by Weston Maggio

Better Dodging and Burning in Photoshop with a Wacom Tablet

Before I get too far into it, I want to make sure that you understand what exactly “dodging and burning” is. In short, it is the addition or subtraction of light from a subject. Doing so properly creates contrast and leads your viewer’s eye through the frame.

Today, the terms "dodge" and "burn" might be considered a bit of a throwback as they originated in the days of the traditional darkroom. To dodge and burn an image in the darkroom, a developer would use his or her hands, or other light-blocking devices to modify light from an enlarger as it exposed a print. The act of “burning” would make an area of an image darker by letting more light expose the print. When “dodging”, one would hold-back light from an area, underexposing it and thus making it lighter. This physical process was quite an act, and having spent a little time in a darkroom, I can tell you that developing is an art form unto itself!

In Adobe Photoshop, dodging and burning follows the same principles: Use the burn tool to increase the exposure or make it darker. Use the Dodge tool to decrease the exposure or make it lighter. 

Method 1 – The Dodge and Burn Tools

You can find the “Dodge” and “Burn” Tools in the Photoshop Toolbox. They are simple enough to use. Select the appropriate tool: Burn to darken or Dodge to lighten and paint away. Without any further instruction, you’d probably see some decent results. There are, however, a couple of things to take note of.

Right out of the box, the Dodge and Burn tools are “destructive”. Meaning, they alter the information that makes up your image. Applied directly, there is no turning back if you later decide you do not like the results. Accordingly, it is advised that you work on a duplicate of the image or layer that you wish to enhance.

It’s worth mentioning that the Dodge and Burn tools get a pretty bad wrap for their dark past. (No pun intended.) In fact, for years it was almost taboo to even suggest using them! In versions prior to Photoshop CS5, they had a tendency of clipping highlights and shadows, and shifting colors. Today, as I said, they do a pretty good job thanks to an overhaul of the algorithm to prevent overly bright or dark results. Additionally, the Protect Tones setting in the Options bar does a great job of keeping the hue from shifting in the area that you are painting.

The Dodge and Burn tools can adjust the Highlights, Midtones and Shadows independently. When burning, I adjust the Midtones. When dodging, I adjust the Shadows.

The Dodge and Burn tools behave like the Brush tool in that you select a brush tip from the Brush Panel. You would typically want to use a soft round brush tip so as to feather the effect of the tool. Combining a soft round brush tip with the pressure sensitive control of a Wacom pen, you can selectively paint on exposure adjustments with the utmost precision.

Method 2 – Blend Modes and the Brush Tool

The Dodge and Burn tools are great choices for down and dirty, quick fixes. For me, a more flexible method incorporates the use of blend modes and layer masks. The concept is similar, but with this approach, you use the Brush tool to apply the lightening and darkening effect.

Similar to the Dodge and Burn tools, a soft round brush tip and pressure sensitive control is ideal. In this approach, pressure is used to adjust the opacity of the effect.

To use the blend mode method, you create a new (blank) layer or in some cases, a duplicate of the layer that you wish to enhance, and then change the layer’s blend mode.

Soft Light

My go-to blend mode for dodging and burning is Soft Light as it yields a nice balance of lights and darks. For a more contrasty effect, I also like the Overlay blend mode. Which ever you choose, the application is the same:

When painting on a layer with it’s blend mode set to Soft Light or Overlay, painting with a color that is lighter than 50% gray lightens the image, while painting with a color that is darker than 50% gray darkens the image. For simplicity, I paint with full white or black. Setting the brush tool so that opacity is controlled by pen pressure enables me to vary the intensity of the effect by pressing the pen tip softer or harder to the tablet.

You can dodge and burn on a single layer by flipping your foreground and background colors from white to black, or you can create separate layers: One for dodging and one for burning. More often than not though, I dodge and burn on a single layer.

Screen and Multiply

If you prefer the idea of dodging and burning on separate layers, two more blend modes to consider are Screen and Multiply. Screen essentially lightens while Multiply darkens.

The use of Screen and Multiply to lighten or darken images calls for a slightly different approach. Instead of working on a blank layer as you do with Soft Light and Overlay, you create a duplicate of the layer that you wish to enhance, then change it’s blend mode.

Changing the blend mode alone lightens or darkens the entire image, which is not the intended effect. Instead, to selectively apply the effect, add a conceal-all layer mask. (Mask filled with black.) Now, when you paint with white on the layer mask, the effects of the blend mode is revealed. Once again, the use of pressure enables me to vary the opacity or intensity of the effect.  

While there are certainly more ways to add contrast and visual interest to an image, these methods are tried and true in my workflow. Give them a try and I’m sure that you will agree, there aren’t a lot of frills to them, and the results are great.

Check out the video below to learn how easy it can be.

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