How Do You Dodge and Burn Without Overdoing it?

James wrote and asked:

“Can you tell me how to get better at dodge and burn. I try and try, but I overdo the blacks and whites and get an image that’s too contrasty. Any tips you can give me would be great.”

This is a very common question and issue,  and one that can easily be addressed.

First a little background, for those who don’t follow my workflow, it’s a very simple one.  I primarily adjust brightness and contrast and then dodge and burn the image in a fairly detailed and intricate manner.  To successfully dodge and burn you must own a pen and tablet, a small 4X6 Bamboo tablet can be purchased for about $100 and a larger one is very nice if you can afford it.  I like Wacom tablets.

When you dodge and burn there are four basic controls you want to be aware of; Diameter, Exposure, Hardness and Range.

The “diameter” of the brush is simply how large the brush is and choosing a brush size is generally obvious; big brushes for big areas and little brushes for little areas.  The larger the brush is, the easier it is to blend in your work and make it look natural.  So for big areas such as skies, use a very large brush.  Obviously for bringing out the highlights on tree branches you want a brush about the size of what you’re dodging.

The “exposure” or strength of the brush is perhaps the most critical setting and the easiest to abuse.  I generally use an exposure of 4% and work the dodge/burn very slowly, building up the areas with many passes of the pen.  I often see people going at it with 50% and this where things get overdone and artificial looking.  Think of dodging/burning as painting the image, you must work slowly and carefully.

The hardness is how hard of a edge you want on the brush.  I generally work with a 0% brush for areas such as skies.  When you are working in very small areas with very sharp detail, you might choose a small and hard brush, so that you can confine the dodge/burn to a very tight area.

The “range” of the dodge/burn refers to the range of values you’re affecting, either the highlights, midtones or shadows.  This is the hardest technique to describe (it’s much easier seeing it being done).  If you set your dodge to highlights, then your brush is brightening the highlights and ignoring the midtones and shadows.  While this three setting separation works pretty good, you have to be careful because the highlight dodge will tend to bleed over to the lighter midtone areas as well.  So you might choose to use a smaller brush and confine your dodging to just the highlights that you want to brighten.  Likewise with the burn tool, if you set it to shadows you can generally darken just the shadows, but again be careful not to affect those darker midtones.

In general, I’ll dodge my midtones to bring out detail in shadow areas and my highlights to increase contrast and make my images pop.  I’ll generally burn my midtones and shadows to darken down my images.  I rarely will dodge shadows or burn highlights.

An example: The image above was created recently at Stonehenge; I wanted to darken the blue sky, increase the contrast in the clouds, darken the foreground and stones and bring out the highlights in the stones.

I started with the sky, if I had tried to darken the sky with a big brush, I’d have also darkened parts of the stones I didn’t want to.  If I had tried darkening the sky with a smaller brush, I’d have done a blotchy job of it and I’d have created halos where the stone and sky met.  So instead, I masked out the sky so that I could process it separately without affecting the stones, and then I reversed the mask so that I could process the stones without affecting the sky.  I’ll address my masking techniques in another article.

First I took a midsized midtone brush and burnt the blue sky and some of the darker parts of the clouds.  Then I used a medium sized midtone brush to dodge the highlights in the clouds and then did the same with a midsized highlight brush.  Going back and fort between dodging and burning, and working slowly, I created a dark sky and contrasty clouds.

All along this process I keep careful eye on my histogram.  Your eye doesn’t always accurately tell you if your blacks are dark enough or when your whites get blown out, so the histogram is my constant companion.

Then I reversed the mask so that I could work the foreground and not affect the sky.  I burned the grass almost to black with a large brush set to shadows.  Then I burn the stones down, first with the midtones and then the shadows and finally I brought up the highlights on the stones with a stronger dodge.

The result is my preferred dark image, with strong contrasts. lots of  100% blacks and 100% whites.

So summarizing; get a tablet, set your exposure to 4% and work slowly, alternating between the dodge and burn.  When necessary, mask and work each part separately.  Paint and caress your image like a painter would a canvas!

I know this is a quick overview, but a lot of what you need to learn will come from doing, not reading.  So get out and do!


11 Responses to “How Do You Dodge and Burn Without Overdoing it?”

  • Courtney Says:

    Thank you so much for posting this! After I read your last blog I had my go at dodging and burning a couple pictures. Hopefully now I’ll have a better idea of how to start it!

  • Gerry Toler Says:

    Cole: I had been waiting to see what you did with Stonehenge. Great! Thanks for sharing technique and the imagae.

  • Susan Stone Says:

    I haven’t got a tablet but I do use the tools in the same way you’ve suggested and with practice you can control them with the mouse, although not as accurately as with the pen. I think you’re very generous with all the information you so graciously share with us, it’s like a mini-workshop!

  • James Says:

    Awesome, thanks for this cole. I am sending you an email.

  • Kim Barton Says:

    I’ve had so much fun experimenting with dodging and burning since you showed us how in Moab! Thanks for sharing!

  • Bob Says:

    Hi Cole,

    Looking forward to your ‘next article’ on your masking technique(s). Any idea when you can find the time to do that?

  • osselin Says:

    I took my notes. Many thanks.

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  • Bob Estremera Says:

    A great retoucher (fashion) showed me how he dodges and burns with the brush tool set to ‘overlay’. Just set the foreground color for white (dodging) and black (burning). Same story on the opacity, keep it low and build, like you say.

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  • Kim Barton Says:

    Bob, a friend taught me that method too, and I use it almost exclusively. It seems to have benefits over the regular dodge & burn.

  • wacom Says:


    […]How Do You Dodge and Burn Without Overdoing it? | Cole Thompson Photography[…]…

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