Bite-Size PS Tutorials: Creating Emphasis with Dodge and Burn Layers

Bite-Size PS Tutorials: Creating Emphasis with Dodge and Burn Layers

This is the fifth in the series of my bite-size Photoshop tutorials and on the face of it, it's one of the most basic. Indeed, the technical side is rather basic but my application of the dodge and burn layers is crucial to my workflow with products and fashion.Firstly, here is a list of the rest of the series so far. All of these tutorials are aimed at the non-expert retouchers and photographers who are looking to improve.

I first learned dodging and burning techniques as an alternative to frequency separation for skin retouching. That is a war I will leave to be fought by the beauty retouchers (although it's pretty much unanimous these days). It seeped in to my product retouching workflow rather organically and now it is an important part of what makes the subjects of my images pop.

The white dials, "Henry London" and the date box have been dodged. The black numbers on the dials and the date have been burned.

It is this pop that is the heart of most enquiries I get about my work. I regularly receive emails or messages through Instagram asking how I achieve such clarity, sharpness, contrast, and so on. I believe the questions are all motivated by the same query and the truth is, there's no one answer. The way in which I achieve my "look," if I were to be as bold as to call it that, has evolved over time. It is the coming together of a number of techniques, all of which the above tutorials in this series assist with. Subtle dodging and burning I initially used in quite a primitive, one-size-fits-all kind of way. I would use dodge layers to bring out the brand's logo or name and burn distractions. Over time, however, it has become a more complex and intricate procedure where I use low flow and opacity brushes to gradually emphasize areas.

How to Create and Use the Dodge and Burn Layers

The dodging and burning is achieved through Curves adjustment layers and is straightforward to set up.

  1. Create a Curves adjustment layer.
  2. Click the middle of the line and drag it towards the top left to raise the midtones slightly.
  3. Control/Command + G to put the Curves layer in its own group and rename "Dodge."
  4. Select the group and hold Alt/Option + left click "Add vector mask" to add a layer mask which is automatically filled with black.
  5. Create a Curves adjustment layer.
  6. Click the middle of the line and drag it towards the bottom right to lower the midtones slightly.
  7. Control/Command + G to put the Curves layer in its own group and renamed "Burn."
  8. Repeat step 4.

Step 1

Create a Curves adjustment layer.

Step 2

Click the middle of the line and drag it towards the top left to raise the midtones slightly. How much "curve" I add is invariably the same as here in the below image. I prefer to add more Curves adjustment layers if I want to increase the effects. Subtlety and gradual layering of effects is always preferable for the image quality to extreme changes with lower opacity. Extreme changes bring about artifacts and other nastiness.

Step 3

Control/Command + G to put the Curves layer in its own group and rename "Dodge" (this isn't essential, you could fill the mask the Curves layer comes with black and paint on to that but I sometimes add other things in to the group; it's really a preference thing).

Step 4

Select the group and hold Alt/Option + left click "Add vector mask" to add a layer mask which is automatically filled with black. This also helps with creating your next Curves layer accurately with the image at its neutral exposure as opposed to the one altered from your "Dodge" layer.

Step 5

Create a Curves adjustment layer (repeating Step 1).

Step 6

Click the middle of the line and drag it towards the bottom right to lower the midtones slightly. Again, this is a judgment call but my Curves layers are always very similar to what they are in Step 2 and Step 6.

Step 7

Control/Command + G to put the Curves layer in its own group and renamed "Burn."

Step 8

Repeat Step 4.

You should now have two groups that look like this:

From here, I think begin to paint on each mask with a soft brush (usually around 30% hardness) and 60% Opacity with 30% Flow.

I then gradually dodge areas I want to emphasize or to add a bit more shine too and I burn any blacks (writing, logos, and so on). On certain occasions, particularly in low-key images where the product has white numbers or writing, or high-key images where the product has black numbers or writing, I will use a soft brush but 100% Opacity and Flow. I then zoom in to 200% and carefully paint over the numbers and writing. This particular mask will end up looking something like this:

This technique in conjunction with the other tutorials allows for very subtle remote changes to the image that give the pop effect.

There are some noteworthy tips for dodging and burning:

  • If you're burning large area of shadows, in the background for example, be careful not to cause banding or artifacts. One way around this is found in my tutorial "Using the Cinematography Technique 'Crushing the Blacks' to Improve Your Images."
  • The old cliché "less is more" applies here. Dodging the whites and burning the blacks on the same object makes each appear as if they have been changed more than they have. In my experience, you can push the whites more than the blacks.
  • You are essentially creating a more controlled contrast boost so be wary of noise.
  • Catchlights on the product or subject should be dodged very, very gently and never burned.
  • If you're dodging metal (as I did in the orange and blue image above) be careful there isn't other colors creeping in and being boosted. It's common to get magentas and purples becoming more vibrant and this can be easily countered by a Vibrance adjustment layer, lowering it to -70 and then copying over the mask from your dodging.

Dodging and burning is a great way to create emphasis and clarity on a product or subject, particularly with varying textures and a large dynamic range. If you have any questions or tips, leave them in the comments. I do read them and there has been some great nuances and additions made.

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2 Comments

Thank you for posting this as a written tutorial - it is so much easier to implement than a video is (with all of the stopping/starting/reversing/repeat).
And D&B is one of the easiest ways to give depth to a photo.

I didn't know that you could work on white balance and liquifying by just using D&B.
Great before and after examples, thank you!