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Popular Tools in Photoshop: Dodge and Burn


How to use the Photoshop Dodge and Burn tools – where to find them, how to set them up properly, and a series of real world examples on how they can be used to retouch and perfect your photos.

The Dodge and Burn Tools are two of my favorites for delicately blending skin tones, refining edges, removing wrinkles from clothing and cleaning up blotchy areas when I’m retouching photography.

But, like most of the default tools in Photoshop, they’re also typically underrated and misunderstood.

I will preface this article by saying that I use more than one method of dodging and burning. I use ACR or Lightroom adjustments for global affects during my raw file processing and Screen and Multiply adjustment layers with Layer Masks in Photoshop for light painting, but the Dodge and Burn Tools have great advantages for small specific tasks.

More from our Popular Tools in Photoshop series:


Let’s start with some basic explanations about what these two tools do.

The Dodge Tool

…is constructed to lighten areas without affecting hue or saturation.

The icon looks like a lollipop but it is meant to represent a darkroom tool that traditional printers use during printing for holding enlarger light away from the light sensitive photo paper; masking tape on a loop created from a wire coat hanger. Less light equals less exposure equals lighter areas on the prints.

The Burn Tool

…is designed to darken areas without affecting hue or saturation. The icon looks like a fist, again something that traditional printers use when targeting specific areas with an additional exposure of enlarger light in order for them to print darker. Traditional printers use many tools and hand shapes for dodging and burning in order to paint with light in the darkroom.

The Dodge and Burn Tools are very good at replicating traditional darkroom dodging and burning and further offer the ability to target detailed areas faster and more accurately than traditional printing methods – a real bonus for modern photographic artists!

Another big advantage of the Dodge and Burn Tools is the ability to dodge to white or burn to black unrestricted by innate contrasts in the image file.

In addition, the user can choose to keep the original texture of pixel contrast or alter it to provide a smoother appearance in some areas just by choosing different brush sizes. Because the tools work on a full pixel layer, in my case, the Background copy, further artwork can be added globally without concern about what piece of the object is on one layer and what part is on another.

Possible drawbacks

The Dodge and Burn Tools are linked slightly to saturation. When used extensively some of the dodged areas might turn grayish and some of the burned areas might look slightly over saturated. Some artists feel that because the Dodge and Burn Tools must be applied to a full pixel layer that they are fall into the category of “destructive image editing”, meaning that changes made, after a certain point (History states), can not be undone.

Neither point has much merit in my opinion. The fact is that any method of dodging and burning, when used extensively, will result in some discoloration. It’s been my experience that the Dodge and Burn Tools shift less than other methods and because the work is done on a full pixel layer it takes only seconds to correct small discolorations.

Regarding the theory of “destructive” image editing:

Photoshop does not contain tools that are destructive to image editing.

Any destructiveness is in the user, ha! I work on a copy of the Background so the original image is always just under my working layer and always available should I need it for progress comparison or an “eraser”. In the event that I go totally overboard on an area and want to do it over, a selection can be made on the Background, copied and placed over the work layer. From there the opacity can be lowered to taste, merged down and I can have another go at doing it better.

Finding and Setting Up the Dodge and Burn Tools

Both the dodge and burn tools are nested in the Vertical Tool Bar with the Sponge Tool (a tool that allows the user to brush on saturation or desaturation).

Click on the Dodge Tool to select it or use the Keyboard Shortcut “o”. The options for the Dodge and Burn Tools are the same and I set them up identically.

The basic Soft Round brush is the best choice for most photo retouching applications.

The next icon over is a toggle between showing and hiding the Brush Panel. Artists who like to modify brushes use this quick toggle option to access the panel to do this.


Next, you’ll want to choose the Range in which you would like to work.

The options are for highlights, midtones or shadows but have nothing to do with the lighting on your image. It’s a mathematical separation of Photoshop’s numerical values between 0 and 255. Values between 0 and 85 are considered shadows. Values between 85 and 170 are midtones and between 170 and 255, highlights. Most dodging and burning falls into the midtone value range, so that’s my default setting.

However, there are instances when work must be done in either extremely light or dark value areas so there are occasions when this option is altered.


The next option is for Exposure, one of the secrets to using the Dodge and Burn Tools effectively. I suggest you use very low Exposure. My setting is 5% and it is perfect for most of the work I do with these tools.

Exposure is a personal setting, however so if you feel like you are making marks every time you press the stylus, feel free to drop the Exposure to 3%. Conversely, if you feel like you are working for a long time without seeing any results, feel free to bump it up to 7-8%. The right exposure for you is one that allows you to work quickly while maintaining control of the tool.

Just to the right of the Exposure setting is a small icon that, when active, over rides Brush Preset settings to make every brush work in build up airbrush settings, which means that the effect continues to build during one application regardless of what the other settings would normally do. Since the Soft Round is already a build up brush, you do not need to activate this.

Protect Tones

The next item over is an option to Protect Tones. This is meant to compensate for the tools’ effects of either saturating or desaturating when used extensively. This might be effective for some applications, but for the most part I find it over compensates, doesn’t solve the issue and in many cases creates an even more visible color shift. I leave it unchecked.

Brush Size

The final option is one that can be activated in order to always use pressure to control the size of the brush, regardless of the Preset settings. I advise using Brush Size to control the size for Dodging and Burning because it’s more accurate.

Using the Dodge and Burn Tools

Important things to keep in mind while using the Dodge and Burn Tools:

    • Brush Size – The brush size should always be slightly smaller than the area to be worked within. The effect extends slightly beyond the Normal Brush Tip icon and you need room to move around without going over the edges. Dodging and Burning work within light or dark areas, matching the values to the surrounding tones. They are not “cover” or “paint over” tools, so it’s important to work accurately. Expect to change brush size frequently. Use keyboard shortcuts or program the Touch Ring on your Wacom for instant alterations.


    • Exposure – Keep it low but high enough that you can work quickly. You will likely find a perfect setting for the way you like to work most of the time, but will alter it for specific jobs.


    • Keep Moving – The technique is kind of like coloring with crayons and, like coloring with crayons, the longer you stay in one area, the stronger the effect grows and it’s very easy to go too far before you realize that you’ve gone far enough. In addition, all of the work you do must look balanced with the overall values in the image file so it’s important to compare and evaluate while you work. I recommend staying in one spot for 1-3 seconds and then moving on to another. You can always come back later to apply another coat but it’s important to work the image as one unit instead of individual pieces. You will find with practice the Dodge and Burn Tools are very fast and very effective.


  • Zoom Ratio – It should be as close as it needs to be in order to see what you need to work on but far enough away that you can compare the artwork to the overall visual balance of the image. Expect to zoom in and out frequently using keyboard shortcuts or programming your Wacom tablet.

So, keeping these tips in mind, let’s look at a couple of instances where the Dodge and Burn Tools are especially valuable.

Real World Example #1

For this example, we’re going to be retouching a portrait of a subject with extreme acne and oily skin.

The pore structure is exaggerated in the specular highlights but very delicate and nice on the other areas of the face. In addition he has oily speckles under his eyes. The Dodge and Burn Tools are not the best choices for tiny spots that are very dark in comparison to the surrounding areas, like the spot on his nose or the dark pores in the highlight of his cheek, but they are perfect for small areas that have soft edges, like the blemishes on his forehead.

In face, the slight desaturation of the dodge tool will help with that while working on the value of the spots. The brush size for the forehead work should be slightly smaller than the dark reddish areas that we wish to match up to the correct skin values in the surrounding areas.

The technique is to gently color over the areas that are too dark, gradually bringing them up to match the value of the immediate surroundings. Do not try to blend over the edges; go up to the edge and back off.

The spot will disappear and the skin tone will look natural. If there is significant color difference, if the spots are visibly red after the retouching is otherwise complete it can be corrected by using the Brush Tool with the Soft Round variant. Choose a brush size that is just slightly smaller than the discolored area. Set brush options to Color Mode, 10-20% opacity and 100% flow. Option (Alt) click on the color you prefer to see; it’s usually just next to the area you retouched, and brush light coats of the new color over the discolored area until it blends in. This usually takes about 3-5 seconds to achieve a perfect match.

Discolorations may also occur if you are trying to bring a shaded side value up to match a diffused highlight because there are original color differences between shaded sides and diffused highlights. While you are working, train your eye to separate color from value, stop when the value is correct and handle the color issues after all of the retouching has been completed.

Here’s a close up view of the finished image:

Notice that he still has beautiful pore definition and that the retouching looks natural. Looking at the face as one unit, you can see that the retouching looks smooth without looking blurry or artificial.

While the average amount of time for a job like this is around 3-5 minutes, the extra finesse this subject required took more like 20 minutes to complete.

Real World Example #2

These are powerful tools for working on skin! Next, look at how beautifully they retouch wrinkles!

When working on wrinkles, choose a brush size that fits neatly into the wrinkle without going over the edges. Color over the wrinkles, applying multiple coats to lighten or shorten them to taste.

Wrinkles have highlights and shadows so both dodging and burning will be needed in order to sculpt the wrinkles to look soft, expressive and natural Notice that everything looks real, nothing is blurry and the skin tones have texture and good balance from highlight to shadow.

Be careful! The Dodge and Burn Tools are so good that it’s easy to go too far!

This is way too much retouching for a woman this age, however you can see that extensive work has been accomplished while maintaining beautiful pore definition and natural looking skin tones. The entire face plus make up took 40 minutes.

Real World Example #3

Another good use for the Dodge and Burn Tools is for quickly tidying up the edges of other retouching techniques that have accomplished a lot but need a bit of refining.

This shadow was removed by brushing on a Screen adjustment layer over the shadow using a layer mask. One adjustment layer was not enough so it was duplicated and further refined in order to match the value of the surrounding area. However, because it was a shadow moving into diffused highlight, the color looked gray so it was corrected using the Brush Tool in color blending mode and the blue color from the suit itself (center image).

The edges of the retouching were detailed using the Dodge and Burn Tools and small brushes. The Dodge Tool was also used to detail a few striped into the area where the arm shadow had been. This job took about 4-5 minutes from start to finish.

Real World Example #4

The last example I’ll include here is some clothing work. This dress had been folded and the creases are visible in all of the images. A professional retouching artist will make sure that everything in the image is perfect and clothing is important! The wrinkles were removed and the folds of fabric were shaped using the Dodge and Burn Tools. The skirt was pulled out at the bottom with the Liquify Tool just to add a bit of artistic movement. No color corrections were needed.

I’d like to stress that even though the idea of using small brushes on particular areas sounds time consuming and difficult, it’s really easy and fast! I think it’s just a fast as pre adjusting a plug in filter, applying it and then brushing it on here and there. Plus Dodging and Burning provides a beautiful, graceful, natural look to every thing you do. It never looks like a filter effect; the artist is always in complete control over the way the retouching looks.

Wrapping Up

There is a shortcut for everyone who read this complete article!

You don’t have to physically change from the Dodge and Burn Tools while you are working!

I do all of my work using just the Dodge Tool and when I want to access the Burn Tool I just hold down the Option (Alt) key while I am working and Photoshop accesses the Burn Tool. The icon in the Vertical Tool Bar doesn’t change, but the tool function does. I don’t even have to change brushes!

The Dodge and Burn Tools take a few minutes of practice to master, but the versatility, efficiency and results are well worth it. Just take it easy, remember the coloring technique and move frequently from one spot to another.

The process is also “invisible,” so don’t expect to see a lot of things happening while you are working. The values match up and the area looks right. Compare your progress frequently by working on a Background copy and turning the layer visibility off and on.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to save this article for later or print it out at home.

Jane Conner-ziser is an award winning photographer, digital artist, premier educator and independent consultant. With over 25 years of experience, 19 of them in digital imaging and evolving technologies, the techniques Jane developed for facial retouching and enhancement and portrait painting from photographs are widely emulated by photographers and digital artists worldwide through her classes, online training and educational products. 


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