Posted by: Bill Shaner | March 29, 2009

Dodge and Burn – Part I

In the days of darkrooms you might see a person waving their hands under an enlarger and wondered if they were having a fit or trying out some new dance move hoping no one would see them in the dark. Fortunately in most cases what you were probably seeing was a person “dodging and burning” their image. It’s a technique that has been around for a very long time. These days there is very little darkroom work being done but in photoshop you can do basically the same thing as we used to do in the darkroom.

The dodge and burn discussion came up at a Peoria Camera Club meeting around a month ago and a technique was discussed  with how to do it better then the dodge and burn tool provided in Photoshop. Since then I’ve talked with a number of area photogs who asked about the technique. So I decided to share it. Credit however goes to Tom Ruhland for showing it to me/us.

In writing this I decided I would do it in two parts. The first covering the basics of what dodging and burning is and a couple of examples. The second part will be for the technique in photoshop itself.

Lets start with a kind of basic understanding of what the two words really mean from an image perspective. I’ll admit I got this a bit backward… It just takes some thinking (and remembering photo class! Thanks Tim Sheets for correcting me!!)

Dodge – If you look at a negative an under exposed area is actually lighter. On a black and white negative it’s basically clear. Lots of light gets through the negative and makes the printing paper dark (or black) when put in the developer.  If you dodge that under exposed (clear) area you prevent light from hitting the paper and that way you save some of the details that otherwise would have been to dark to see.

Burn – The opposite of dodge! In this case the negative would be really dark meaning it was over exposed! In this case you want as much light to get to the paper so the image on the shot shows up.

So… when you dodge you prevent light from getting to the image so it isn’t as dark and burning lets more light in so the image isn’t so light. Makes perfect sense right?

Most photographers are “visual” people so lets move less from descriptions and start by showing some examples!

This shot is a little dark! The right side you really don’t see a lot of details. In this case I would want to “dodge” the right side a little. Also note the left side with the leaves is a little dark as well.

There aren’t any areas that are really “hot” or over exposed on this image so I didn’t need to burn anything in this particular shot.

This is the “after” shot

Note that I’ve “dodged” the right and left sides a bit so that the details are still coming out. It’s a lot more obvious on the right side but if you look you should be able to tell that the leaves are a little “brighter” as well.

An area you might not have noticed as much is the water in the foreground. It wasn’t really bad but I wanted to show the flow of the water a little more so I dodged it a little to hopefully draw your eyes down (or up) the waterfall.

While I didn’t really have to do any burning in the above picture you can probably guess an area that I might have!! The sky in the middle upper portion is correctly exposed (in fact in this shot I was exposing for the sky originally) but if I had exposed for the rocks the sky would have definitely been over exposed which would have meant I may have had to “burn” those areas.

Next lets look at an area where I had to do a little burning

In this situation the over exposed areas are not as obvious… It’s the left side of the building that is kind of white and then the ground in front of the building. Neither of these is horrible but I didn’t like it because I felt it was drawing the viewers eyes to the parts of the image I didn’t want so I decided I’d burn them a bit.

Here is the “After” where I had burned both of those areas a bit.

Note that both the side of the building and the ground in front are not as “hot” as they were.

I admit that the changes in both examples are subtle but that’s sort of what dodging and burning is about. The technique, either in the darkroom or in photoshop, will not bring back details that are not there. But if you have an area that is a little over or under exposed (or both) the technique will help a lot.

You also need to be aware that you can over do it. Being subtle isn’t a bad thing in this case! At least with photoshop you have the ctrl+z (undo) key if you go a little overboard. In darkroom days you usually had to just start over with a new sheet of paper.

I might add that there is a little bit of art in dodging and burning. In fact you might think that the over exposed areas in the building picture that I “fixed” were fine and didn’t need to be changed… I won’t argue your opinion on that because that is the art part of the technique. But knowing you can do this and how to do it lets you bring out the inner artist in yourself!

In Part II I will get to the actual technique in photoshop!


  1. […] and Burn – Part II In Part 1 I covered what Dodging and Burning gets you and in Part II I’m really getting into the […]

  2. […] piece of work on a good topic and was written by Bill Shaner. So if you want the ENTIRE skinny on digital dodging and burning – go read his article. And thanks Bill – you gave me back like 15 minutes in my […]

  3. […] And then I come to find out that our own Bill Shaner had already written one of them – on non-destructive dodging and burning about ten months ago. Okay – I can deal with that. I also had the notion, after seeing Tim […]

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