preview showing half-burned image
Harry Guinness

Dodging and burning are photo editing techniques where you selectively brighten (dodge) and darken (burn) different areas of your image. It allows you to control what people will see first and generally make your images look cooler. Let’s look at how to do it.

RELATED: What Are Dodging and Burning in Photography?

How to Dodge and Burn in Any Image Editor

To dodge and burn a photo, you need a way to selectively darken and brighten the different areas of it. Any image editor that allows you to make local adjustments will do.

These include:

For this article, I’m going to demonstrate two methods with Photoshop, but you should follow along as closely as possible with whatever image editor you like to use. Most mobile editors—like Instagram, VSCO, and the iOS Photos app—don’t give you the level of control you need, so if you want to use your smartphone for this, check out Lightroom or Snapseed.

Method One: Paint It on With a Brush

The simplest way to dodge and burn your image is to use some kind of brush tool, adjustment brush, or local adjustment brush to directly paint where you want things to be brighter or darker. In Photoshop, we can achieve this effect using the regular brush tool, a blank layer, and a layer blend mode. In many other image editors, you’ll be able to directly paint any adjustment effect you want.

creating a new layer in photoshop

Open the image you want to edit and create a new blank layer by going to Layer > New > Layer… You can also use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Shift+N, or Command+Shift+N on a Mac.

soft light blend mode selected

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In the Layers Panel, select “Soft Light” from the Blend Mode dropdown. It means that any white you paint with the brush will brighten that area of the image while any black you paint will darken that area. The more white or black you paint, the brighter or darker that part of the image will get.

selecting brush tool

Grab the Brush tool from the Tools Panel (or use the keyboard shortcut B) then press D to reset the brush color to black. You can now press X to swap between painting with black and painting with white.

configuring brush tool

In the menu bar, configure the brush to your needs. I’d recommend using a large, soft, round brush, but you can use whatever you like. Some good settings to get started are:

  • Size: 50px – 250px, depending on your image size.
  • Hardness: 0%.
  • Opacity: 20%, so you can layer up the effect with multiple brush strokes.
  • Flow: 100%.
unedited image
The image I’m going to dodge and burn. Harry Guinness

Now just paint white wherever you want to dodge and black wherever you want to burn. Adjust your brush settings as needed to get the effects you want. To make the effect stronger with each brushstroke, increase your Opacity. To make the brush smaller for detail work, decrease the Size.

emulated dodge and burn layer
I’ve used a “Normal” blend mode here to show where I’ve painted black and white on the layer. You can see how this looks with “Soft Light” on below.

You can also use multiple layers to build up the effect or have one layer for dodging and another for burning for more fine control.

dodged and burned image
The resulting image. Harry Guinness

When you’re happy with the effect, save and share your image.

Method Two: Adjustment Layers and Layer Masks

The first method is a great way to quickly dodge and burn your images in Photoshop, but it can be a bit rough and ready. If you want more precise control or to be able to tweak things afterward, it’s best to use an adjustment layer. You need to use two separate adjustment layers: one for dodging and one for burning.

creating an adjustment layer

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Open the image you want to edit and then go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer, and select either “Levels” or “Curves”, depending on which you prefer. Curves will give you more control, but for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use a Levels layer.

using a levels layer
I’ve used the Levels layer to darken the shadows and midtones of the image.

Using the histogram and the sliders, adjust things until the areas you want to dodge or burn look how you want them to look.

invert mask option

Next, select the Layer Mask and in the Properties panel, select “Invert” (or use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+i on a PC, Command+i on a Mac). This will cause your edits to vanish.

Then grab the Brush tool (use the B key) and press D to reset it to its default colors: for masks, this means you paint with white, which reveals the effect of the adjustment layer. You can press X to swap to painting black if you want to hide more of the effect.

In the menu bar, configure the brush. You can start with similar settings to the first method. Something like a Size between 50px and 250px, a Hardness of 0%, an Opacity of 20%, and a Flow of 100%.

unedited image
I’m going to dodge and burn the same image again. Harry Guinness
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Now paint your dodge or burn effect into the areas you want. The advantage of this technique is that you can always edit the adjustment layer to increase or decrease the strength.

layer mask
This is what the layer mask for the burn adjustment looks like. Remember, the white sections are where the effect is strongest, the black is where there’s no effect.

Once you’ve dodged or burned your image, repeat the steps above with the opposite effect, make any last tweaks to the adjustment layer or mask, and then save and share it.

dodged and burned image
The resulting image. Harry Guinness

Other Ways to Dodge and Burn

As you can see from the methods above, dodging and burning are techniques not confined to any particular tools. If you have a way to brighten or darken different parts of your photo, you can use it to dodge or burn.

Some other common ways you might be able to do it include:

  • Dedicated Dodge and Burn tools.
  • An Adjustment Brush tool that enables you to paint in any global adjustment you can make. This is the best option in Lightroom, Adobe Camera RAW, and CaptureOne.
  • Other kinds of selection tools, like radial filters, dynamic control points, gradient filters, luminance or color selections, and the like, that you can use to target different areas of your image for different adjustments.
  • Even a vignette slider, like the one found in Instagram’s editor, is a crude method of burning the edges of your image to draw attention to the center

RELATED: What Is a Vignette in Photography?

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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