Photography tips – dodge and burn

This is another Photoshop tip, and this one is available for both Elements and the full CS2.  Here are the basics:

Dodge – Make lighter

Burn – Make darker

Now when do you use these little tools?  Basically, when you need to lighten or darken an area…yes, pretty obvious!  One important tip in using both of these, is use a light touch.  Do not use them at 100% strength.  I usually set them around 20% and move them from there, as needed.

Here is where you can find the dodge tool:



I don’t use this very often.  The only time I use the dodge tool is when I need to lighten a small area.  I have used it on shadows on the face, dark circles under the eyes and veins.  One big area that I use it is on the eye area if they are too shadowed.  You can’t go nuts when using this so if the eyes are way too dark, this isn’t going to save them.  It takes out a bit of detail, so use it lightly.

Here’s an example of dodging the eyes to brighten them up (not to be mistaken with using the color dodge on eyes, which makes the eyes pop (note to self: do a separate post on that!)).

The first photo is without the dodging – focus on the eyes and you can see the difference when using the dodge tool and when not using it.  The second photo is with the eyes dodged.  It can give you definition where there was none before.



Another use of dodging is when you make a fairy picture.  For the picture below, I used the dodge tool underneath the fairy dust so it appeared lighter as if light was shining there.



This is an area that requires a light touch and a large brush.  I generally only go around the outside of the picture, after I have cropped it to the size I want.  This is usually my last step in processing.  The burn tool is found in the same spot as the dodge tool – right click over the dodge tool and choose the burn tool.

I will use the burn tool to create a vignette around the subject, like so:


Take the big brush and go around the outside, with less swipes on the inside area so it has a bit of a gradient.

Another thing I like to do is just to make it appear that the lighting is falling more fully on the subject and/or to make the subject stand out from the background.  I will use the burn tool around them to darken the areas behind or next to them.  Now, the burn tool can affect colors quite a bit, so you may have to really watch that.  If it over saturates a color, then use the sponge tool, change to desaturate (located on top tool bar) and go over that area to take down the color. 

You may recognize this picture from earlier this week.  I burned the wood around her face a bit, but when I did it really saturated the color.  I used the desaturate tool just a little bit so it didn’t overpower the picture.


Burning will not work on areas that are overly light, such as the sky above.  This does not allow you the ability to have a full vignette.  Make sure you don’t go overboard with the dodging.  It can make the colors look unnatural if you go too far.  Basically you are just trying to make the subjects appear as if the light is shining on them, but make sure it looks natural.  One thing to remember is that you can desaturate the colors if the burning makes them pop too much.

For this black and white, I used both dodging and burning.  I dodged her eyes and areas on her face that were too shadowed, and I burned the wood areas so she stood out more from the background. 

big eyes

Let me know if you have any specific questions on how to use it.  I’m happy to help!


I post photography and Photoshop tips (nearly) every Saturday, so check back for more or browse my archives under Photography Tips.  I’m open to content suggestions, so if there is an area you are interested in, just leave a comment.

6 Replies to “Photography tips – dodge and burn”

  1. I am a frequent user of the burn tool, both for vignetting and to bring back detail in spots that are a bit blown out. I always burn at 100% on a separate layer so that I can play with opacity that way. I have never, however, found a way to make the dodge tool look natural. I’ve tried, but never been successful. Perhaps it would work better if I tried it your way, dodging at light opacity…

    Thanks for the tips! I love your tips posts.

  2. I am so pathetic. I just like looking at them…it freaks me out hearing what everyone does to the pictures. Himself just went “oh, yea, dodging and burning, they’re the two most useful things you can use. I use them all the time!!!!!!”
    Yea….well……I don’t even HAVE photoshop.

    Beautiful Anya pix btw

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