Colin Smith of PhotoshopCAFE.com on Non-Destructive Dodging and Burning in Photoshop

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Dodging and burning is a technique where portions of a photograph are selectively darkened (burning) or lightened (dodging). This is where you can add emphasis to certain portions of a photograph, or just bring back detail in certain areas. It’s a powerful technique for composition and creativity. The terminology comes from the traditional darkroom where an enlarger—combined with cupping of hands and cutouts on wire—were used to control the amount of light on different portions of a photograph.

Editor's Note: This is a guest blogpost from Colin Smith of PhotoshopCafe.com. If you find this useful, we encourage you to check out the RouteCS6 tour that he is currently doing.


Let’s set up. Don’t reach for the dodge and burn tools just yet. We want this technique to be non-destructive.

- Hold down Alt/Option and click the New Layer icon in the layers panel.

Change to 'Overlay' mode and check the box that says “Fill with Overlay-neutral color (50% gray)”

Duplicate the layer, and name one 'dark' and one 'light'.

Choose the brush tool (or the dodge and burn tools—your choice) and choose a nice soft-edged brush. Turn the opacity down to 30% in the options bar—we want to be subtle.

If you are using a Wacom tablet, open the Brushes panel and choose Transfer. Make sure that opacity is turned to Pen Pressure.

Note: The 30% overrides the maximum pressure, so if you press really hard, you won’t go beyond 30% with each stroke. Multiple strokes will add up to 30% each time.

Choose black as your foreground color, and paint in the dark layer. Notice how you darken the tones that you paint over. Look for overexposed areas where you want to open up more detail. Typically, skies love to be darkened too, so that we can see the cloud detail.

Change to a white brush, and choose the Lighten layer. Paint on the darker areas that you want to lighten up. Be careful to add dimension to the image; don’t flatten it by brightening all the dark areas and darkening all the light areas.

The end result:

Here you can see what I painted. Some areas received more attention than others. It’s all up to you. Remember composition, and where you want the viewer to look in the image. Press the alt/option key and click on the mask to see this view.

This is just one of the many techniques that I am teaching out on the road this summer. During July and August, PhotoshopCAFE is on the road in 15 US Cities on the Route CS6 tour. I will be giving full-day Photoshop seminars which teach photographers, designers and video pros how to understand and use Photoshop to make their images and video look much better. An emphasis is on the latest techniques, to turbo-charge the quality and speed of the attendees.

About Colin Smith:

Colin Smith is one of the leading Photoshop experts in the world today. He has written 18 books, been featured in almost  every major imaging magazine, and has consulted for Adobe, Apple, Nvidia, Disney and others. He is president of PhotoshopCAFE.com, one of the most popular free Photoshop resources in the world.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Photo Video Pro Audio

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Good info on both techniques, especially for someone like me who is not a big user and has limited knowlege of PS.

Makes it easy to use.

Jim K

Good for a beginner

Hi Colin,

Watched your excellent intro to creating layers in PS6. I'm completely new to photoshop and this has done more to explain layers than anything else. Is it possible - or have you already done it - to do exactly the same lay out to explain masks? What was so helpful was the very clear way you labelled the the various icons and explained their functions. This - please! - for masks.

All the best, Chris Goddard