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Dodge & Burn – Different methods compared

2-Point Curve as best option to do Dodge&Burn

Dodge & Burn is a subject where opinions differ. There are many ways to make areas in the picture lighter or darker. We quickly discuss the different methods and test them for suitability – there are sky-wide differences.

Dodge & Burn Tools (DE: Abwedler & Nachbelichter)

Photoshop has always offered two tools for Dodge & Burn. Surely everyone has experienced this situation: take the Dodge tool and painted around in the picture, oops done too much, used the Burn tool to compensate, and the final result: light and dark patches in the image in which nothing would fit anymore. Many put these two tools in the “not to use” drawer.

It gets much better if you create an additional layer, fill it with neutral gray (50% gray) and switch it to the “Linear Light” blending mode:

50% gray layer

A 50% gray layer in blending mode “Linear Light” initially does not change the image. But if you make the layer lighter or darker — of course also partially — the picture also becomes lighter or darker. The advantage of the 50% gray layer is that we can also work with regular brushes, and if something went wrong, you could always paint over with 50% gray to get back to the original state.

Some people use the blending mode “Soft Light”, which has a more subtle effect (hard to push it really dark or light). Other than the layer has an impact on saturation, which should be taken into consideration.

Pro Tip: You can also leave the layer empty and paint with black or white – the effect is 100% the same and saves storage space.

Multiple RAW conversions

What is sometimes helpful is to use different RAW conversions.
One for the skin tones, one for the background, one for the hair — depending on what the picture requires. These individual RAW developments are loaded as layers in Photoshop and can then be masked accordingly. Of course, there are a lot of options here, because RAW development offers countless parameters — but this technique inflates the Photoshop file properly and can only be used at the very beginning. So you have to be sure of your decisions here.

Dodge & Burn Curves

Two curves – one for Dodge and one for Burn – are the optimal solution. Masking the effect in and out with white and black is very simple. Switching between layers is pretty easy with the following shortcut
Windows: Alt +, (down), or Alt +. (up)
Mac: Option +, (down), or Option +. (up)

However, the correct usage of curves for Dodge & Burn needs to be learned. There are many people out there, pushing and pulling their curves by their current mood. In addition to luminance, curves can also influence saturation and contrast. Tiny differences can make big differences.

Conny Wallström (a photographer, retouching-teacher, and software developer based in Sweden) tested various curves over a more extended time and compared them with the results of exposure levels of the raw converter Capture One.

The idea for that process was that a raw converter such as Capture One reproduces the most natural and realistic way of dealing with color with different exposures without simultaneously causing color problems and color shifts.

The result of the research was a 2-point gradation curve that he integrated into this retouching toolkit. So if we use the following Dodge & Burn curves, we can assume a natural, realistic result. At the same time, we work consistently and time-efficiently, since it is an action in Photoshop that always works in the same way.

But that’s not all. Many who already use this retouching toolkit know that this action creates two folders and that in addition to the special curves for Dodge and Burn, hue/saturation corrections are included.
Here is the reason for the hue/saturation corrections:
When we take an analytic look at a portrait picture, we find out that by increasing luminance, the saturation tends to decrease; with decreasing luminance, the saturation tends to increase. If we only lighten an image based on luminance, the proportion of saturation in the now lighter areas is suddenly too high (vise versa). The use of such hue/saturation corrections is, therefore, a measure against saturation problems caused by Dodge and Burn to save editing time in retouching.

Such hue/saturation corrections make the most sense when processing skin (skin build-up, blood flow in the skin).

Of course, this cannot be generalized 100%. Every image requires slight adjustments to the hue/saturation correction layers due to other camera manufacturers and raw formats. Therefore, a recommendation is to adjust those layers slightly for each image. However, one cannot avoid looking at the saturation in the image afterward (at least briefly).

Hidden Gems / Tips and Tricks

Pro tip 1: Separately adjusted curves for very granular, high-contrast structures such as make-up (see example below) are useful to avoid flattening the contrast.

(Photo by 𝐕𝐞𝐧𝐮𝐬 𝐇𝐃 𝐌𝐚𝐤𝐞- 𝐮𝐩 & 𝐏𝐞𝐫𝐟𝐮𝐦𝐞 from Pexels)

Pro tip 2: Dodge & Burn tools — these work perfectly for eyebrows. If you paint them on an empty layer, you can make individual hair lighter and darker for a realistic result. You will only affect the painted hair, which is very useful.

Don’t forget Dodge & Burn is much easier by using Wacom tablets.


Do you have any suggestions, additions, is this post out of date, or have you found any mistakes? Then we look forward to your comment.
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Mareike Keicher

Mareike Keicher, founder of MK Retouching and senior retoucher with several years of experience in postproduction. From an early age, she always has had an eye for details and a talent for drawing. Later, she studied Informationdesign at the Media University of Stuttgart, focusing on digital painting, photography, and design. After her advertising agencies' experience, she really enjoyed the exchange with numerous retouchers & photographers.

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