What is Dodging & Burning?
A term from the days of film photography, dodging and burning is the act of enhancing the highlights and shadows of an image during post-production. In other words, we want to make the highlights a bit brighter (dodging), and the shadows a bit darker (burning), adding contrast and creating the illusion of shape and dimension.
Dodging and burning is a powerful technique that can be used in any type of photography. Whether you’re photographing products, portraits, or landscapes, mastering this skill will help your images reach their full potential.
Curves Adjustment Layers
When making adjustments to light and dark in Photoshop, Curves Adjustment Layers should be your go-to tool! Not only are they non-destructive, but they also allow you to apply a lightening or darkening effect and then paint it in via the Layer Mask.
To dodge, add a Curves Adjustment Layer above the image and, in the Curves dialog, click near the center of the line and slowly drag it up until you hit a level of brightness that works for you. Since we don’t want to apply this lightening effect to the entire photo, click on the Layer Mask of the Curves Layer and Invert it by hitting CTRL or CMD + I. This will make the Layer Mask completely black, and the Curves Adjustment completely invisible.
Painting with Light
Now the fun part begins. Grab the Brush Tool, click on the Layer Mask of the Curves Adjustment, make white the foreground color, and then, with a low Flow, slowly paint on the Layer Mask along the natural highlights in the image. Think of this step like you’re painting with light. Anywhere areas where there is light falling on objects in the image, enhance them with the Curves Adjustment. Just remember that adding contrast also draws the eye of the viewer, so try and keep most of the dodging to the most important parts of the photo (like the subject).
So dodging is pretty easy, but what about burning? Well, lucky for us, the process is nearly identical. The only differences are that you want to drag the point in the Curves dialog down (making the image darker rather than brighter), and then paint along the natural areas of shadow in the photo (making them a little bit darker). It’s good practice to burn a photo next to any areas you dodged earlier. This will help make the contrast more pronounced, adding more sense of dimension and putting more focus on those areas.