Burning and Dodging

In the film days, the prints were made using a system of enlarger and a paper which reacted to the light falling on it. The negative was placed in the enlarger. As the name suggests, the enlarger projected an enlarged image of the negative on the photographic paper. After fine adjustments, the photographic paper was exposed and the photograph created.

A philosophical thought. The ‘negative’ word itself was used for the photography films due to the inversion of colors and brightness to layman eyes. I always say that in the film cameras, for every image two negatives were used. The first negative was the film roll itself and the second negative was the photographic paper, both of which inverted the image colors and light levels. Food for thought! This is just my mind so do not use this while talking to your fellow photographers. For common men, the negative indicated the film roll and photography paper indicated…. well the photography paper itself.

Now, consider a Tri-X (a popular B&W film) negative of a landscape. The bright sky would appear dark on the negative and the dark shadows of the landscape would appear bright on the negative.

Atlantis B&W Negative

(Atlantis B&W Negative – Notice the Globe which appears dark. All the tonal values are inverted in the negative. The images below are created from this negative)

The photography paper if developed without exposing turns out completely white and the same paper if exposed to direct sunlight when developed appears totally black. If the same negative was projected onto a photography paper, the dark sky on the negative will appear bright on the paper and similarly the bright landscape on the negative will appear dark on the paper (as it was originally visualized by the photographer).

Burning and Dodging are terms used in photography for a technique used during the printing process to manipulate the exposure of a selected area(s) on a photographic print, deviating from the rest of the image’s exposure. Burning increases the exposure of certain areas of the print to increase the darkness. Easy way to remember is that ‘burning’ leads to ‘blackening’ in day to day life. Similarly dodging is the opposite of burning. Dodging decreases the exposure of some of the areas of the prints thereby making those areas lighter. Easy to remember – ‘dodging the burn’.

Now the darkroom is no longer dark. The computers are the new darkrooms and the photographic paper is no longer reactive to light. It is just high quality paper which gets printed. The words Burning and Dodging have stuck and are now available in all the image editing programs. Their use has become limited due to various methods available in these programs for recovering shadow and highlight details but they are still as powerful as they used to be in the days of true darkrooms. The dodge effect still lightens colors and the burn effect still darkens colors.


(Atlantis B&W developed directly from the above negative. The image below is after using the burning and dodging technique)

Atlantis B&W after Burning and Dodging

(Atlantis B&W after roughly applying Burning and Dodging techniques – Notice how the statue with the globe has been brightened and the building on the sides has been darkened. The overall effect brings out the monument and helps focus attention on it.)

Burning and Dodging have their advantages –

  • The darkening and lightening effects can be ‘painted’ on to the photograph instead of general changes like shadow and highlight recovery which get applied all across the frame.
  • The act of painting is easier on our hands than choosing a marque or demarcating an area, so the results from this method appear natural.
  • Micro-transitions between adjoining areas of differing brightness, are maintained, when these tools are used correctly. If these micro-transitions get inconsistencies (as is common with D-Lightning or selected area’s shadow recovery), our brain reads those inconsistencies in luminosity values as bumps and hollows on the surface, which can make the image unattractive to our sub-conscious mind.

The Burning and Dodging tool is sometimes combined into one and in some programs they still are two different things. The common options available with these are –

  • Tool size defines the area where the effect will be applied (as a paint brush or an airbrush).
  • Transition can be set by the kind of brush used. I prefer a soft brush (hardness less than 25%) where the effect fades off in the peripheries. This is the same as using the dodging or burning masks in the true darkroom while keeping them away from the photography paper.
  • Shadows restricts the effect to darkest pixels.
  • Mid tones restricts the effect to pixels of average tone.
  • Highlights restricts the effect to lightest pixels.
  • Exposure defines how much the tool effect will be strong, as a more or less exposed photograph. Default slider is 50 but can vary from 0 to 100. I recommend using very low exposure value like 5 and using the tool multiple times (using multiple strokes for painting a region)
  • There maybe some extra settings available in different tools. Gimp has option to set brush dynamics, jitter (continuity of brush strokes) and smoothness of the brush. Photoshop has Protect Tones option. This setting provides more natural burning and dodging results by preserving the hues and tones of the photograph.

Some suggestions for using Burning and Dodging –

  • Use it for B&W images only initially. Applied excessively to a color image, dodging tends to wash out the colors, and burning tends to make for obvious grey blotches.
  • Correct the exposure before playing around with dodging and burning.
  • Always apply this using a new layer when possible, so as not to cause any damage to the original photograph.
  • Follow the workflow as outlines in – Post Processing RAW. Dodge and Burn tools should be used after correcting the exposure, shadow and highlights recovery and playing around with curves.
  • Prefer a soft brush (without any stroke dynamics) or air-brush for smooth application

“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.” – Ansel Adams

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