Dodging and burning are two of the oldest—and most important—photo editing techniques. It’s where you selectively brighten (dodge) or darken (burn) different areas of your image. Let me explain.
Why Is It Called Dodging and Burning?
The names “dodging” for brightening and “burning” for darkening different parts of your photo are a throwback to darkroom film techniques.
Photographers would start with a test print to see that everything was in focus and looked good. They didn’t have Photoshop, so to make edits, they’d assess their image and work out what bits they wanted to be brighter or darker. They’d often write these instructions onto the test print—you can see some really good examples in this article on PetaPixel.
Then they’d make another print with an enlarger. It’s a tool that shines light through a photo-negative onto some photo paper to make an image. The more light that shines through onto the paper, the darker that section will be (which is why the brights and darks are inverted in a negative).
For the areas of the image they wanted to be brighter, they’d use a small spatula-like tool to block light from the enlarger hitting the photo paper. For the areas of the image they wanted to be darker, they’d use paper masks to block out the rest of the image so it could be left exposed for longer—and thus get darker.
It was a slow and time-consuming process—especially compared to modern-day photo editing.
Why Dodge and Burn?
Dodging and burning was obviously a lot of work, so why did photographers do it? To make better images, of course.
Our eyes are drawn to contrast in an image. By selectively brightening and darkening different areas, the photographer can get the viewer to look where they want. It’s a powerful way to increase the impact of your photo—and it can make things look cooler too.
Here, I’ll show you some examples from my work.
I love this photo of the cow, but it’s all a bit flat.
So I dodged the cow, in particular its eyes, and burned the wall and the house to darken them up and add a vignette. Now it’s a much more interesting image with a super clear focal point.
Here the effect is more subtle, but I’ve darkened the sky to add more drama, and brightened areas of the cathedral in the center of the image to guide the viewer’s eye from the pilgrim to it. I also darkened the areas around some of the other people in the photo to make things less distracting.
And finally, here I’ve darkened the monument to make it more imposing while brightening the area around the jogger to make her more the focal point of the image.
It’s incredible how powerful a few small edits can be.
How Do I Dodge and Burn My Photos?
Dodging and burning is a technique that can be done in any editor that enables you to make local adjustments, and there are quite a few different ways you can do it.
- In Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW, you can use the Adjustment Brush tool or the Radial Filter tool to selectively brighten or darken different areas of your image.
- In Adobe Photoshop, you can use the dedicated Dodge and Burn tools, or use a Curves adjustment layer and a layer mask for more control.
To learn more, check out our full guide to dodging and burning on any image editor.