Burning & Dodging With Adjustment Layers And Masks

Burning & Dodging With Adjustment Layers And Masks

Food blogger Danny Jauregui from Food Bloggers Unite! shows us an alternative Burning and Dodging technique.

Non-destructive burning & dodging is most often done with a 50% gray fill layer. Although using this method has worked for me in the past, I’ve found it difficult to predict what sort of result I would ultimately attain when finished. Lately, I’ve been using adjustment layers with a mask to do my burning & dodging and I’ve found that I have more control over image tone and contrast.

The benefit of using this method is that once the layer mask is applied, you can easily re-open the layer adjustment dialogue box and change the amount of brightness or darkness given to particular areas.


Darkroom to Digital

Burning & Dodging is a traditional darkroom printing technique utilized to give particular areas of the print more, or less exposure. Burning areas of the print gives it more exposure therefore darkens the area, while dodging gives it less exposure therefore lightens the area. The goal of the technique is to salvage lost information usually caused by high contrast exposures.

This technique is easily done in photoshop and can help you salvage images. Ever have a print where the highlights become blown out? Or a landscape where you loose detail in the shadows? This technique is a lifesaver in these situations and can be used in over-all tonal corrections of specific areas of an image.

In the sample image above, the lentils and chicken underneath the fried egg were too dark and I was loosing important detail. Also, notice how the highlights on the white part of the egg and on the edge of the napkin are blown out. Burning & Dodging will help fix these two areas.

First I will Dodge the dark areas.

Step #1 – Add A Levels Adjustment Layer

Open your image and using the Adjustment Layer button at the bottom of the layers palette, add a Levels Adjustment Layer.

Step #2 – Make Tonal Adjustment

Since I’m mostly concerned with the dark area underneath the egg I’ll use the mid-tone scrubby slider in the center of the histogram to make my tonal adjustments. Slide the scrubby slider to the left to lighten the area. Notice how the entire image becomes lighter. Don’t panic. We will later use a layer mask to correct this. For now, focus on the area that you are trying to dodge. Once you are happy with the tonal degree of the area, hit ok.

Step #3 – Add Layer Mask


Adding an Adjustment Layer will automatically add a Layer Mask to that layer. You’ll notice that your Adjustment Layer has two small windows. The window on the right is your Layer Mask. Making sure that the window on the right is selected, click on your paint bucket tool and select the color black. Place the cursor over your image and click inside of the image. Adding the color black hides the adjustment layer. We will now use the color white to reveal the Adjustment Layer wherever we need a lighter tone.

Step #4 – Reveal Adjustment Layer


Select an appropriate size brush for the area and lower the opacity to 15%. Select the color white and begin carefully painting on the area that you are trying to lighten, in my case, it was underneath the fried egg. Continue painting until you’ve reached the desired level of dodging.

If the amount of dodging is too much, double click the Adjustment Layer and move the scrubby slider to the right to darken it. Not enough? Move the scrubby slider further to the left.

This same technique can be used to Burn. Follow the same instructions only make your adjustments in the opposite direction. Add a new Adjustment Layer and instead of moving the slider to the left, move it to the right to darken the image. Add the Layer Mask and using white, paint the areas you are trying to darken. Voila!


Danny is a Los Angeles based food blogger. You can read his recipes on Over The Hill And On A Roll

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Some Older Comments

  • noirmlucille December 12, 2011 09:14 pm

    buy a for less and get big save

  • kistabill January 30, 2010 10:40 pm

    Great stuff! I'm not a Photoshop user but this tutoroal (and most other Photoshop tutorials) work perfectly well with Paint Shop Pro. Thanks

  • Stella October 19, 2009 09:56 pm

    Hey, this worked pretty slick! Thanks for the tips.

  • gracks kitchen May 27, 2009 04:34 am

    Flores, the Adjustment layer the tut. talked of was the "levels" adjustment.
    I know Ctrl+J is easy peezy, but there is a reason pros don't do it. (trust me, I used to do it your way as well^^)

    The reasoning behind not using Ctrl+J is that you are not duplicating an image layer and performing destructive editing to it. Duplicate image layers can greatly increase your overall image size, and db on an image layer makes it very difficult to undo something you later realize you don't like.

    if you don't like the method mentioned above, or it's too confusing. Go with the Blank layer method. It's as easy as your CtrlJ method, is nondestructive, and can easily be undone or edited later down the road.

    Change layer blending mode to overlay.
    Draw with black or white brush on it.
    Erase what ya don't like, and remember that you can adjust brush densities or softness or hardness and change your layer opacity to do global adjusting to you db layer.
    (note: make sure your db layer is on the topmost layer of your image)

  • Flores May 26, 2009 08:28 pm

    Like G Chai says, I do not understand this tutorial. The steps are not clear for me an amateur and beginner in photoshop. You said, "Adding an Adjustment Layer will automatically add a Layer Mask to that layer." But in my PScs3, when I click 'adjustment layer palette', it offers me many choices (gradient, posterize, exposure, curve, etc. which menu I have to activate? Rather then pass through this complicated methods, I rather play with curve. Just make a new layer (Ctrl + J), then play with curve, give a little dodge then adjust its opacity. Accomplished. Cheers!

  • jeff May 17, 2009 05:26 pm

    i'm also a food blogger and these techniques help a lot. thanks!

  • Sean May 14, 2009 04:18 pm

    I hate to say ti but I really liked the before shot, I felt it had more depth. The after is lacking the vibrant colors.

  • Deirdre May 14, 2009 08:47 am

    I've read that the burning and dodging tools in CS4 are non-destructive now and work much better than they did in the past. Apparently people who know what they're doing with photoshop are moving toward using them. I only started with CS4, so I haven't experienced anything different.

  • G. Chai May 13, 2009 03:22 pm

    Wow! This post (along with q&a in comments) clears up a lot of confusion I've always had about burning and dodging. Thanks so much.

    The post, however, did not mention the order in which layers (b and d) are on the background layer. Does the order of layer matter, in this example, when the layers are merged (image flattened) before saving it as a JPG file?

    @graks kitchen: I am guessing, this method of d&b in this post is just one of the many ways d&b can be applied to an image to be 'enhanced'. Photoshop, like other image editing softwares, lets us get the same result in many different ways.

  • Gracks Kitchen May 13, 2009 02:47 am

    Nice technique^_^ Thank you for sharing!

    One question for those with experience...I've taken classes, read books, and worked with CS4 extensively myself. ....but I DO NOT UNDERSTAND, and never have, why it is people recommend dodging and burning with a 50% grey fill layer?!?!?! They say it's the "pro" way to d&b, but it makes NO sense to me when you can get the exact same results using an empty layer set to "Overlay" blending mode. Can anyone tell me why you would use a 50% grey layer? I've done a side by side comparison, and there is NO difference between d&b with 50% gray fill layer or a blank layer set to overlay. ...any ideas?

  • Jeffrey Kontur May 12, 2009 11:06 pm

    I like the Photoshopped version better, but I'd eat the original if it were set in front of me at the table. :o)

    I love non-destructive techniques and this is a great one.

  • Alex May 12, 2009 06:21 pm

    I think the original shot looks tastier than the photoshopped one!

    Great technique nonetheless!

  • Danny@FoodBloggersUnite May 12, 2009 07:58 am

    Danny here...

    Thanks for the comments everyone! This technique has been such a lifesaver for me. I prefer it SO much more to the 50% grey layer technique that is pretty popular. I'm glad many of you like it.

  • Rich May 12, 2009 05:42 am

    Having said that, am I the only person who actually prefers the original? (But it's a great example of the technique!)

  • joe May 12, 2009 04:47 am

    @ Rich
    Oops, you're right. I saw the line that burning was adding exposure and immediately thought adding exposure = lightening the image, but you're right, you're actually working with the negative.

    Thinking back to my limited experience working in the actual (black and white) darkroom: you project light through the negative onto the photopaper, and burn an area by letting it get exposed to more light. But on the photopaper, more light = darker. (if you expose photopaper to sunlight and try and develop it, it turns black, which is why you have to have a darkroom to begin with).

    I should have thought this through before commenting. Thanks for clarifying for me.

  • Aimee Greeblemonkey May 12, 2009 04:43 am

    I am queen dodge and burn, but this adds even more dimension (ha!) - thanks!

  • caroline May 12, 2009 04:00 am

    I'm confused, Joe. Burn darkens, and Dodge lightens. Or do you mean burning is subtracting exposure, not adding?

  • Rich May 12, 2009 03:51 am

    @joe: I think increased exposure darkens the area because in real lightrooms everything is done in negative

  • Trevor Carpenter May 12, 2009 03:25 am

    I have NEVER really understood the proper use of dodging and burning, until now.

    You rock!

  • joe May 12, 2009 02:54 am

    There's a typo here. When you burn and add exposure, it should lighten an area. Think about what a picture looks like if it's over-exposed vs if it's under exposed.

  • Nathan May 12, 2009 02:42 am

    Non-destructive techniques like this are always the best! Thanks!

  • Arya May 12, 2009 02:39 am

    Thank you SO much for explaining about the layer mask! I've been using dodge and burn directly on the photo, but this is much, much better!!!!

  • Rick May 12, 2009 01:07 am

    Great technique! I remember dodging and burning from my darkroom days and have tried to use the dodge and burn tool in photoshop many times with less the satisfactory results. but this technique works as advertised. Thanks!

  • Ilan May 12, 2009 12:58 am

    Most of the time I "sweat" while working on my Capture NX software, selectively brightening/darkening areas with the tools available there and then a final touch on Photoshop.
    For hours I tried to "darken" correctly the tips of the branches on this photo, they kept "dissolving" into the white background - http://www.ilanbresler.com/2009/05/maze.html
    I'll try this process now.
    Thanks again!