Dodge/Burn with Photoshop Blend Modes

In General - Tips and Tricks, Landscapes - Post-Processing, Learning Center by jfischer2 Comments

When most photographers think of Dodging and Burning they immediately think of portrait retouching. Adjusting the contouring of the face and other body features to sculpt the lights and shadows. However, the technique can be used on almost any photo where objects need to take on an increased depth through the addition of contrast.

While global and even localized contrast can be used to bring punch and detail, it can not reshape or refocus the light like a little bit of dodging and burning can do. Regardless if it’s a portrait, a mountain stream, or as in the featured photo above, a World War I dreadnought battle ship like the USS Texas, there are a great number of tools and techniques that can be employed.

The first thing that you need to remember is to avoid, at all costs, the ‘Dodge/Burn’ tools in Photoshop. Google ‘Photoshop Dodge & Burn’ and you’ll find an endless list of tutorials just like this one saying the same thing. I came upon this nugget of knowledge reading one of those tutorials and nothing in my experience has suggested otherwise. I am sure that there are portrait retouchers out there that have found a way to tame and utilize these tools, but in my experience there are far better options, far more powerful options, only a small mouse movement away.

The Technique

Step 1: Create a new layer, filled with 50% Gray – I recommend starting with using 50% gray layers since changing the blend mode to ‘Normal’ will give a better visual of where the Dodge & Burn has been applied if needed, later (or if you’re lazy like me) you can just create blank empty layers.

Step 2: Set blend mode to one of the following: Soft Light, Overlay, Hard Light, Vivid Light.

  • turning on/off the visibility of your new layer should not effect the image at all. You now have a neutral base to start your dodge/burn work.
  • I often create two or more layers, either one for darks and one for lights, or sometimes multiple layers for different areas of the photo. This allows for increased control if I later determine that I was too heavy-handed with the dodge/burn work in one area I can just decrease the opacity instead of having to try to mask and/or erase the effect.
  • It’s perfectly okay and often recommended to mix-and-match multiple layers with different blend modes! Start with a soft light layer or overlay, then create a second layer with a different blend mode when a different result is needed. Use the tools for the purposes they are meant for, instead of trying to ‘force’ a look using the wrong tool!

Step 3: Brush in the Dodge & Burn effect as desired.  Start with a very low opacity and flow brush, I usually start with 20% Opacity, 20% flow on a very soft edged brush.  How you set these values with depend greatly on A) The blend mode selected and B) the amount of dodge or burn needed.  I start low as it’s much easier to paint over an area 2 or 3 times than constantly switch back and forth to the eraser or 50% gray color to remove an area that was too heavily brushed in.  You can also effect how strong the dodge/burn effect is by what foreground color you select for your brush.  Pure white/black is going to be stronger than if you choose a gray tone.  Tablet users of course will have yet another level of control with their stylus pressure.

Step 4: Fine Tune the layer.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say you probably didn’t get the exact perfect dodge/burn effect the first time through.  Even if you think you have, walk away for 15 minutes, go pour yourself a beer and make a sandwich and come back to it.  Chances are, you’ll see something you don’t quite like.  Thankfully in this wonderful world of non-destructive editing that’s a very easy problem to solve.

  • Effect is too strong?
    • Adjust Opacity of the Layer
    • Add a layer mask to your Layer and use a brush at a low opacity to reduce the effect in areas as needed (Dodge and burn your dodge and burn!?!)
    • Use a 50% gray brush or the Eraser tool to tone down the effect.
  • Effect too weak?
    • Hit Command+L / Cntrl+L to bring up a layers adjustment window, or Command+M / Cntrl+M for curves adjustment.  You can increase contrast using these two adjustments to darken/lighten your dodge and burn layer.  Make sure you leave the middle (50% gray) unchanged in curves by placing a control point dead-center and not touching the center slider on the levels adjustment.
    • Hit Command+J / Cntrl+J to duplicate your current curves adjustment layer, quickly doubling the effect across the image.  Adjust opacity or any of the options above if the effect is now too strong.
    • Break out the brush tool and keep dodging and burning
  • Effects are bleeding over into other areas – brush was too too soft and/or too large.
    • Use the eraser or 50% gray brush set to a higher opacity/flow and a moderate hard edge to remove effects from undesired areas.
    • Use a layer mask to mask out effect from areas you do not want affected.  Again, use a brush with a harder edge to mask out along the edges of shapes you do not want the dodge burn to bleed over into.
    • Use a luminosity mask as a starting point for your mask then paint in 100% black to only target areas you want to remove.  This is particularly useful for complex areas of rocks, buildings, the super structure of a battleship, etc.
  • Effect is too harsh edged – brush was too hard-edged or brush was too small.
    • Best answer here is to selectively blur the areas.  Use the lasso selection tool / quick selection tool to rapidly select the area you want to smooth out and apply a Gaussian blur of 20-80px. And then adjust your brush parameters before continuing.

The Blend Modes

Photoshop comes jam packed with layer blend modes, however for the purposes of dodge and burn only a couple of them will work for our needs.

Soft Light: Probably the most used blend mode for dodge and burn, Soft Light is great for general use dodge and burn effects.  You can lighten the darkest corners of shadow with soft light, you can add a soft glow to gentle radius rock face or hillside.  Think of using Soft Light like a big diffuser  – it’s a very uniform effect across the existing tonal range and should be equally be used where more gentle or uniform changes are needed.

Overlay: Stepping up from the soft effects to a more punchy effect is the Overlay blend mode.  Overlay is the only Contrast blend mode that uses the tonal values of the layers below it in its calculations.  Without getting bogged down in the math, that means that the same brush stroke over a dark region will have a different effect than if it was brushed over brighter area.  This is where that more punchy effect comes from.  It also means that you could brush 100% pure white over an area that is black and it’ll have no effect what so ever.  However brush black over an area of high contrast (say a shiny rock in a stream), and the blacks get darker faster than the bright spots.  Along with wet rocks, metal objects and rocky mountain faces are excellent targets for Overlay blend modes.

Hard Light / Vivid Light: I’m going to lump these two together because I consider them special case blend modes.  Instead of using a combination of Screen and Multiply modes employed by the two blend modes above – they use Linear and Color Dodge/Burn modes respectively.  When attempting to experiment with these blend modes I suggest an extremely low opacity and flow brush.  They work best in areas where very high contrast and color punch is desired.  Stormy sunsets in the city, deep rich colored foliage with the sun beaming through, shots that already have a lot of punch and you want to add a big of knock-out power – use sparingly!

Beyond the Black and White

Using blend mode layers to do your dodge and burn work has benefits beyond just more control and non-destructive editing.  It allows you to dodge and burn – IN COLOR.  Wonderfully useful in portrait editing, using hues of orange and yellow on skin tones and in the hair to add accents of not just luminosity but also hue as well.  I use color very often when editing landscapes as well, bringing in additional hues of color into clouds, adding warmth to certain areas of rock, and so forth.  I usually will use the eye-dropper tool in Photoshop to pick a color from the existing image that is in the color family I want to use, then adjust the saturation/tone from there in the color window.

Sample Dodge-Burn layer (exaggerated somewhat for demonstration) with color and done adjustments

Selective Editing

Want to enhance the highlights on a rocky mountain face, but not the shadows?  While using Overlay will help, maybe that effect is too contrasty for your image in general.  This is where adding in another tool into the overall solution will help, and you have several to choose from.

  • Blend-If – Double click to the right of your layer’s name to bring up the Blend-If tool window.
    • Blend-If is a tool that is often overlooked but is nearly infinite in its use.  The primary window is really the only one you need to worry about here, and it’s the lower slider you want to consider.  This allows you to choose what tones from the underlying layer will be affected by your dodge/burn layer.  Sliding the black slider to the right will hide your layer from the darkest tones, and sliding the white slider to the left will hide it from the brightest.
    • As you slide these left and right you’ll notice that the effect transition can become very harsh, but there is a solution for that too!  Using the control (command on Mac) key, you can split each slider.  The space between the two halves of the slider are now a range through which the effect goes from ON to OFF.  Very handy!
    • Blend-If us useful for Global masking done very quickly and endlessly adjustable.  I will often create two layers, one for dodge and one for burn, then use Blend-If to modify each layer to the range of tones that I wish to affect.
  • Select Color Range – This quick selection tool allows you to quickly select regions of your image based on the color ranges present.  Great for when you want to pick out certain colors of foliage, or just the clouds from a blue sky, and so-forth.  Once you have a selection you have a couple options:
    • Use the selection to constrain the areas in which you are brushing in your dodge/burn effects.  With the selection active, your tools will only affect those selected regions.
    • Use the selection to create a layer mask.  This is best when you know that the layer will only be utilized by those colors you have selected so you can edit those areas continually without having to re-select the color range.
  • Luminosity Mask – creating a luminosity mask which can then be modified allows for even more localized adjustments than Blend-If, if you’re willing to modify the mask for each layer to your specific needs.  Often times though, multiple layers and Blend-If will be faster and more flexible overall.

Blend If Window with split slider


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