Dodge and Burn The Smart Way With Luminosity Masks

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Have you ever seen images with incredibly smooth and balanced tone? I always thought you have to be really lucky to get an impossibly near perfect lighting condition to have this effect caught in camera.

Little did I know the light and shadows are often created in post-processing using a technique called dodge and burn. It's a darkroom technique developed since the days of film cameras and has now been adopted into the digital workflow.

Digital dodge and burn is typically done by painting the image with a white and a black brush to accentuate the highlights and the shadows.

Normally, you dodge and burn on a layer without layer mask. While this is common, it's not the most efficient way - you always have to pay attention to where to dodge or burn to avoid applying the wrong adjustment in the wrong area.

In this tutorial, you're going to learn how to dodge and burn, and how to do it the easiest way using luminosity masks!

Although I use Adobe Photoshop for this tutorial, the post-processing steps are generic and the same principles can be applied in other software supporting layer masks.

What Is Dodge and Burn?

It is a post-processing technique used in the darkroom (in film photography) to increase the contrast on parts of the image by increasing or reducing the amount of light exposure on the print.

Film developing in the darkroom is a negative-to-positive process. So, increasing the amount of light makes the print darker and reducing the amount of light makes the print lighter.

If you are interesting (or curious!) in learning more about dodging and burning in the darkroom, here is an excellent video to show you how it is done. The actual process of dodging and burning starts at 1:44.

What used to be an art in film processing has been overly underrated in the digital era.

Most image editing software carry on the tradition and incorporated this tool in the digital darkroom (such as in Photoshop). However, it is not being utilized by most photographers these days.

Dodge and Burn Tools In Photoshop

By default, Adobe Photoshop has this in the tools panel.

The disadvantage of using the default dodge tool and the burn tool in Photoshop is that you have to make the adjustment directly on the image.

Any changes you make are destructive (meaning not reversible, unless you hit undo from the main menu). For that reason, I don't use the default dodge and burn tool.

Dodge and Burn On Two Layers

To do it the non-destructive way, we are going to create 2 layers in the layers panel. Follow these steps:

  • 1
    Create 2 new layers. Name it 'Dodge' and 'Burn'.
  • 2
    Fill both layers with 50% grey.
  • 3
    Change the blend mode for the dodge layer to overlay, and for the burn layer to soft light.
  • 4
    Use a white brush on the dodge layer to lighten the image.
  • 5
    Use a black brush on the burn layer to darken the image.

This is how it looks like in Photoshop when you have created them.

dodge and burn layers in photoshop

You can download the Photoshop Actions for free to automate the process of creating dodge and burn layers.

Dodge and Burn On A Single Layer

Another way of doing it is to create a single new layer, fill it with 50% grey and make the adjustment for dodge and burn on the same layer.

Either way is fine. Personally, I prefer the double layer technique because it gives me more control over the adjustments.

By doing so, you can lighten and darken your image in separate layers non-destructively.

Bear in mind that, at this stage, darkening and lightening are applied to the parts of the image where you click with your brush.

The disadvantage of this is that the adjustment may paint over the area you don't want to.

Dodge and Burn With Luminosity Masks

If you are not familiar with luminosity masks, you can learn more in this tutorial.

Dodging and burning with luminosity masks has great advantages over dodge and burn freely without any selection.

With luminosity masks, you can make selections based on the luminosity value of the pixels (or brightness) and apply gradual dodge and burn to the highlights and shadows.

This allows you to apply tonal adjustments smoothly (because of the feathering of luminosity masks) to increase the contrast on parts of the image that you want.

Dodge and Burn Vs Curves Adjustment Layer

In the example below, you can see the difference between tonal adjustment with dodge & burn using luminosity masks (middle) vs the curves tool (right).

With luminosity masks, you can dodge and burn selectively on areas of the highlights and shadows you want. You can also apply more adjustments in areas that you wish to emphasize.

It just gives you more space for creativity and customizing your adjustment. The adjustments will only affect the areas you paint using luminosity masks and therefore maintains the overall saturation of the image.

With a general tonal adjustment tool, such as the curves tool, you could also brighten the highlights and darken the shadows to increase the contrast.

However, the adjustments affect the entire image which will also affect the overall saturation as well. You can see the sky is much darker (picture with curves tool) compared to the other 2 images.

comparing dodge and burn

Use Dodge and Burn For Creative Tonal Adjustment

The trick in dodging and burning with luminosity masks is to utilize each feathered selection of brights, darks and sometimes the midtones masks to enhance the contrast.

You can paint over parts of the image to make it darker or brighter, or paint the image without a mask to create a vignette.

The end result will be a unique image that will stand out from adjustments made with the conventional methods.

The only disadvantage of dodge and burn is time-consuming. But if you have time to spare, consider investing some effort because the result is often well worth it.

Below is a video to show you how to do it in Photoshop (the same principles applies to other software). All you need is the Photoshop Actions for luminosity masks (download here for free) and dodge and burn layers (you can create it yourself with the instructions above or get the Photoshop Actions for dodge and burn here.

More Examples

dodge and burn portrait

Dodging and burning portraits can be great fun! This is even more so when you have an image taken with strobes.

In the image above, I have dodged and burned the areas particularly around the upper half of her face. This draws the viewer's attention to her eyes which should be the main focus of the image.

dodge and burn building

The before image lacks contrast, looks dull and uninteresting.

Dodge and burn were applied to the clouds in the background and a little to the building itself. This increased the contrast and also created a bit of depth which makes it looks more visually appealing.

dodge and burn landscape

The before image has got quite a good contrast already. But part of the sky is a bit too dark because of the polarising filter.

I brightened up the sky on the right side and increased the contrast on the left by dodging and burning. I have also brightened up the harsh shadows of the cactus in the foreground so it is more gentle to the eyes.

dodge and burn wildlife

I just love this image! The before image looks ok, but the contrast is monotonous and you just don't know where to look.

With dodge and burn, I darkened the areas outside the lion's face, directing viewers to the center of the image. I selectively darkened and brightened the areas around the eyes and the nose with luminosity masks to emphasize the beautiful tones and details captured on the image.

Dodge and Burn Like An Artist

I can't emphasize how powerful dodge and burn is in post-processing. It's a simple yet elegant technique to transform your image to have more depth by accentuating the lights and the shadows.

There's no rule on how you should dodge and burn. It's pretty much a free-hand technique where you can actually do however the way you want.

I use dodge and burn frequently in my workflow whenever I see fit. You can use it creatively not just to accentuate depth, but to produce more artistic images or one that looks more like an oil painting.

In this case, the possibility is enormous and the sky is the limit!

For more tutorials on luminosity masks, please check out the luminosity masks resource page!

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