Photoshop: Dodging and Burning

I do not use the Dodging and Burning tools in Photoshop’s Tools Panel: I find them cumbersome, hard to use, ineffective and a bit destructive. Instead, I use a non-destructive technique, outlined below, that gives you a lot more control and more realistic looking results. This is not an Adjustment Layer; it’s a brand new Layer all by itself that you’ll “paint on” with your Brush Tool. This method requires a few more steps to use than the standard tools, but the results are worth it!


The purpose of Dodging and Burning is to creatively lighten areas that are too dark (Dodge), and to darken areas that are too light (Burn).

How It Works

Step 1

© 2011 John Watts. All Rights Reserved.

While holding down the “Option” (Mac) or “Alt” (Windows) Key, press the “Create a New Layer” button. This brings up the New Layer Dialog Box, and a new layer shows up in the Layers Panel.

Step 2

Change the Blending Mode to “Overlay”, and check the box that says, “Fill with Overlay-neutral color (50% gray)”. Press the “OK” button.

Step 3

Using the Color Picker (see last month’s column), change your foreground color in the Tools Panelto a light gray, such as RGB values of “160/160/160”, and the background color to a dark gray, such as RGB values of “95/95/95”.

Step 4

With the newly created Layer active, and using the Brush Tool, “paint” on your image, varying the size and hardness as needed:

~ Use the light grey color as your foreground color to lighten an area.

~ Use the dark grey color as your foreground color to darken an area.

© 2011 John Watts. All Rights Reserved.


1. In Image “A”, to the right, the foreground in the bottom right corner is a bit light, and so is the top of the stump, as well as the vegetation in between. In addition, the upper left corner is a bit dark, and details in the shadow areas are lost.

2. To correct for this, steps 1 through 4 above are followed, resulting in Image B.

3. Image C shows the newly created layer. Notice that the areas that are darkened show up as a dark gray color, and the areas that are lightened show up as a light gray color. This helps you follow the areas that you are dodging and burning.

Pointers for Fine Tuning

  • Don’t forget that you can change the foreground and background colors quickly by using the Speed Key “X”.

  • The suggested RGB values for Gray listed above can be changed – experiment for best results.

  • You can change the Opacity of your layer to make your effects less harsh.

  • Don’t forget that you can change the Hardness of your Brush – a good starting point is 0% to 25%.

  • It is a good idea to let up off your mouse key occasionally as you’re “painting”. If you make a mistake, you can easily go back a step in your History Panel.

  • For extra control, you might find it helpful to make a separate layer for Dodging and a separate layer for Burning.

Until the next time, have fun and stay well!

by John Watts, Watts Digital Imaging

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