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Dodging & Burning in Photoshop

Dodging and burning have been with us for a long time now, beginning in the classic darkroom.  I won’t bore anyone with a history lesson, although I will say this: if you’ve ever done classic D&B work by hand, over a physical print, then you know how difficult it can be to achieve just the right shape, just the right blending, and just the right amount of exposure.  The digital darkroom has simplified things hugely and given us the ability to see how we’re applying D&B effects and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to undo them afterwards.

Shooting in the Rain: the top photo shows the image immediately after B&W conversion, while the bottom image shows the image after layer adjustments, specifically dodging & burning.

The photos I shot in the rain last weekend gave me cause to think about dodging and burning more than usual.  While the photos had potential, they were quite flat and needed some real work to make them meet that potential.  I don’t usually employ much dodging and burning in my images, although exactly why isn’t clear to me, but working through this batch brought to light the change that has been occurring in my own methodology.

One of my first learning experiences in the digital darkroom involved non-destructive dodging and burning via a gray overlay layer.  It’s a trick I picked up from another photographer, and the emphasis is on it’s non-destructive nature.  Existing on a separate layer, the adjustments I made were infinitely adjustable themselves: I could strengthen or weaken them, refine the edges, even erase them entirely, with no damage to the underlying image.  The technique is as simple as using a weak-opacity brush to paint black or white onto the gray layer, and seemed so effective that I quickly created an action that would perform all the setup work at the touch of a button.

The screen capture above shows the image from up above, with the D&B layer in place.  I’ve lowered the opacity of the actual photographic layer so you actually see the D&B brush work I’ve applied.  This is a down and dirty example, but you can see where I’ve pained in white to brighten the lighter areas of the water, and black in the shadows and across the nearer section of trees.  With the photo layer’s opacity brought back up to full, all you see is that the white and black painted areas are correspondingly lighter or darker, without any distortion or loss of detail.

The problem is, you’re doing the painting with a basic brush, which lacks the ability to discriminate one element from another.  Anything you paint black is going to get darker regardless of if you really want it to or not.  Take the water as a perfect example: what you ideally want to do is darken the shadows and brighten the highlights, which will add contrast and make it punchier.  While you could do that via Levels or Curves, that would be a global change.  Even if you masked the adjustment layers to just that area, it would be a very broad method, not too much different from the non-destructive D&B layer I tried in the first place.  There’s simply a lack of ability to make very small, very subtle adjustments.

Photoshop’s built-in dodge & burn tools, however, are not limited by this lack of differentiation.  For either effect, it is possible to select from a dropdown on the top tool bar the specific areas to which the effect is applied, be it the highlights, midtones, or shadows.  Combining the two effects of the tool, it’s possible to burn the shadows and dodge the highlights of the same area, boosting contrast in only those areas which you brush over.

The results are much more satisfying, as is the level of precise control over the effect on different elements within the image.  Furthermore, it makes sense to utilize the built-in tools.  After all, Photoshop’s purpose designed tools have a history of powerful effects combined with continuous improvement – take, for example, the Healing Brush and it’s new ability to utilize Content-Aware Fill.  Best of all, the issue of destructive vs. non-destructive editing is easily fulfilled by simply duplicating the background image layer and performing all D&B work on the copy, wherein mistakes can be erased and opacity adjusted to taste.

Although I frequently see references to the gray-layer D&B method, I realize that I’ve truly moved away from it in my own workflow.  I much prefer to use the Photoshop dodge and burn tools themselves, and believe that I achieve better results when using them, while using less time and energy in the process.  Your mileage may vary, but I recommend giving it a try.

Brent Pennington

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