Photoshop Techniques - The Selective but Destructive Dodge & Burn Tools

Ansel Adams was a master photo editor and he relied extensively on dodging and burning in the darkroom. He assigned specific areas of a print to dodge (lighten) and other areas to burn (darken). He did this so he could apply a wide range of tones throughout his images. Dodging and burning in the digital world have the same purpose. Despite being well-recognized editing techniques, dodging and burning are quite often done poorly (and destructively) or not attempted at all. But in my opinion, they are among the most important editing techniques for all photographers.

First, let’s be clear on the terminology. Dodge refers to a method to lighten a part of an image, whereas burn refers to darkening a part of the image. If you can remember that burning something like a slice of bread makes it black, you can remember that burn refers to darkening. More importantly, the key word here is ’selective’ as dodging and burning are applied selectively. Photoshop has tools devoted to dodging and burning and that’s what I will describe in this blog. Although you will come away from this blog with good knowledge of the dodge and burn tools, you will also learn that these tools are by far NOT the best way to perform selective lightening and darkening.

At this point, I recommend you bring an unedited image into Photoshop, preferably one with a wide range of tones. Go to the Tab “Image’ and duplicate it. Use the copied image to follow along. Also, if you have not read my previous blog “Photoshop Techniques – Layers”, please check it out before continuing here.

When you edit an image in Photoshop, you have dozens of tools from which to choose. Some tools are applied globally and some selectively. Global editing refers to when the edit is applied to the entire image. Let’s say you think parts of your image are too dark and you wished the exposure was brighter in those areas. Go to the layers tab above and open a new adjustment layer titled ‘Exposure”.

Move the adjustment slider to the right to add light. Notice how the entire image was brightened.

This is a global edit. Not acceptable! So how can you apply brightness ONLY to those areas of the image you want to be brighter? Before continuing, delete your exposure adjustment layer.

Now for the dodging and burning selective tools. Basically, a dodge or burn tool is a brush that is controlled with the cursor. When you open Photoshop, a vertical tool bar appears automatically on the left side of the screen. It is in this tool bar where you find the dodge and burn brushes as you see in the screen shot below.

When the dodge tool is applied, dragging the cursor over certain areas of the image will lighten them. If the burn tool is applied, it darkens the areas brushed over. You can see both changes below.

To apply the brush, simply left click and hold as you drag the cursor over the area you want to edit. Unclick to stop the edit. Begin again by clicking and dragging in another area or the same area to apply another edit. Each time you click, drag and unclick, an edit is recorded. You can click, drag and unclick as many times as you want, each one will be a separate edit.

If your dodge or burn tool edits look very different than mine, it may be because of your tool settings. When using the dodge or burn tool, there are four things you need to adjust before you begin editing. Select the dodge tool (or burn tool) and notice the horizontal tool bar located below the tabs at the top of the screen.

All of these apply to your dodge (or burn) tool. Notice a menu arrow next to the icon with the number below it. Click on the arrow to open another window as you see here. From this window, you can make two important adjustments to your dodge tool - size and hardness.

First, slide the hardness all the way to the left to 0%. This softens the edge of the brush giving it a ‘gentler’ or more subtle approach to the edits. Notice the difference in appearance between 0% hardness and 100% hardness in the screen shot below.

Second, you can adjust the size of the brush by also moving a slider. But there is a much easier way to do that. Close the brush window by clicking somewhere else on the screen. With your cursor hovering over your image, increase it’s size by pressing and holding the right bracket key (]) on your keyboard. And to reduce the size, press and hold the left bracket key ([). Easy! Notice the difference in the edits in the image below.

Third, go back to the horizontal tool bar for your dodge tool. Click the arrow in the window titled “Range” and notice there are three choices. Obviously, if you want to lighten the dark areas, you will need to set your dodge tool to shadows and if you want to darken the bright areas, you will set your burn tool to Highlights. Midtone areas are those that are somewhere in between. So basically, you can apply either dodging or burning to shadows, midtones or highlights; six choices in all. You can see how these differ in the image below.

Fourth, we have another very important adjustment to make and that is the exposure setting. Go back to your brush tool bar and notice the window titled “Exposure’. This is probably the most important setting for your dodge or burn tool because it greatly determines the intensity of the edit. All the edits you see in my images so far have been performed at 100% exposure. Look at the image below to see where I reduced the exposure settings for dodging and burning the highlights. What a difference!

One last thing. Go back to the dodge/burn tool bar at the top and notice at the far right is a check box titled “Protect Tones”. The default is to have that checked. If yours is checked, your dodge and burn edits were performed with the tone protection. What happens if you uncheck it? Look below where I dodged my highlights at 100% exposure and burned my highlights at 100% exposure, once with protected tones and again without. It appears that having ‘protected tones’ box checked is good practice when dodging and burning!

Now with all your adjustments made, you can begin to apply your dodge or burn tool to any area you wish. However, there is one last thing that can greatly affect the edits. If you want to apply an edit, you only need to left click and hold as you drag across the area you want edited. But what if that did not brighten the shadows enough to your liking? You can repeat the action over the same area. Look below where I dodged the shadows three times. Notice where the three edits overlap is the brightest. Also notice there is a big difference when I change the brush hardness from 100% to 0%. The softer the brush, the more subtle are the edits, which is better in my opinion.

The best way to work with the dodge and burn tools is to experiment with them and get use to the various settings. Now, go to your Windows tab and open ‘History’. Guess what? All the edits were applied to the original image and are destructive (that’s why I wanted you to duplicate your image and work on that one). What if I don’t like my edits, how can I adjust or remove them? At this point you’re only choice is to remove edits from the history list.

There are ways to dodge and burn non-destructively and you guessed it, they involve layers. Remember, your original image is a background layer and when you add layers to it, you make edits to those new layers and not the original. This is non-destructive. In the screen shot below, you can see that I applied my dodging and burning to several layers. This leaves the original image intact.

Despite the use of layers in the above example, it is not the method I use dodge and burn my images. In fact, I never use the dodge and burn tools. In the next two blogs I will demonstrate two methods that do not require the dodge and burn tools. Stayed tuned for part 2 because I am going to lead you down a well-worn path toward non-destructive, selective and subtle dodging and burning that will greatly improve your editing skills!

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