Smart Dodge and Burn in Photoshop Elements

Smart Dodge and Burn in Photoshop Elements


In the traditional darkroom, you could adjust the relative lightness or darkness of parts of an image using processes called dodge and burn. If you were dodging or lightening the image you would expose parts of the image for a shorter length of time to lighten them. If you wanted to darken a portion of the image you would expose it for a longer period of time so that more light would be applied to the photo paper with the result that you would be darker.


The terms dodge and burn continue to be used in software today and Photoshop Elements has a Dodge tool and a Burn tool which are both accessible from a toolbar position which they share with the Sponge tool. The disadvantage of using the Dodge and Burn tools as they are shipped with Photoshop Elements and, indeed Photoshop, is that these fixes are designed to be made to the original image and the cannot be made on a separate layer and then, for example, be blended into the image.

The result is that if you apply a Dodge or Burn fix and later determine that you do not like the result or want to adjust it, it will be difficult to undo the changes that you have made.

In post production, dodging and burning are best applied to a separate layer in the image so that they can be undone, edited or blended at a later date.

Here is a method dodge and burn an image in Photoshop Elements which works the same way in Photoshop. It involves creating a layer on which the dodge and burn process is performed. It also takes advantage of a special characteristic of the Soft Light blend mode. This is a different dodge and burn method to that which Food blogger Danny Jauregui used in his recent dodge and burn post here at DPS.


Step 1

Open your image in Photoshop Elements (or Photoshop) and add a new layer by choosing Layer > New > Layer and click Ok.

Click on the foreground color swatch and set the R, G, and B values each to 128 and click Ok.


Step 2

Click the Paint Bucket tool in the tool list and click on the image to fill the layer with the gray color. You can also press Alt + Backspace (Option + Delete on the Mac) to fill the layer with the foreground color.


Step 3

Set the layer’s blend mode to Soft Light. The result will be that you will see your image just as it was when you opened it.

The Soft Light blend mode can be used to lighten or darken an image. If the color on the top layer is darker than neutral grey the image on the layer below is darkened and if it is lighter than neutral grey the layer below is lightened. When you blend with neutral grey, nothing happens. Here we have filled the layer with neutral gray (each of the RGB values are 128) so you see no change to the image.

So, if we now paint on this top layer with white the image will be lightened and if we paint with black it will be darkened. This is the equivalent of dodging and burning on the image.


Step 4

Select the Brush tool and select a circular soft edge brush adjusting its Opacity to around 25 percent. Adjust its size by pressing the [ or ] key on the keyboard. Set the foreground and background colors to white and black by pressing the D key and then the X key. Paint over the image on this top layer in white in those places that you want to lighten the image below.

For those parts of the image that you want to darken, paint over them with black.

If desired you can create one layer for burning and a second one for dodging. This will allow you to alter the opacity of each layer separately so you can subtly adjust the strength of the lightening or darkening applied.

To ensure that the fix remains changeable, save your image in a format that saves the image layers such as .psd.

Read more from our Post Production category

Helen Bradley is a Lifestyle journalist who divides her time between the real and digital worlds, picking the best from both. She writes and produces video instruction for Photoshop and digital photography for magazines and online providers world wide. She has also written four books on photo crafts and blogs at

Some Older Comments

  • Geoff Chalcraft July 16, 2010 05:00 am

    I think I'd need a longer explanation of why the Gray layer is not as good as a blank or transparent layer. The only change I'd suggest for the instructions as originally written would be to not bother with all that messing about with the Color swatches and RGB values - I just go to Edit > Fill Layer and choose 50% Gray, then set to Soft Light (or Overlay). You can always go back to this layer later and make further adjustments.

  • Joey July 5, 2009 03:14 pm

    You can skip filling the layer with 50% grey. It is really not necessary and can actually hinder you from doing more sophisticated things with the layer later on in the workflow (such as using it as a mask but only wanting to use the information you've painted in. If you fill with 50% grey then you cannot weed out only the strokes you have added as everything you didn't touch is still solid instead of transparent).

    Both ways work, one gives you a little more flexibility than the other depending on how you want to work.

    The hardest part of trying to teach "art" is that there are too many different variables that come into play along the way for there to be one distinct answer or process to achieve any one goal. If you only give one way to do it you run the risk of being called out in instances where another process would have been a better choice. On the other hand, if you explain too much about different ways to do things you end up confusing more people than you actually help.

    I would personally cater to the people who don't need to have everything laid out in a direct, step-by-step, to the exact number approach in order to accomplish something. That's pretty much no different than "teaching" a drawing class by drawing the picture yourself and then passing out photocopies and tracing paper so everyone else can "learn" how to draw by tracing directly over the image you've already created.

    Focus on the why it is done, not the how it is done, and the people who truly want to learn will learn and apply it to their own style.

  • Catherine May 30, 2009 10:09 pm

    I tried this, and I really like the control it gives, particularly when using one layer for "dodging" and one for "burning". I will definitely experiment more with this. Thank you.

  • Molardaddy May 26, 2009 02:14 pm

    Pictures did help a lot. I am very new to elements and I wouldn't have known where to look for some of the items. I was not able to get the effect I was looking for. The new layer was showing graying of the areas i was trying to lighten with the 25% opacity. Maybe I missed something somewhere. good tutorial otherwise.

  • belle May 23, 2009 10:54 pm

    Thanks for the tutorial. Can't wait to give it a try.

  • Michael Van der Tol May 22, 2009 09:13 pm

    Among the myriad of methods to dodge and burn, this is by far the best one and the one I most often use.

  • Melvin McDowell May 22, 2009 07:40 am

    Thanks. It works with the Gimp too.

  • The World in 35mm May 22, 2009 02:42 am

    Doesn't this same thing work without needing to fill the empty layer with RGB(128,128,128) step? I know Scott Kelby showed this trick on the PSTV podcast and in his books, but working on a blank layer seems to do the same thing. What is the reasoning behind the gray? Is it necessary?

  • reconjsh May 22, 2009 02:28 am

    ... follow up on previous post.

    Or maybe just circle the changes in the before and after. I see them though: the crate and stuff under the fruit stand is darker and the farthest right grapes are lighter.

  • Peter May 21, 2009 11:33 pm

    reconsjsh is correct...i would like to see a slightly more obvious adjustment as a teaching tool...i will try these myself on elements...thanks for a detailed explanation...

  • Jeffrey Kontur May 21, 2009 11:24 pm

    Layers are the smartest software invention ever!

  • Quck Photography Tips May 21, 2009 10:26 pm

    Other blend modes that treat 50% gray as transparent such as Overlay can also be used to give slightly different effects. I'm all for non-destructive editing techniques like this.

  • reconjsh May 21, 2009 09:55 pm

    Nice tutorial. The writing would have been sufficient, but the detailed screen grabs really make this excellent.

    I would have liked to see a more obvious "Before and After" though. It's hard to pick out the burned and dodged places. I guess that's kind of the point though (keeping post production subtle). Just my 2 cents.