Photoshop Techniques: The 'Apply Image...' Method for Dodging & Burning

I may be revealing my age, but acquiring Photoshop skills reminds me of the game Zelda. The purpose of the game was to accumulate powers to slay the bad guys. In Photoshop, each new skill learned is an added power that can be applied to your images to make them look better. If you have read the previous three blogs, you will have acquired several new powers. In this blog, you will learn how to make best use of one of those powers.

If you have not yet, please read the previous two blogs about destructive and non-destructive dodging and burning as I will be skipping over some instructions. In this blog, I will show you how to make the best use of the powerful ‘Apply Image’ tool so that you can dodge and burn more precisely. As an example, I will use the following image. It looks a little flat to me, so one of my editing goals is to increase the contrast to give it more flair. Increasing the contrast means brightening the bright areas and darkening the dark areas. I will demonstrate how I use dodging and burning to achieve that goal.

Step 1. Duplicate an image. Bring an image into Photoshop, preferably one that will benefit from a boost in contrast. Duplicate it and work on the copy.

Step 2. Create a new layer. Change the layer's name. I named mine “Bright”. Second, change the mode to “Soft Light” and click 'OK'.

Step 3. Create a layer mask. You should now see the layers palette as you see here.

Step 4. Open Apply Image. We will begin our edits on the bright areas of the image. To do that, we will reveal only the bright areas of the image and mask over (conceal) the dark areas. Make sure the layer mask is highlighted. Go to the top tabs and click on 'Image' and then click on ‘Apply Image…” Leave it with the default settings (blending multiply) and click ‘OK’.

Step 5. View the Layer Mask. With the layers mask highlighted, press the ‘Alt’ key (‘option’ on a Mac) and click on the mask. Remember, you are viewing the mask here, not the image. The darkest areas of your image (on my image it is the tree roots) should look black on the mask and the brightest areas should look white on the mask. You can see my image mask below.

With your layer mask in view, notice that there are few areas that look white and a few that look black – everything else looks gray. Gray areas of a mask partially reveal the image (the lighter the gray tone, the more revealed). What does this mean? It means that if you apply the brush to those gray masked areas, they will be affected but not as much as the fully revealed white areas. Look at the various tones highlighted in my image. What if I don't want the dark gray areas to be brightened by the white brush? Is there a way I can conceal them?

Step 6. Refine our layer mask. Alt (option) click on the layer mask so you can view the mask. Now repeat Step 4, but before you click ‘OK”, uncheck the preview in the Apply Image window. Notice the difference in the layer mask. What just happened? Notice some of the gray areas became darker or completely black. This is good because we are trying to conceal those areas.

 You can repeat Step 4 again and continue seeing changes, such that only the very brightest areas will be revealed. Click OK. Also note, you can create a new layer and ‘Apply Image’ twice to that one, create a third layer and “Apply Image’ three times to that one. And then you can selectively edit from each of those layers as often as you like.

Step 7. Dodge (and/or burn) the bright areas. Click on your layer icon. Now you can apply a white (for dodging) or black (for burning) brush to the bright areas of your image without affecting the darker areas. You may want to decrease the brush hardness and opacity. For mine, I set hardness to 0% and began editing at 30% opacity. Remember, some of these areas are partially revealed, meaning edits made to them will appear, but not as obvious as the brighter areas. 

Here’s a tip: When you apply the brush, use the first stroke to guide you before you apply another stroke. If it is too intense on the first swipe or you forgot to switch it back to white or black foreground, go up to the ‘Edit’ menu in the top tab and undo brush tool. Adjust the brush hardness, size and/or opacity as needed, or change the foreground back to white or black. Now try it again. If you are not seeing a change, try brushing it several times over the same area. Make sure it is your transparent layer and not the layer mask that is highlighted!

To dodge my bright areas, I created two layers, the first one I applied image to the mask twice (brights) and for the second layer I applied image three times (brightest). Here is the image after I dodged the bright areas.

You can see that it does not look much different from the unedited version. But I can go back and continue dodging or burning as much as I want. The magic will begin once I apply burning to the darker areas. Why is that? Remember, I am trying to increase contrast, which is to brighten the brights AND darken the darks. The dodged areas will look more obvious against the burned areas.

Step 8. Burn (and/or dodge) the dark areas. Perform steps 2 and 3. I named my new layer ‘Darks’. Highlight the layer mask, open the Image Tab and click on Apply Image. This time check the invert box. Click OK. View your new layer mask by Alt (option) clicking on it. It is reverse of the previous mask, now the brightest areas of your image are masked over (concealed). Please note, you can also invert the mask from the Properties palette when the mask is highlighted.

This time, instead of running a second ‘Apply Image’ to this layer, I am going to refine it another way. With the mask highlighted, hit Control+L (Command+L on a mac). This opens a small window titled “Levels”. Here you see a histogram with three slide controls below it.

Slide the left slider to the right to makes the dark areas of the mask darker. Slide the right slider to the left to make the white areas of the mask look brighter. The middle slider moved to the right makes the midtones of the mask look darker and to the left, makes them look brighter. Remember, these adjustments are applied to the mask, not the image. What I attempted to do is reduce the revealed areas so my edits would apply only to the darkest portions of the image. Particularly, I want to darken the dark clouds and brighten the mangrove leaves.

Click OK on the Levels window and click on the transparent layer icon. Apply the brush to those areas you want to darken (black foreground). You can also apply the white brush to dodge dark areas. Remember, it is only the revealed dark areas that will be edited. You can also go back to the other layers and continue editing there as well. And you can add new layers with ‘Apply Image’ masks as much as you want. Here is my dodged and burned image.

Here is a before and after. These dodge and burn edits appear subtle, which is what I like. I can go back and continue adding contrast with my dodging and burning or I can apply other types of edits and/or layers masks to improve the contrast. In other words, this image is not completed yet!

Don't you agree that  ‘Apply Image’ is a hidden treasure? But, I am not too enamored with the brush tool for dodging and burning. Whenever I make a mistake with the brush, I need to go back and undo it. This seems clumsy to me. I would much rather make an adjustment using a slide tool. Is there a way to do this for dodging and burning purposes? Yes, there is! Stay tuned for my next blog that will take your dodging and burning to another level.

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. Please check out my website and feel free to contact me at