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Dodge and Burn: Non-Destructive Local Contrast Adjustment in Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop’s Dodge and Burn tools are powerful, but it’s frustrating to have to either work on the original image or stack multiple layers in order to be able to correct mistakes easily. In this tutorial you'll learn a simple, effective alternative that's completely non-destructive for black and white and colour images!

smoking man
Photograph via Pixabay CC0 

This picture already has an amazing amount of character, but it has a very flat, compressed tonal range. Let’s give it a little more contrast, better local tonality and depth, by selectively lifting the highlights and darkening the shadows. 

Though our example is black and white, this method works equally well with colour. It also goes the opposite way around: if you wanted to rescue highlights or shadows the same tools work. It's a very flexible approach.

1. Add a New Layer

We’ll work on a new layer, rather than on our original picture, so that the original is preserved—that’s what we mean by non-destructive—and we can go back to the original any time we like.

new layer
Add a new layer

Name your layer something appropriate, I’ve gone for ‘Contrast Adjustment,’ and change the Blend Mode to Overlay. Overlay works on the contrast in an image; it’s actually a combination of Multiply and Screen, so where the lower layer is light, those areas become lighter and where it’s dark, they become darker. Imagine an S-curve on a graph.

2. Fill Your New Layer With 50% Grey

Hit Edit > Fill and choose 50% grey.

fill grey
Fill your layer with 50% grey

You don’t have to do this, you can paint on the transparent layer but the grey really helps you to see what you’re doing.

3. Select Your Brush

Select the Brush Tool and choose white as your foreground colour:

Choose a white brush

Use a soft brush and change the Opacity of the brush to around 20%. A good tip is to Increase your brush opacity until it looks a little bit ‘too much’ and make your changes. Don't worry if it looks imperfect; later on you'll reduce the opacity of the contrast layer and makes some tweaks until everything looks right. I find this helps save having to go over and over the same area.

opacity of brush
Use a low opacity and a soft brush

4. Dodge: Paint the Highlights to Lighten

Because we’re going for more contrast in this example, I’m going to paint over the highlight area to further lighten them.

lightened areas
These are the areas I've focused on for my highlights

The areas I’ve circled above are the main focus of my highlights: the back of the hand, across the face, and the cigarettes and fingernails. I’ve also brought some of the white out in the hair of the eyebrows and beard. Don't be too precious about your adjustments at this stage, just rough it in.

You can see on the contrast adjustment layer icon that it’s fairly easy to see where you’ve painted.

If you make a mistake, no problem. Change your brush colour to 50% grey using the Colour Picker and change the B value (of HSB) to 50% (the other values of RGB below should change to 128) and paint over the area again. Voila, back to neutral!

grey brush
For mistakes, use a 50% grey brush

5. Burn: Paint the Shadows to Darken

Change your brush to black and this time brush over any shadows you would like to darken. You can use the same settings as before and brush over your shadows:

These are the areas I've darkened

I’ve concentrated on naturally dark parts of the image this time and also brushed over parts of the beard and eyebrows again to further contrast it with the white areas.

6. Adjust to Taste

Now that your image that has been through a rough dodge and burn adjustment it's time to fine tune.

Adjust the Layer Opacity

First, reduce the contrast adjustment layer Opacity down from 100% until the image looks just right. Reducing Opacity changes how strongly the whole contrast adjustment layer applies to the image.

Make Fine Touch-Ups

Next, look for rough spots: places where the adjustment need a second touch. Adjusting the layer will get you most of the way, but there might be some spots that need a little more attention. Lower the Opacity of your Brush, down to 10% this time, and paint in these areas until they look perfect.

Blur the Layer

For some images, the transition between areas benefits from a smoother transition between the areas you've painted and neutral grey. Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Adjust the Radius until the transitions in your image look right, and click OK.

Add a Layer Mask

For the ultimate in control you can add a layer mask to the layer. This lets you adjust your adjustments non-destructively! To add a mask, click the New Layer Mask button in the Layers panel. Now paint on the white mask with a black Brush to selectively hide part of the layer.

And You Are Done!

I hope you find this non-destructive method for dodging and burning useful. Happy retouching!

before and after
A before and after of the image

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