Dodge and Burn Variability


Today’s Question: Evidence seems to suggest that the dodge & burn tools (in PS CS6) affect only the blacks, not all of the colors in the region painted. Is this true? If not what explains this apparent behavior? Regardless are there any tools that work the same way that dodging and burning does in a wet darkroom; i.e., affecting all of the colors?

Tim’s Quick Answer: The Dodge and Burn tools in Photoshop do indeed have an impact on colors, not just shades of gray. The key thing to understand is that the Dodge and Burn tools focus on specific tonal ranges, with options for Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights. You can, however, use a technique that employs the Overlay blend mode for the Brush tool to ensure more consistent results when dodging and burning in a photo.

More Detail: When using the Dodge and Burn tools in Photoshop, the results can certainly be a little misleading. When you paint across a photo with either of these tools, it may appear that colored areas are getting less effect (or even no effect) compared to shades of gray within the photo. But the difference relates to luminance values rather than color values. Very often, for example, if you are using the Midtones option for the Dodge or Burn tool, areas with relatively strong color saturation will actually be brighter than a midtone value, and thus are not impacted as much as the gray areas that do fall into the midtone range.

I prefer to use a technique that provides a bit more consistency across the photo, and also enables me to more easily switch between dodging (lightening areas of a photo) and burning (darkening areas of a photo).

The first step is to create a new image layer that has specific properties. Start by clicking on the thumbnail for the top-most image layer on the Layers panel, which may very well simply be the Background image layer. Then hold the Alt key on Windows or the Option key on Macintosh, and click the “Create a New Layer” button (the blank sheet of paper icon) at the bottom of the layers panel. Because you were holding the Alt or Option key on the keyboard, the New Layer dialog will appear.

In the New Layer dialog you can enter a name for the new layer, such as “Dodge and Burn”. Then change the blend mode to Overlay using the Mode popup. Finally, turn on the “Fill with Overlay-neutral color (50% Gray)” checkbox. Having this option turned on will make it easier to evaluate your paint strokes later if that ever becomes necessary. Click OK to create the new layer.

Next, choose the Brush tool from the toolbox, and press the letter “D” on the keyboard to set the colors to their default values of black (as the foreground color) and white (as the background color). On the Options bar, set the Opacity setting for the Brush tool to a value of around 10% to 20%.

You can now paint with black to darken areas of the photo and paint with white to brighten areas of the photo. The painting will appear on the new layer you created, and will affect the image based on the Opacity setting. If you paint over the same area more than once (releasing the mouse button between brush strokes) you can build up a stronger effect. To switch between painting with black versus white (for darkening versus lightening) simply press the “X” key on the keyboard.

With this technique you can exercise a little more control over the dodging and burning you want to apply to a photo, while getting more consistent results across the photo.