How to Improve Your Images with Dodging & Burning

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about converting your images to black and white. We mentioned dodging and burning to improve black and white images, so today we’re going to explore this topic and how you can do it in Lightroom and Photoshop.

The goal of dodging and burning is to brighten and darken different parts of your image. This helps direct the viewer’s eye, highlighting important parts of the image, and making unimportant parts less visible. It’s a useful tool to emphasize your subject and hide distractions. Remember, we’re initially attracted to the brightest parts of an image, as well as the areas that have the highest contrast.

So how do you dodge and burn? There are many ways to do that, and we probably won’t cover all of them, but let’s start with Lightroom.

One of the easiest ways to do it is with the vignette tool. By darkening the edges of your image, you can draw attention to the center of the image. In the Develop module, you can use the Effects tab to create a vignette. The Amount slider controls how dark (or bright) your vignette is; Midpoint controls how deep into the images the vignette goes; Roundness controls the shape of the vignette; Feather controls the gradient from dark to light.

While a vignette can be a good tool, it doesn’t provide much flexibility. If you want to have more control on where to apply dodging and burning, you can use the Brush Tool (see below).

You can use the exposure slider to darken or brighten the areas you brush. You can control the brush size at the bottom of the panel (see below). The Feather slider will control the gradient between the brushed areas and the rest of the images. The Density and Flow sliders control the strength of the brush. You may not want to darken or brighten all areas as much.

Below is an example of dodging and burning where I darkened the left and bottom parts of the image to emphasize the curves of the building.

Now let’s talk about Photoshop. Again, there are many ways to do it, but we’ll show you two. First, you can use the Dodge tool and the Burn tool. They work well, but there are two downsides: they are destructive (if you close the file and reopen it, you can’t undo) and the effect is very strong. I recommend using a very low exposure for subtle dodging & burning.

Another way to do dodging and burning is to do it on a separate layer, in a non-destructive way. Start by creating a new layer (Layer>New>Layer).

Then we’re going to fill that layer with 50% gray (Edit>Fill). Select 50% Gray for Contents, Normal Mode and 100% Opacity.

Do not panic if your image is all gray, it’s normal! We’re going to change the Blending Mode. Find the dropdown in the Layers panel:

Blending Modes affect how your layer is displayed on top of the lower layers. Darken will only show darker pixels for example. Let’s select Overlay. The gray layer disappears because 50% gray is neutral in Overlay mode. Anything darker will darken and anything brighter will brighten the image below. You can now paint on that layer with a black brush to darken and a white brush to brighten. I recommend using a 10% opacity for your brush for subtle effects.


Here’s an example where I used dodging and burning on a separate layer to draw the viewer’s eye to the skyline. Notice how I darkened the top of the sky and the bottom of the water?

With dodging & burning

Dodging and burning is a great tool to take your images to the next level and really bring out the story of your image. If you use different tools, please share them in the comments!



One Response

  1. I use the dodge & burn tool in portrait and sometimes in landscape photography, but never in architecture photography. If I want this effect on a horizont line, I use adjustable gradient filters in Exposure X.

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