Photoshop Techniques - A Non-Destructive Dodge and Burn Method

If you haven't yet, please read my previous blog on dodging and burning. In this blog, I am going to show you one method for non-destructive and a refined way to dodge and burn selectively. At the same time, you are going to learn a few more Photoshop skills that can apply to many other types of edits. It will seem complicated with all the steps involved but stick with it – you will assuredly see great improvements to your editing skills. Are you ready? Let’s go!

Step 1. Duplicate an image. Bring an image into Photoshop, preferably one with both dark and bright parts. Duplicate it and work on the copy. For this blog, we will focus on editing the shadows or dark areas of your image. Later, you can take steps 2-9 and 11-14 to apply edits to the light areas of the image.

Step 2. Create a new layer. You already know about adjustment layers, now I am going to introduce you to the transparent layer. Go to the Layer tab at the top, highlight new and click on ‘New Layer…’

A new layer screen appears. Here, you will do two things. First, change the name. I named mine ‘Burn Shadows”. Second, change the mode to “Soft Light”.

In the layers palette (bottom right of your screen), you should see a new layer above the Background layer. It looks like a checkerboard. This is how Photoshop displays a transparent layer. Basically, that layer is doing nothing, you can still see your original image coming through the transparency. What a transparent layer allows you to do is paint on it (or add objects or another image).

Also note the small Tab with ‘Soft Light’ in it. If you are wondering about Soft Light and all the other options in the menu, for now, just know these are blend modes. Feel free to research that, but for our purposes today, we will leave it there.

Step 3. Create a layer mask. On the bottom of the layers palette, click on the mask icon (white rectangle with a black dot in the middle). Notice the white rectangle that appears next to your transparent layer. That should look familiar to you if you have been using adjustment layers. When you create an adjustment layer, the white mask automatically appears.

Here is the most important piece of information you need to know about layer masks – white reveals, black conceals. The white mask allows you to paint on the transparent layer and view it on the Background layer – white reveals. If the mask is black, anything you paint on the transparent layer will NOT appear – black conceals. We will get back to that in a minute.

Step 4. Set Foreground and Background colors. Now you will learn to paint with a white and black brush. Look at the vertical tool bar on the far left. Close to the bottom are two squares overlapping, one should be white and the other should be black. The square on the top is the foreground color, while the one on the bottom is the background color.

The only one we need to be concerned with is the foreground color. You can switch the colors between foreground and background by clicking on the small horizontal arrow located above the squares. Click it so that the top square is black. Click it again to make it white again. If for some reason your squares are another color, you can click on the small icon to the left of the arrow and it will bring them back to white foreground and black background.

Step 5. Adjust the brush settings. The only time you are likely to pay attention to the foreground color is when you use the brush tool. Notice the small brush icon in your vertical tool bar. Right click on it to see a small menu appear. Choose the brush. Notice at the top a new horizontal tool bar appears.

This should look familiar because it is like the dodge and burn tools. You can change the size and hardness (remember the bracket keys for changing the size more quickly) of the brush. One difference is that the brush does not have a range or exposure option like the dodge and burn tools. Opacity works like exposure in that it controls the amount of brush effect. When using the brush tool, I like to keep the opacity somewhat low, usually 10-50%. I also like to keep the brush hardness low, 0% to 25%. These all depend on what I am editing. The size of the brush will also depend on the area you want to edit.

Go to your transparent layer icon and click on it. Notice a white frame appears around the layer icon, this means it is active. With the foreground color set to white, adjust the brush to make it relatively large with 100% hardness and 100% opacity. Now with the brush, left click on your image in the same spot 10 times. You should see a brighter area where the brush was applied. Look at the screen shot below, where I did the same. Now go to the foreground square and change it to black. Do the same with your brush in another part of your image. You should now see a dark circle. Basically, you are applying a white and black brush to dodge and burn, respectively. Notice your transparent layer icon in the layers palette where you can see the brushes applied. And if you are curious, change the blend mode to normal and you'll see a difference in appearance. Using the Soft Light blend mode helps the dodging and burning look more natural and subtle rather than giving it a blast of white and black.

Step 6. Invert the layer mask. Let’s do a quick experiment (leave your dodge and burn circles intact). Go to your transparent layer and click on the layer mask. You should see a white outline around it, meaning it is active. Above the layers palette, you should see a tab for “Properties”. Click on it to show its palette. If you do not see Properties, go to your Window Tab at the top and check “Properties”.

With your layers mask highlighted, the Properties palette will show you information about the layer mask (not the layer itself). You should see “Invert” at the bottom of the panel. Click on it and look at what happens to the layer mask icon and also your white and black circles. They disappear! That’s because black conceals, remember? Now click on Invert again to reveal. Now you know how a mask works!

Before we get to the next step, open the History list from the Windows tab and click on the last edit made before the brush edits. This will remove all your brush edits. You should now see a clean transparent layer with its white layer mask. You can also delete your transparent layer and start over again.

Step 7. Open Apply Image. Highlight the layer mask again. Go to the top tabs and click on Image and then click on ‘Apply Image…”

Step 8. Apply Image Screen. You will see a new window screen. Before you do anything else, look at the layer mask. It looks like a black and white image. Interesting! In the 'Apply Image' window screen, leave everything as it is (blending should be Multiply). Click OK.

Step 9. The Layer Mask. Now, with the layers mask highlighted, press the ‘Alt’ key (‘option’ if you have a Mac) and click on the mask. Your image should appear black and white now. Please note, this is not a black and white conversion of your original image, rather what you are seeing here is the mask. The black areas are the darkest tones in your image, whereas the white areas are the brightest.

What this means is the darkest areas of your image are being masked over with black (concealed) and the brightest areas are masked in white (revealed). Gray tones (anything falling between black and white) indicate a degree of masking; the lighter the gray tone, the more revealed and vice versa for the darker grays.

Step 10. Invert layers mask. I wanted to burn the tree shadows in my image, yet these areas are being masked in black. So if I try to edit them now, very little, if anything will happen because black conceals. To change that, go to the Properties palette and click on ‘Invert’.

Notice now the dark areas are white and the bright areas are black. FYI, we can also do the invert from the Apply Image… window screen. Now, the tree shadows are being revealed and I can edit them. If I wanted to edit only the lighter areas of the image, I would skip the invert step.

Step 11. Back to original image. Press ‘Alt’ (or ‘Option’) again and click on layer mask to bring back the original image.

Step 12. Highlight transparent layer. Now click on the transparent layer icon. At last, you are ready to edit your shadows. Remember, the black areas of the mask conceal and the white areas reveal. Gray areas reveal partially.

Step 13. Dodge the shadows. Make sure the Foreground is white. Go to the brush and adjust the hardness to 0% to 25% and the opacity somewhere around 50%. Adjust the size of the brush according to the areas you will edit and begin brushing over them. Don’t worry about brushing outside of the edges because remember, black conceals and white reveals! Repeat your brush strokes and adjust the brush settings to where you like your edits.

Step 14. Burn the shadows. Make sure the Foreground is black and apply the brush to the shadows you want to darken. For my image, I want to make the tree shadows darker. If I want to brighten other dark areas, I will change the Foreground back to white.

Step 15. Removing edits. Unfortunately, the only way to remove edits from your layer is to delete them from your History list or delete the layer itself. This is the downside to using the brush multiple times for dodging and burning.

Step 16. Create another layer. One way to make edit removal easier is to create a layer for each category of edits (e.g., burn tree shadows, dodge green grass, burn bright sky, etc). That way, each layer contains a small number of edits so that you could resort to simply deleting that layer and starting over with a new layer. All the other layers and their edits will remain intact.

Look at the before and after image where only a burn shadows edit was performed. Non-destructive, selective and subtle! Now I can move on to other types of edits.

Here’s a secret – you can further refine the black and white areas of the mask so that you can be more selective with the areas you want to dodge and burn. And the best part is, it is quite easy to do. This is so important that I will devote my next blog to this technique. I guarantee it will take your dodging and burning to an expert level of editing. In the meantime, experiment with the black and white brushes, size, hardness and opacity. And if you are feeling adventurous, experiment with the blend modes.

Thanks for looking on and if you want to learn more about Photoshop editing techniques, need help with your editing workflow or simply want to get started in Photoshop, I offer Photoshop tutorials at $75/hour. Feel free to contact me at