What Are Burning And Dodging And How They Can Help Your Photos - Digital Photography School
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What Are Burning And Dodging And How They Can Help Your Photos

When teaching modern digital photography I often forget those new to the general art of photography might not be familiar with classic terms and techniques and I need to take a step back. This post is for those who might have always wanted to ask, “What do people mean when they say ‘burn’ and ‘dodge’ in post-processing?”. If you can still smell the darkroom fumes when I bring up these terms, you can skip over this post.

Burning and dodging are two darkroom techniques used when printing a picture. A negative is placed in a projector and then pointed at a piece of photo paper (much like a slide projector projects an image on a screen). That photo paper is not like the paper you might be used to printing on at home now. It is light sensitive, just like film, and that is the whole reason for creating a darkroom; to control the amount of light hitting the paper which will expose it.

Now then, light from the projector passes through the negative and then hits the paper. The timing of the light exposure is controlled to certain tolerances just as the original exposure of the scene onto the negative was controlled. Light hits the negative evenly and then hits the paper evenly. This works well if the scene is even balanced. But what if there are areas that need to be lighter or darker? That’s where burning and dodging come in and they are simple.

The key to these terms and understanding them is to remember that the paper is white. Dodging is the process of covering over part of the light hitting the paper, creating a shadowed area that does not receive the same light exposure as the rest of the scene. Because this decreases the amount of light hitting the paper (remember; light hitting the paper = darker exposure), it lets more of the white paper show through, effectively lightening the image in that area. Burning is the opposite, it is only allowing light into one area of the image to increase the exposure time in that region and create a darker image for that area.

Both employ various methods of covering, from simply using a hand or piece of paper to creating custom templates. Further, the edge of the dodge or burn can be softened by moving the covering slightly as the paper is exposed.

All of this allows a photographer to create different exposures throughout one frame, which can more closely mimic the scene as it was when shot, or to use artistic expression to alter an image to one’s liking.

Now then, how can you use these techniques for your own gain in the modern age?

I’m going to show these techniques in use on Adobe Lightroom but they can be practiced on any program which allows for selective masking and exposure changes.

First, the image from a recent review of a Sigma 50-500mm lens (click on any image for a larger version).

DPS1

The shot was taken with an iPhone and exposed for the lens with gray, overcast skies. I want to highlight the lens and diminish the background. The first thing I do is choose the Adjustment Brush and the Burn feature as such:

DPS2

DPS3

For this photo, the Burn setting is not dark enough for me, to be honest. I take the Exposure for this mask to -1.17 and this is the result:

DPS4

The camera and lens are now darker, helping them stand out better against the background. I now want to do the opposite with the background. I want to dodge it to lighten it, further highlighting the lens. I start by painting a mask of the background:

DPS5

Again, the Dodge is not to my liking and I instead change the exposure for this mask to be lighter.

DPS6

With these masks, I can also change contrast or brightness (done away with in Lightroom 4) to further highlight my subject if I liked. In this example I am keeping things simple.

The result is slight, but can be more dramatic if need be.

Before:

PeterWestCarey-CameraAwesomePhoto(4)-2

After:

PeterWestCarey-CameraAwesomePhoto(4)

Burning and Dodging have been around as long as making prints has been an art form where the photographer wished more control over their medium. The techniques are still highly relevant in today’s modern, digital era and I now hope you have a better understanding of where the terms came from and how best to use them.

Thank you for reading.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Peter West Carey is a world traveling photographer who now is spending a large amount of time going back through 6 years of travel photo and processing them like he should have to start with. He is also helping others learn about photography with the free series 31+ Days Of Photography Experiments which builds off of the 31+ Days To Better Photography series on his blog.

  • http://www.kerstenbeck.com Erik Kerstenbeck

    Hi

    Great article – this technique has been around since, well, forever and is till relevant. I use Nikons Capture NX2 to accomplish this as it has it’s U-Point feature. Makes all this dodging and burning really quick and easy.

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/what-lies-beneath-2/

  • http://www.ilanbresler.com Ilan

    “Burning” and “dodging” are among the most important tools photoshop/editing program can offer.
    These two tools (plus, of course, playing with exposure in RAW) are as close as you can get to lab editing in digital era.

    Here is an example that without these tools could be hard to achieve – http://www.ilanbresler.com/2012/03/superman.html

  • http://www.wildlifeencounters.eu Steve

    Dodging and burning can be used in very bright sunlit conditions to tone down areas that are too bright and also lighten up the shadows a bit.
    It needs to be used carefully to avoid a muddy appearance which can be the result if you overdo it.

    This one was in very bright Mediterranean sunlight. I used hdr to start with then fine tuned it with dodging and burning:

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Scenes-of-Spain-The-Costas/G0000Qp9QOeUBwDA/I0000oTDqO60gZds

  • http://www.sedetweiler.com scott detweiler

    It can also be used creatively on skin, as in this example from my portfolio: http://www.sedetweiler.com/digital/h935288b#h935288b

  • http://www.fuzzypig.com Fuzzypiggy

    I still call it D’n'B but I prefer to talk in terms of “shadow/highlight tuning”. As previous poster said, D’n'B are probably the two most important controls in post-processing as they allow some extremely fine control of S&H in a shot that filters will simply jump all over in their big size 12 boots and ruin, LOL!

  • http://www.bycostello.com/Mordon_Park_House_Registry_Office.html bycostello

    great tutorial… thanks…

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Jeet/163550653733694 Jeet

    Thanks a lot Peter. That’s the simplest explanation I have ever come across for Dodge and Burn.
    I might try them mext time I process – I don’t do it that often.

  • Charlene Woods

    Thank you so much for this very understandable explanation!! I now understand a subject which I have found very perplexing in the past!! Now, I can truly appreciate the work that went into darkroom developing, which seems to have been a form of art all its own!

  • http://baroquesicily.com jann

    Great explanation of something I was only dimly aware of. Thanks!

  • Clicknprint

    Some of us are even more “New” to the process than others. I remember the darkroom and the smell of the chemicals. Very new to digital, I don’t know how you segregated the camera and it shows up as red while you manipulate the settings. I am beginning with Adobe Photoshop.

  • lerabu

    Ah! Finally! :D explained plain and simple, and now I can do it in LR too! I feel it’s Xmas today lol :P

    I have found other explanations online but this is the best and simplest to understand I have read!

  • David

    oh no the jig is up! to many secrets being told. ha ha. nice resource, BE CAREFUL d & b is like salt and pepper when cooking too much and YUKE! its not hard to put to much.

  • David

    @lerabu that red is a mask. its done in “quick mask mode” in most software hit the letter “q” for the short cut then select a paint brush size and soften/harden the edge, or on the tool pallette. select black as the foreground color and paint where you want the mask. selecting white erases the mask. when you exit quick mask you will see the marching ants indicating a selection. you can then choose to dodge or burn that selected area, or inverse it and d or b the the other area. you can also feather the edge via select/ modify/ feather and set the amount. additionally you may want to create a layer mask in the layers menu on a copy of the original.
    lots of options in ps
    search layer mask and also quick mask to learn more.

  • David

    sorry lerabu I meant that for “Clicknprint” question adhd shows itself again lol smh

  • Alexx
  • http://www.ashleyhauck.com Ashley

    I used dodge for the first time the other day. Even after HDR processing, the sailor and nurse statue was a little too dark for me, so I lightened it up using the dodge tool in Photoshop.

    http://www.ashleyhauck.com/blog/2012/03/20/san-diego-unconditional-surrender-the-kiss/

  • http://www.charleysdg.tumblr.com CharleySDG

    Great tips. Very useful.

  • http://www.nikijonesphotography.com Niki Jones

    Thanks for the history lesson. I’ve learned something today!

  • Jared Lawson

    Dodging and burning is a great technique, I think you could show a much stronger example than this photo. It can make a bland scene turn into a fantastic image – experiment with it on all your photos, you will be impressed California Wedding Photographer

Some older comments

  • Niki Jones

    March 23, 2012 08:59 pm

    Thanks for the history lesson. I've learned something today!

  • CharleySDG

    March 23, 2012 10:25 am

    Great tips. Very useful.

  • Ashley

    March 22, 2012 02:23 am

    I used dodge for the first time the other day. Even after HDR processing, the sailor and nurse statue was a little too dark for me, so I lightened it up using the dodge tool in Photoshop.

    http://www.ashleyhauck.com/blog/2012/03/20/san-diego-unconditional-surrender-the-kiss/

  • Alexx

    March 17, 2012 05:37 pm

    I always burn and doge. I also edit curves.

    http://disney-photography-blog.blogspot.com/2012/03/daily-snap-1.html

  • David

    March 16, 2012 02:59 am

    sorry lerabu I meant that for "Clicknprint" question adhd shows itself again lol smh

  • David

    March 16, 2012 02:56 am

    @lerabu that red is a mask. its done in "quick mask mode" in most software hit the letter "q" for the short cut then select a paint brush size and soften/harden the edge, or on the tool pallette. select black as the foreground color and paint where you want the mask. selecting white erases the mask. when you exit quick mask you will see the marching ants indicating a selection. you can then choose to dodge or burn that selected area, or inverse it and d or b the the other area. you can also feather the edge via select/ modify/ feather and set the amount. additionally you may want to create a layer mask in the layers menu on a copy of the original.
    lots of options in ps
    search layer mask and also quick mask to learn more.

  • David

    March 16, 2012 02:28 am

    oh no the jig is up! to many secrets being told. ha ha. nice resource, BE CAREFUL d & b is like salt and pepper when cooking too much and YUKE! its not hard to put to much.

  • lerabu

    March 13, 2012 10:59 pm

    Ah! Finally! :D explained plain and simple, and now I can do it in LR too! I feel it's Xmas today lol :P

    I have found other explanations online but this is the best and simplest to understand I have read!

  • Clicknprint

    March 13, 2012 03:28 am

    Some of us are even more "New" to the process than others. I remember the darkroom and the smell of the chemicals. Very new to digital, I don't know how you segregated the camera and it shows up as red while you manipulate the settings. I am beginning with Adobe Photoshop.

  • jann

    March 13, 2012 01:25 am

    Great explanation of something I was only dimly aware of. Thanks!

  • Charlene Woods

    March 12, 2012 11:57 pm

    Thank you so much for this very understandable explanation!! I now understand a subject which I have found very perplexing in the past!! Now, I can truly appreciate the work that went into darkroom developing, which seems to have been a form of art all its own!

  • Jeet

    March 12, 2012 10:58 pm

    Thanks a lot Peter. That's the simplest explanation I have ever come across for Dodge and Burn.
    I might try them mext time I process - I don't do it that often.

  • bycostello

    March 12, 2012 09:08 pm

    great tutorial... thanks...

  • Fuzzypiggy

    March 12, 2012 07:45 pm

    I still call it D'n'B but I prefer to talk in terms of "shadow/highlight tuning". As previous poster said, D'n'B are probably the two most important controls in post-processing as they allow some extremely fine control of S&H in a shot that filters will simply jump all over in their big size 12 boots and ruin, LOL!

  • scott detweiler

    March 12, 2012 04:58 am

    It can also be used creatively on skin, as in this example from my portfolio: http://www.sedetweiler.com/digital/h935288b#h935288b

  • Steve

    March 12, 2012 04:12 am

    Dodging and burning can be used in very bright sunlit conditions to tone down areas that are too bright and also lighten up the shadows a bit.
    It needs to be used carefully to avoid a muddy appearance which can be the result if you overdo it.

    This one was in very bright Mediterranean sunlight. I used hdr to start with then fine tuned it with dodging and burning:

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Scenes-of-Spain-The-Costas/G0000Qp9QOeUBwDA/I0000oTDqO60gZds

  • Ilan

    March 12, 2012 02:26 am

    "Burning" and "dodging" are among the most important tools photoshop/editing program can offer.
    These two tools (plus, of course, playing with exposure in RAW) are as close as you can get to lab editing in digital era.

    Here is an example that without these tools could be hard to achieve - http://www.ilanbresler.com/2012/03/superman.html

  • Erik Kerstenbeck

    March 12, 2012 02:15 am

    Hi

    Great article - this technique has been around since, well, forever and is till relevant. I use Nikons Capture NX2 to accomplish this as it has it's U-Point feature. Makes all this dodging and burning really quick and easy.

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/what-lies-beneath-2/

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