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Dodge and Burn: How to Rescue Shadows in Adobe Photoshop

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Read Time: 8 mins

Here, we'll show you how to use Dodge and Burn to rescue shadows in your photographs and give your image some extra punch. As with many things in Adobe Photoshop (and life), the trick is balance.

Dodge and Burn

"Dodge" and "burn" are photography terms for correcting and adjusting luminosity (lightness) levels in parts of an image. To Dodge is to lighten an area of your picture, to Burn is to darken an area. Digital dodge-and-burn techniques are based on the method photographers use in the traditional darkroom: blocking light from the enlarger (or ‘dodging' the light) to create a less-exposed, and therefore brighter, area on the paper, and using more light (or ‘burning' in the light) to make an area darker.

Dodge and burn can be used on any part of the image, light or dark, but in this tutorial we're focusing on the dark, or shadow, parts of the picture. Though the technique is similar, mid-tones and highlights each need their own dodge-and-burn approach.

1. Evaluate the Image: What Result do You Want to Achieve?

Balance is the key to using dodge and burn well. To get that balance, you need to know what you want your finished image to look like. Are you going for high contrast? Do you want to maintain a realistic look? What parts of the image are important to emphasise? What parts would you like to de-emphasise?

Your ideal result will probably depend on the type of image you’re editing and what constraints that might provide in itself. If you’re editing a portrait, for example, you’ll need to keep in mind the quality of skin tones: manipulating shadows could have a detrimental effect on the face shape. Every style of photography—from landscape to architectural to product photography—carries their own possibilities and pitfalls in altering the shadows.

When you know what you want to achieve, you can use the tools at your disposal effectively to create the look you desire.

2. Make Global Corrections

This is the image I’ll be working on. You can see that the shadows are underexposed and the sky a tad overexposed.

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The original photograph without any adjustments. Image: Marie Gardiner

RAW Conversion

The first place to start with any image is to make global corrections, that is, broad corrections to the whole image. As I shoot in RAW, my first step is to develop the image in Adobe Camera RAW before opening to Photoshop.

The image was taken in the evening. It has a particular quality of light that I’d like to keep. For that reason, I’m not pulling the shadows up here as far as I can in RAW, even though you can see from the slider, there’s still some give.

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First, make any corrections to your RAW image

Take a look at the histogram in the top right corner: the graph shows that the majority of information in the image (the big peak) is weighted to the shadows, but none of the shadows is crushed, or losing information. That’s perfect, because I want to retain that cool, damp evening feel to the photo without losing detail.

Correct Local Contrast With Curves

I rescued the highlights in RAW, and brought them down a little, bringing detail back to the sky. The whole thing looks a little flat though, and that’s where our local adjustments come in.

An 's' curve will give your image a nice contrast boost, but it will darken those shadows again

An ‘s’ curve in Photoshop (a gentle one in this case) introduces more contrast: the light pixels get lighter, the dark pixels get darker. That puts some drama back into the sky and water, but also darkens our shadows again. That’s alight, we’ll use Dodge and Burn to recover those.

3. Make Local Adjustments

The next thing to look at is specific parts of the photo that you want to improve on. I mentioned that I want to keep some of the shadows deep, to stay true to the mood of the time of day, but there are areas like the water and even parts of the trees where I think we could lighten the shadows without boosting the overall light and changing the feel of the image.

Rescue Shadows With Dodge

On the duplicate background (Control-J), I’m going to work on the tree shadows with the Dodge tool, with the Range set to Shadows, at a very low Opacity (between 2-5%) to bring some of the shadows back up. The idea of this is to leave the midtones and highlights untouched and simply brighten the darkest parts of the image, which I'll brush over.

I always think a good technique is to go slightly further with your adjustment than you actually want to, and then reduce the Opacity of your adjustment layer to get things just right.

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Starting to brush over the trees brings back the shadows in a subtle, measured way

This result is from brushing over the shadows on 5% Exposure but you can see the differences already in the blackest areas. If it needs it, you can change the Range to Midtones and bring those up too.

The differences are subtle. Build up the effect by continuously brushing over the same areas in successive passes until you’re happy.

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The image after rescuing some of the shadows in the trees

This is the image with the Dodge layer at 90% opacity. Next, I'll duplicate that layer and work with Burn to add in more depth and contrast.

Add Depth With Burn

The curves layer helped with overall contrast, but there are still areas of the photograph that could use a little punchier contrast. Using the Burn tool, with the Range set to Shadows and the Exposure again set to 5%, I’m going to brush over some areas that will add more contrast and depth when darkened.

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Burning the sky darkens the shadows but can cause extra saturation of colours

You can see the difference that brushing over the sky a few times makes to the shadows here, while still leaving the highlights untouched. This has caused a tad over-saturation and also highlighted some halo-ing around the tree on the left. The layer is still at 100% opacity, so bringing it down a touch will solve those issues.

4. Extra Touches

The shadow recovery and adding of contrast are great uses of dodge and burn, but you can also use them to draw the viewer's eye to a particular focus in your image. I’m going to use the Burn tool again, this time with the Exposure set to Shadows, and burn around the edge of the image to create a subtle vignette to help lead the eye to the bright, centre of the image.

5. Finish Up

Once you’re happy with your changes, make any final adjustments or edits to your image. One problem with dodging and burning can be over-saturation, so you may need to use a very mild Saturation adjustment layer to do some final correction.

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After a few more tweaks, this is the finished image

Here, I’ve slightly tweaked the colour balance and given it a slight crop to cut out a distracting gap in the trees on the far right.

Final Thoughts

Knowing how to use Dodge and Burn alone isn’t enough to make a picture perfect, it never will be. Instead, the most important thing is to know what you want from your image. If you don’t know what you’re trying to finish up with, you could spend forever making tweaks and adjustments and still never feel like it’s quite right. Deciding your end goal before you even begin will save you a lot of trouble and also stop you from over-doing things.

Be sure to make all your global adjustments first. Start with RAW, if that’s how you shoot, and play with your shadows and highlights there until it looks how you’d like it. That won’t always mean pulling the sliders as far as they’ll go—remember, that has an effect on all your shadows/highlights. The trick at this stage is to get all the parts of the image into a not-to-anything state so that you have the flexibility to dodge and burn.

When it comes to making your local adjustments, duplicate your layers so you can work non-destructively and focus on one place and method at a time. If you brush over your whole image then it will apply to all areas of that range. Zoom in and work on small parts at a time, coming back out to look at the whole image now and again so you can see how it looks in context. When you’re happy with one part, create a new duplicate layer and move on to the next.

When you’re happy with how your Dodge and Burn layers look, you can make final edits such as colour or temperature adjustments, and so on. It’s important to do these last, as burning or dodging can exaggerate colours and highlight problems.

As with all things, how far to go with your edits is a matter of taste, but I tend to find less is more. By all means, go wild on your layers, as long as you can pull back the opacity and make the whole process more subtle. If you’ve edited for too long and become blind to how much is too much, save your project and come back later, with fresh eyes.

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