masks

Correcting Uneven Lighting With Gradient Layer Masks


How Layers Work

Photoshop allows an image to be edited by adding Adjustment Layers onto the image. Each adjustment you do sits on an imaginary layer over the original image. The layers can be deleted or changed without ever altering the original image itself. The original sits on the 'background' layer.

Look at the Layers Palette in Photoshop. If you don't see it, go to the Windows Menu and choose Layers. It will then appear on your screen.

The image below will be our demonstration image. There is a distracting bright area in the foreground that needs burned in, or darkened.


An image in photoshop that needs an area darkened


Step 1: Select the area to darken

The screen capture to the right shows the selection that I have made using the lasso tool. You can use any selection tool in Photoshop that you want. Lasso, Magic Wand, Marque, etc. The Lasso is easiest for me to use for most things. The Feather amount on the selection tool should be set to Zero.

The rectangular shaped area that I have selected is too bright, it distracts the eye from the main subjct, my son.

Softproofing in photoshop to prepare a photograph to print

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Softproofing in photoshop

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Step 2: Blur the selection edges

We need to soften the hard-edges of the selection to avoid the edit looking like something that doesn't belong. The softened edges will make it blend in seamlessly to the rest of the image.

First hit the letter "Q" on your keyboard to enter Quick Mask Mode. This shows the selection edges more precisely than the normal dotted line, and allows us to blur the edges of the selection.

Use the Gaussian Blur filter to blur the selection edges. You'll have to judge the amount to use visually. If its a large area with soft edges like this example, then 25-30 is a good setting. I used 26 here. For a small hard-edged selection, like an eye on a portrait, a smaller setting like 5 might be appropriate, while a large formless area like a bright area in a sky might need a blur setting of 100 or more!

Print command in Photoshop CS4

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Print command in Photoshop CS4

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Hit the letter "Q" again to leave the Quick Mask Mode. The normal dotted line selection boundry re-appears, but may look different because of the blurring of the selection edge. Note that this blurring only affects the edge of the selection boundry and does not affect the sharpness of any part of the image itself.

Now go to the Layers Palette and hit the New Layer button. Choose Curves from the menu that appears.

Print command in Photoshop CS4

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Print command in Photoshop CS4

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The selection edges will go away so that you can more easily see the effect of the adjustment we will do. A new curves dialog box comes up, ready for you to adjust.

I've used the curves controls to darken the area I'm working on. Notice that it darkens without affecting the rest of the image, and thanks to the blurred selection edges it blends in seamlessly to the rest of the photo. It doesn't look manipulated as it would if we'd left the selection with hard-edges.

These same procedures can be used to lighten an area, to increase or decrease contrast within an area, and with color photos, you can adjust color balance in the area you're working on without affecting the color of anything else in the photo!

This probably looks complex and time consuming, but it really isn't once you try it and practice. I can actually do what I demonstrated here in about 30 seconds if I were not making screenshots and typing explanations for each step! The advantages of being able to revisit the changes anytime and even delete them completely make it well worth learning to work with adjustment layers for dodging and burning.

Print command in Photoshop CS4

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The knowledge that I am sharing took many years of study and practice to attain. If you find it valuable, please donate through my Paypal button below. My creative work is how I support myself and my son. Thank you!




©2018 Christopher Crawford