Photoshop Techniques - Curves Adjustment Layer for Dodging & Burning

This is the fourth blog in a series devoted to the time-honored tradition of dodging and burning. You are learning how to selectively edit an image to emphasize important elements, subdue distracting elements and add depth, drama and interest by increasing contrast. Here is a summary of what has been covered so far:

Part 1 –dodge and burn tools (selective but destructive)

Part 2 – brush tool with layer masks to selectively dodge and burn (selective and less destructive)

Part 3 – ‘Apply Image’ tool to selectively mask a layer for dodge and burn (refined selective and less destructive)

Now I will introduce you to a new adjustment layer – curves (and it has slider tools!). Curves adjustment is a powerful tool and I use it more than any other for my editing. Bring an image into Photoshop and make a copy to work on. Follow me as I edit my image.

Step 1. I showed you earlier how to open adjustment layers from the top Layers tab, here is another way to open the curves adjustment layer. Notice the icons at the bottom of your layers palette. Click on the circle that is half white and half black. Choose Curves from the menu display as you see here. Double click on the layers name to rename it. We are going to start with dodging dark areas of the image. I named mine ‘dodge tree’.

A layer has been created devoted to Curves adjustment. Notice the Properties palette above. The histogram includes the tones within your image from dark (left side) to bright (right side). Notice the diagonal line running through it. That is the adjustment line - moving it will change the dark and bright values of your image. Drag the line up, it brightens, move it down, it darkens. Click and drag the line and move it around just to see the changes in your image. You can undo all of that by clicking on the curved arrow icon below the histogram (revert), as you see here.

You can use Curves to increase contrast by brightening the light areas and darkening the dark areas. To do this, pull the line down in the dark areas of the histogram and pull the line up in the bright areas of the histogram, as you see here.

You can also use the hand tool. Click on it and drag down over the areas of your image you want to darken and drag up the areas you want to brighten.

There are other ways to make edits in Curves, so I will direct you to one of many videos that describe how to use Curves adjustment. Feel free to check it out now before continuing here.

Before I begin editing, I think about what it is I want to do with the image regarding brightening and darkening. In my image, I want to brighten the tree without affecting the rest of the image and then add some contrast to the sky and reflection. Do the same for your image, find the areas you want to brighten and we'll begin there.

Step 2. To brighten, move the Curves adjustment line up and continue making adjustments until the areas you wanted edited look good to you. Unfortunately, the entire image is affected, which is not what you want! Look at my image below, awful! But that’s OK for now, we’re going to fix that.

Step 3. To make your curves adjustment layer more selective, first click on the white layer mask. Then in the Properties palette, click on Invert. You can also press Control +I (Command + I in a Mac). Now the mask is black, concealing the Curves adjustment.

Step 4. With the layers mask highlighted, use the brush to paint over the areas you want to brighten. Make sure the Foreground is set to white, brush hardness 0% and opacity 100%. In my image, I painted over the tree as you see here. Remember, you can view your layer mask by Alt clicking (option clicking on a Mac) on the layer mask.

The adjustment is improved greatly. But it is a crude adjustment because it is difficult to avoid painting on areas you don’t want to affect. This is where the ‘Apply Image…’ masking technique comes in.

Step 5. With the mask highlighted, Alt click (option click) so you can see the mask. Go up to Image tab and open 'Apply Image...'. Notice the dark areas you want to edit appear dark meaning they are concealed.

Step 6a. Click on the Invert box to reveal the dark areas. Notice my layers mask below. Now notice that the surrounding area around my tree looks gray, meaning they are partially revealed. I do not want anything revealed except the tree. Click OK.

Step 6b (optional). Go back up to the Image tab and open Apply Image again. Now look at my layer mask. Much more selective!

Step 6c (optional). I am still not entirely happy with the mask, so I am going to open Levels and make adjustments to it. With the mask highlighted, hit Control +L (command+L) to open the Levels window screen. Move the sliders around to where you are happy with the mask. Remember, you are trying to conceal the areas you do not want to edit and reveal only those you do.

Happy with my mask, at any time I can go back to my Curves adjustment layer (Dodge tree) and tweak the brightness, affecting only the tree. Now, we are ready to edit other parts of the image.

Step 7. Create another curves adjustment layer for burning. I named mine ‘burn midtones & brights’.

Step 8. To darken, move the Curves adjustment line down to where you see those areas looking the way you want them to look.

Step 9. Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5.

Step 10. Uncheck the invert box on the Apply Image screen so that the areas you want to edit are revealed. Here’s how mine looks.

Here is the result after I tweaked my curves adjustment for burning midtones and brights. Note the curves line moved downward in the midtone area, but not the brightest areas.

Step 11a. I am still not happy with the results because I prefer some of the dark clouds to be darker. I created a third curves adjustment layer, renamed it and made my curves adjustment. With the layer inverted, I paint over the sky area above the tree. Then I opened ‘Apply Image…’. Here is the mask created. I inverted it because I want to reveal the dark areas.

Step 11b. Notice in the mask the top part of the tree is also revealed. I do not want the tree to be affected, so I will paint that out. First, I click OK on the 'Apply Image' window screen and with my mask showing up (remember Alt click or option click), I set the foreground to black and take my brush and paint over the tree to conceal it like this.

You can continue adding curves adjustment layers and layer masks as you see fit. After tweaking my three curves adjustments, here are my dodge and burn edits before and after.

Now I can continue with my other edits! Here is the final product.

Congratulations! You have learned many new skills and are taking greater control over your edits. And with ease, you can now go back and tweak your edits as needed without having to delete anything. These methods that I showed you are not the only methods for dodging and burning. There are other ways you can apply the brushes for dodging and burning and there are other ways you can create selective layer masks. The key is to find the method you like best and be able to choose from a few different ways of doing something. I recommend a couple videos if you wish to continue learning how to apply best practices for editing. Check these out:

Sean Bagshaw's easy method for dodging and burning.

Matt Klowkoski's description of luminosity masks.

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