Quick & Dirty Dodging & Burning

I’ll admit it. Not to long ago dodging and burning in Photoshop remained a bit of a mystery to me. Everywhere I looked I got the advice “make the darks darker and the brights brighter”. This advice, while not inaccurate, was frustratingly vague. I tried applying it to a number of images using the dodging and burning tools native to Photoshop but my results varied not only between photos but in different sections of the same photo. Yet, through much trial and (many more) errors I’ve picked up a few methods along the way that have become part of my work flow. In this tutorial I will discuss one of these methods (dodging and burning with curves) and exactly where you should to dodge and burn.


Now if you’re one of those people who are intimidated by curves, don’t be. At least not for this tutorial as I’ll show you exactly what to do.  To be honest using the curves adjustment layer is probably one of the easiest steps you’ll do. Also, though I typically dodge and burn towards the end of my work flow, and I do recommend you do the same, this advice is not set in stone. I must admit however that much of this technique I picked up from a Youtube video a little while back, so I can’t take credit for this method (my apologies but I don’t remember the artist’s name, but if you know it and comment I revise my post).

step 1

Open your image in Photoshop and click the new adjustment layer icon (it’s the circle split in half) on the bottom right of the screen and select Curves… This is going to be our dodge layer.  Now, you should see a curve. If not click the curve icon on the new layer and bump up the right side of the curve to the top of the box as shown below. Then click on the layer mask (white box) in the layer that says Curves 1 and press Ctrl+I. This will invert the mask and hide the layer. At this point I like to rename Curves 1 to Dodge.

Step 2

Time to create our burn layer. We’re going to repeat the first part of step 1: click on the create an adjustment layer icon and select curves. This time, however, we’re going to pull down on the middle of curve. Do note that you can click a point on the curve and then use your arrow keys to do this and that as my image was fairly bright  you may not need to pull the curve down so much(especially if your image is darker). Don’t worry if you get it wrong, this is all non-destructive editing so you can come back and fix this at anytime. Here’s what you should have.

Don’t forget to click on the white layer mask and press Ctrl+I to change it to black. Last, I like rename the layer Burn.

Step 3

Now for the dodging (although you could start with the burning first too if you wanted to). Select your brush tool and a small hard tip. Set opacity and flow to 100%, and set the foreground color to white (press D). Now we’re going to dodge on the Dodge layer layer mask. OK, but where do I start? While as the advice I complained about earlier stated we want to dodge the bright areas to make them brighter. Now in most face that’s going to be in certain areas, unless of course you’re using some dramatic lighting. So the areas were going hit are:

  • under the eyebrows to help brighten the eye socket
  • the bridge and tip of the nose
  • parts of the upper lip and the ridges of the dip under your nose
  • and the middle of the chin
  • the forehead (if visible)

Here’s what I’ve done (below). Notice how I used various size brushes. The thicker the brush the more dodge effect it will add later. I’ve also dodge the highlight in the hair, which I recommend.

Step 4

Now, I also find this dodging and burning technique is great for clothes too, so with the same small brush I’m going to just paint over the brightest of highlights on the the hoodie.  This part definitely takes some time and practice but the more you put into the better it will look. At this point I typically hide the layer by pressing the eye icon and move on. Here’s my work before I hide the layer.

Step 5

Time to burn! Now you’re pretty much going to follow step 3 and 4 again but this time hit the dark areas. Get a small hard brush and burn the face and the dark areas of the clothes and hair.  Usually, you’ll find you’ll need to burn:

  • the outside of the nose above the nostrils
  • under the hair line on the forehead
  • under the bottom lip
  • below the cheek bone highlight
  • and maybe the lower jaw

My screen shot.

Step 6

Now click to show both layers. If it looks like junk and you’re hating me right now you’re on the right track. To finish off this effect you need to click on the layer masks of both dodge and burn layers that we created play with the feather slider till you get the look you want. I usually go a tiny bit edgier than I think I want and pull it back with the layer opacity but you can do it all with the feather slider if you prefer. Here’s the properties panels for my burn layer as an example.

My settings for this step were:

  • Burn layer: 56.7 feather 95% opacity
  • Dodge layer: 65.8 feather 95% opacity

Step 7

Just to keep things clean I shift+click both layers and group them by pressing Ctrl+G. I rename the group “Dodge and Burn”.  As  a final check I toggle the group on and off and if I find the effect too strong I simply lower the opacity of the group. Finished!

If you like this tutorial please share. Feedback is always welcome.

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