Non Destructive Dodging and Burning

Non Destructive Dodging and Burning


Destructive editing. Do the very words make you shudder? For many, the main rule of editing is to avoid destruction at all costs. So today, we’re going to talk about dodging and burning the non-destructive way.

For beginners, dodging and burning are tools in Photoshop and other editing programs which darken (burn) or lighten (dodge) desired areas. The problem with the tools is that they can’t be used on transparent layers and must be used on the actual image. This has a few problems:

  • It destroys pixels
  • You can’t create a transparent layer and dodge/burn on it, your work can’t be masked for easy ‘undoing’
  • Although you can’t do it on a transparent layer, you can duplicate the layer, add a mask and dodge/burn that layer but this increases the file size

The way I solve all these problems is use a Photoshop action that either creates separate transparent layers with masks or one transparent layer with mask that you can paint white to dodge and black to burn. My personal favourite is actually a free one from MCP Actions called ‘Touch of Light/Touch of Darkness’. This creates two transparent layers with masks. One for dodging, one for burning. So dodge and burn your heart out!

Edited solely with a non-destructive dodge/burn method

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Elizabeth Halford is a photographer and advertising creative producer in Orlando, FL. She wrote her first article for dPS in 2010. Her most popular one racked up over 100k shares!

Some Older Comments

  • Leslie March 9, 2011 06:47 pm

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  • Robb Williams September 30, 2010 12:50 am

    Sometimes a bit of dodging and burning can be used to emphasise different areas. I use a technique in Photoshop involving separate adjustments layers for the dogde and the burn effects.
    To dodge I create a level - or curves - adjustment layer and, without adjusting any of the sliders, set the blending mode to "Screen". Click on the layer mask of the adjustment layer you've just made and press ctrl i (windows) cmnd i (mac) and the layer mask will turn black blocking out the effect of the adjustment. With the mask still selected, use a soft brush set to white to paint in the areas you want to dodge. To burn in do exatly the same but set the blending mode to "Multiply".
    For a quick boost of either the dark or light areas I create the layer adjustment as above and, with the mask selected, I go up to the Image menu dropdown and select apply image. This creates a mask based on the tonal values of the image so Highlights don't burn out on the dodge mode and, like wise dark areas don't get burned in too much on the burn mode.
    The beauty of this technique is that it's a non destructive method of editing and, because each process is on a different adjustment layer, they can be faded in or out using the layer's opacity, or turnedd off independently of each other. Further fine tuning can be achieved by tweaking the actual layer effect.

  • Wayne H August 5, 2010 12:01 pm

    Why not just use Adobe Lightroom 3's tools for making selected adjustments. By starting with a virtual copy you can make the adjustments non destructive.

  • Chris July 20, 2010 03:40 pm

    A great method to solve this problem is fill flash! When the subject is stongly backlit, as is the case in this and many daytime photos, careful application of flash will correctly expose the suject.

    For this picture, and most daytime pictures, set your aperature to 16, match your ISO to your shutter speed (100 or 200 - most cameras will not flash-sync above a shutter speed of 200), pop up your flash/stick your speed light in your hotshoe, and fire away!

    For bad indoor lighting, just use shutter priority around 50-100, ISO 200-800 (depending on the darkness). Of course, if your image isn't coming out how you'd like, adjust! The glories of the LCD...

  • Banewood July 16, 2010 08:45 pm

    I've been using PhotoShop for a number of years, and I found your article interesting. I tried out the free "Touch of Light/Touch of Darkness" Action, and I'm pleased with the results. Here's a photo that I tried it out on:
    I lightened up the shadow beneath the cat's chin to where you can now see details of the collar. I also did a little darkening around the mouth and eyes, where spots of white fur were slightly overexposed.

  • Obviologist July 16, 2010 06:04 pm

    Zack Jones, to answer your question about where the names Dodge and burn came from, it is all related to the traditional dark room.

    The basic principle of making a print is to use a projector to shine light through the negative, to produce a positive image on the Paper. the more light that hits the paper the darker that part of the paper will be when processed, and in the denser parts of the film where less light can get through, will be white or some shade of grey in the final image.

    to make the image on the paper, you need to expose it to a certain amount of light that could last anywhere from a couple seconds to 20-30 seconds (though thats kind of long)

    During that time, there will (Always) be areas that need to be Lighter in the final image, and places that need to be darker. so what a photographer would do is Cut out pieces of cardboard or other substrates to fit the shapes that are needed, then as he exposes the image, instead of just letting the image expose for the full time, the photographer would expose a few seconds at a time, in steps. so after he had exposed enough light to get the right Highlights, he would then take the piece of cardboard and physically hold it between the enlarger and the paper. Now if he just holds the board between the image and the enlarger, it will create sharp edges, and look silly, so he would move the board around in small circles so that a little bit of light falls on the edge of where he is dodging, (or you could say, purposely making quick motions to avoid the light that would hit the paper, or even another way, that part of the paper is dodging the light that would otherwise hit it)

    As for The term burning, the areas that are not being blocked are getting literally burned with more light, making them darker.

    I hope that long winded answer helps to make it more clear the terms.

  • Cammi July 16, 2010 12:41 pm

    Just a note that the MCP actions are AMAZING! In their 'Quickie Collection' (US$79.90) they also have an action called 'Non-destructive dodge and burn' along with a whole other bunch of actions - vintage colours, black and white's, colour popping, extreme fill flash etc!
    I HIGHLY recommend their actions! they also have easy to understand tutorials and you can even sign up for workshops!

  • Banewood July 16, 2010 10:59 am

    I've been using PhotoShop for a number of years, and I found your article interesting. I tried out the free "Touch of Light/Touch of Darkness" Action, and I'm pleased with the results. Here's a photo that I tried it out on. I lightened up the shadow beneath the cat's chin to where you can now see details of the collar. I also did a little darkening around the mouth and eyes, where spots of white fur were slightly overexposed.[eimg link='' title='Percy_IMG_1230-TouchUp' url='']

  • Mandi July 16, 2010 08:56 am

    I love that you all have different opinions, and different ways of achieving a similar result - makes for very interesting reading, and even more to play with in PS - thanks :)

  • K. Praslowicz July 16, 2010 03:33 am

    @Zack Jones - Hardly. Ansel Adams was one of the most technically proficient photographer's ever. He wrote a highly influential book on how to absolutely make sure you get the best exposure every time. The next book in the series? How to use methods such as dodging & burning to make that perfect exposure even better.

    The utility of dodging & burning on a perfect exposure is far greater then its utility to attempt to fix a less than perfect one.

  • Tim Schapker July 15, 2010 02:42 am

    I've had good results using curves adjustment layers, especially to create more dimension in portraits. I create 2 curves adjustment layers above my artwork and label them shadow and highlight. For shadow I pull the left side of the curve downward slightly and for highlight I pull the right side of the curve upward slightly. I then add layer masks and fill with black. I set my brush to something with a very soft edge, 20% opacity and 30% flow. By painting with white on the adjustment layers, I get really good control with very gradual, subtle changes.

  • stefano solinas - obsidianart July 13, 2010 11:38 pm

    using a gray layer (#808080) with softlight blending, then you could use burn/doge tool or brush as you like.
    Anyway, doge and burn permitt to choose kind of light to work with, you will probably use softlight, hardlight etc for more control.

  • dogwatcher July 13, 2010 03:37 pm

    There are several ways to get non-destructive dodging and burning working... And they do work with almost all programs which support layers nowadays,

    I usually create an empty layer in GIMP, but don't fill it with 50% grey (I could, but it's not necessary, transparent pixels have the same effect in the "overlay" or "soft light" mode like 50% grey pixels..), set the mode to "soft light" and paint with a brush in black, white and all shades between.

    (.. due to a bug "overlay" and "soft light" are the same in the actual versions of GIMP, so I use "soft light" because it's implemented correctly and you never know if they fix the overlay mode later, so every GIMP image would change it's look if there are layers in it using "overlay")

    This works for any halfway decent photo editing program I can think of... maybe you have to use some tricks for Photoshop Elements, but as far as I know there are tricks and hacks to get it working there too.

    And yes, dodging and burning is a veeeeeeery old technique of the darkroom age. Don't hesitate to use it, the greatest black & white artists did use it on dozens of their photos... (of course you can dodge and burn a photo "to death"... so be careful. But hey, it's non-destructive, right? :D )

  • Scott Smith July 13, 2010 01:19 pm

    Here is another way to do it by Markus Hartel:
    Non-Destructive Dodging and Burning

  • Gene Lee July 13, 2010 08:29 am

    There is a simpler way to do this, as already mentioned. Add a new layer with blend mode set to Soft Light, click on Fill with Soft-Light-neutral-color (50% gray).

    Use the Doge/Burn tool rather than painting on the layer with black/white using a brush. The Dodge/Burn tool gives precise control that can be built up in steps, but with the added control of affecting only a range of tonality (shadow, mid-tones, highlights).

    A side note to Zack about why to use Dodge/Burn. It isn't just about getting a proper exposure. The exmple shown needed some fill light, so wasn't representative of what a polished pro might produce. Nonetheless, many photographers use Dodge/Burn to make subtle improvements to help guide the eye, hide defects, and distractions. Landscape photographers are especially likely to use Dodge/Burn on their photos. These subtle improvements can make the difference between good and really good imagery. One last thought. Not all photographers are polished pros, so having this tool to fix a shot is a good thing.

  • Vladimir Krzalic July 13, 2010 05:15 am

    Thank you for this article. It does make sense to use the dodge/burn this way, but also approach with grey layers does the trick too. You maybe overdid it in the example, but OK... this is to show others what could be done.
    You can't always expose for everything in the frame to be lit as it should be. This is a real world and things do happen, like sudden changes of light, high contrasts due to high sun etc. One more thing is that the digital sensor has less dynamic range than film and much less range than B&W flim, so we must find some ways of "streching" the dynamics to match that look.
    Cheers to all!

  • Jeff July 13, 2010 04:33 am

    Or you could just duplicate your base layer. This is actually much better than painting on the 50% gray 'soft light' layer - because you can specifically target shadows, midtones, or highlights separately.

    any "destructive" edit can be changed to non-destructive simply by duplicating your base layer (or doing a ctrl-shift-alt-E to "stamp visible" if you have adjustments above the base layer). then you'll always have the original to go back to.

  • Bill Ulrich July 13, 2010 03:36 am

    How are the Pshop dodge/burn tool options of highlights/midtones/shadows handled by paint? Seems like paint would be strictly midtone unless there is some way to accurately map a blending option to each one?

  • Kyrptonite July 13, 2010 03:34 am

    I think that the example photo really doesn't look good. I guess for covering up mistakes it works ok

  • Liz July 13, 2010 03:26 am

    @sack jones

    It has something to do with the way we used to develop photos. When u dodge the light, a tool is used to hide the part of the photo u want to lighten -- more light equals darker photo, hence dodge.

  • Elizabeth Halford July 13, 2010 03:05 am

    @Zack: Hello! Dodging and burning isn't about correcting exposure. It's just a method for editing & painting on lightness or darkness in selected areas. Can even be used to painting on custom vignettes. Like in my example photo, I exposed the photo for the surroundings and dodged the subjects to match. You can't always expose for every element in one photo. :)

  • scott July 13, 2010 02:42 am

    vpf and vrinda are thinking like me. I always create an overlay layer with neutral gray and paint with different shades of gray for the same exact result with no destruction of the photo layer. As for making the adjustment in lightroom you could do that as well, but you sacrifice a lot of control and efficiency because of the brush options are much more limited than in photoshop of course.

  • Zack Jones July 13, 2010 02:35 am

    Or just take a better exposed photo to begin with so you don't have to do post processing :)

    Burning = darken makes sense to me but how did they come up with dodge to lighten? Inquiring minds want to know.

  • jakob July 13, 2010 02:14 am

    Or just use the brush in layer needed

  • Vrinda July 13, 2010 12:41 am

    Similar to the above poster... I create a new layer, set the blend mode to "soft light", then paint on black, white, and varying shades of grey. Easy!

  • VPF July 13, 2010 12:37 am

    Hmm, and I was living under impression, that you can do this simply by adding neutral gray filled layer, set the bleding to overlay and dodge/burn on this layer for non-destructive editing... Or is the effect different from this approach?