Equipment Photo Editing

The Fine Art of Digital Printing: Layers are the Way to Dodge and Burn

This is one of a series of short pieces that will be appearing weekly through the month of January at

Any serious image-processing software has tools to dodge and burn photographs. None of them do a really good job, not even Photoshop. It’s hard to get the tonal changes to work exactly the way you want them to, with the degree of control we’ve come to expect in digital printing. Furthermore, for those of us with a darkroom background, the built-in software tools never produce results that look as good as what we could achieve on the enlarger easel.

Layers are the solution. In Photoshop, use a masked Curves adjustment layer; most image processing programs today will let you do something similar. You create a new layer that sits above the original image. That layer embodies the dodge or burn effect you’d like to be applying to the original, in exaggerated form. Mask that layer and fill the mask with black so that its effect becomes invisible. Then airbrush white, bit by bit, into the mask to make the effect visible where you want. The lighter you make the mask, the stronger the effect. If you go too far you can airbrush in black and reduce the effect. It’s adjustable, reversible, and fine-tunable tone correction (figures 1 & 2).

Figure 1: From left to right, the uncorrected photograph and the dodged photograph. © Ctein

Figure 2: The curves adjustment I used for the dodging layer in Figure 1 and the mask I painted in. This layer brings out detail in the deep shadows and midtones without washing out the true blacks. @ Ctein

Best of all, you can customize the dodge or burn effect to do exactly what you want. For example, an adjustment like figure 3, left, will lighten midtones but won’t wash out the shadows or blow out the highlights. An adjustment like figure 3, middle, will lighten highlights and add sparkle and brilliance without altering midtones or shadows. An adjustment like figure 3, right, will greatly open up tonality in the shadows but still leave you with a proper black.

Figure 3: Some sample adjustment curves. See above text for details. © Ctein

These curves produce very exaggerated results. If you applied them with 100% strength to your photograph the results would look awful. But you’re not, you’re painting them into the mask, a few percent at a stroke, wherever you want the effect.

I pretty much never burn or dodge the old-fashioned way. It’s too crude and uncontrollable. For me, it’s always masked layers.

   joe partridge said on January 10, 2012 at 3:00 pm

I create a blank layer, fill it with 50% grey and use ‘soft light’ blending mode. I then paint on it with either black or white with a soft brush and a very low opacity. Black bunrs; white dodges! Just like the old days.

   Jean Eichenlaub said on January 10, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Thank you. This makes sense to me. I’ve tried using a 50% grey layer overlay. It works; but, without wet darkroom experience I am confused.

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