Shaping Light with Dodge and Burn (A Photoshop Tutorial)

Have you ever taken a photograph that, despite being perfectly composed and well-lit, lacked that extra bit of magic? Or perhaps you’ve wondered how photographers achieve stunning images where light seems to dance and bring the subject to life? The answer lies in the art of shaping light, and one powerful technique to achieve this is through dodge and burn in Photoshop. Dodge and burn allows you to selectively lighten and darken specific areas of your image, enhancing the highlights and shadows, and adding depth and dimension in a way that makes your subject truly shine. In this tutorial, we will explore the basics of dodge and burn, and how you can use it to transform your photographs into captivating works of art.

Shaping Light with Dodge and Burn (A Photoshop Tutorial)


This episode is sponsored by Squarespace. Whether you need a domain, website or online store, make your next move with Squarespace. After the recent video I put out about editing and how far you might want to take your editing, I received a few questions about dodging and burning specifically. In this article, I will provide a quick Photoshop tutorial on how to use dodge and burn to shape the light and shadow in your images.

The History of Dodge and Burn

Before we dive into the tutorial, it’s important to note that dodge and burn is not a new technique that came with Photoshop. It has been used since the analog era when photographers wanted to make prints of their images. In the darkroom, photographers would use a photo enlarger to project their image onto photosensitive paper. They would then control the exposure time to achieve the desired result. Dodging and burning was a technique used to selectively control the amount of light hitting different areas of the image, creating shadows and highlights.

Applying Dodge and Burn in Digital Photography

Today, we have digital tools like Photoshop to apply dodge and burn techniques. While I use different software for different types of photography, I mostly turn to Photoshop for detailed dodging and burning work. In this tutorial, I will demonstrate how to use curves, blending modes, and gray layers to achieve different dodging and burning effects on both street and portrait images.

Personal Guidelines for Dodge and Burn

It’s important to establish your own guidelines when it comes to dodge and burn. Here are some rules I follow:

  1. For street photography, I only accentuate the existing light and shadow in the scene. I avoid creating or drastically altering light and shadow that weren’t present to begin with.
  2. In portrait photography, I strive to create the desired lighting setup during the shoot. I use dodge and burn to enhance the existing light, not to drastically change it. If I feel the need to significantly modify the lighting, I consider it a sign that I need to improve my lighting techniques.
  3. Dodge and burn should be a subtle adjustment, not a rescue mission for poorly captured images. It’s the final touch, not a magic fix for an underexposed or overexposed shot.

Using Curves

Now, let’s jump into Photoshop and explore how to use curves for dodging and burning. First, open the desired image in Photoshop. I will be using a couple of headshot and street shots for demonstration purposes.

Start by creating a new curves adjustment layer above your image. The curves adjustment layer allows you to adjust the brightness and contrast of different tonal ranges in your image.

In the curves adjustment layer, you will see a histogram that represents the distribution of tonal values in your image. The x-axis represents the tonal values, ranging from shadows on the left to highlights on the right.

To brighten or increase the values of the mid-tones, create a point on the middle of the line and drag it upwards. This will brighten the mid-tones, as well as slightly affect the highlights and shadows.

To darken or decrease the values of the shadows, create a point on the shadows side of the line and drag it downwards. Similarly, to darken the highlights, create a point on the highlights side and drag it downwards.

By manipulating the curve, you can selectively control the brightness and contrast of different tonal ranges in your image.


Dodging and burning is a powerful technique to shape light and shadow in your images. Whether you’re working with street photography or portrait photography, it’s essential to establish your own guidelines for how far you want to take this technique. Remember, dodge and burn should enhance the existing light and shadow, not drastically alter or rescue poorly captured images.

Experiment with different techniques in Photoshop, like curves, blending modes, and gray layers, to achieve the desired results. And always remember to make your next move with Squarespace for all your website needs.

Shaping Light with Dodge and Burn – FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions – Shaping Light with Dodge and Burn

1. What is Dodge and Burn in Photoshop?

Dodge and Burn are essential tools in Photoshop used to lighten and darken specific areas of an image, creating a more pronounced light and shadow effect. Dodge helps to lighten areas, while Burn helps to darken areas.

2. How do I access the Dodge and Burn tools in Photoshop?

To access the Dodge and Burn tools in Photoshop, follow these steps:

  • Open the image you want to edit in Photoshop.
  • Select the Dodge tool or Burn tool from the Tools panel.
  • Adjust the brush size and strength settings in the options bar as desired.
  • Click and drag over the areas you want to adjust the light and shadow levels.

3. How can I effectively shape light using Dodge and Burn?

To shape light using Dodge and Burn in Photoshop, consider the following tips:

  • Start with a well-exposed image before applying Dodge and Burn techniques.
  • Use a soft brush with a low opacity when selectively lightening or darkening areas.
  • Experiment with different blending modes (Overlay, Soft Light, etc.) for more natural-looking results.
  • Take advantage of layer masks to control the visibility of your Dodge and Burn adjustments.
  • Practice on different types of images to understand how light and shadow affect the overall composition.

4. Are there any alternative techniques for shaping light in Photoshop?

Yes, there are alternative techniques for shaping light in Photoshop, such as using adjustment layers (Curves, Levels) or creating custom lighting effects with brushes or gradients. However, Dodge and Burn remain popular and powerful tools for precise light and shadow adjustments.

5. Can I undo my Dodge and Burn adjustments if I am not satisfied?

Yes, you can easily undo or modify your Dodge and Burn adjustments in Photoshop. Either use the History panel to revert to a previous state, or work with adjustment layers and layer masks to non-destructively edit your image.

I hope you find useful my article Shaping Light with Dodge and Burn (A Photoshop Tutorial), I also recommend you to read my other posts in my blog at this link.

If you need help with anything join the community or do not hesitate to contact me.

Best of luck! and follow your passion.

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