Dodge and Burn: How to Rescue Shadows in Adobe Photoshop

Here, we’ll show you how to use Dodge and Burn to rescue shadows in your photographs and give your image some extra punch. As with many things in Adobe Photoshop (and life), the trick is balance.

Dodge and Burn: How to Rescue Shadows in Adobe Photoshop

Dodge and Burn

“Dodge” and “burn” are photography terms for correcting and adjusting luminosity (lightness) levels in parts of an image. To Dodge is to lighten an area of your picture, to Burn
is to darken an area. Digital dodge-and-burn techniques are based on the method photographers use in the
traditional darkroom: blocking light from the enlarger (or ‘dodging’ the light) to create a less-exposed, and therefore brighter, area on the paper, and using more
light (or ‘burning’ in the light) to make an area darker.

Dodge and burn can be used on any part of the image, light or dark, but in this tutorial we’re focusing on the dark, or shadow, parts of the picture. Though the technique is similar, mid-tones and highlights each need their own dodge-and-burn approach.

1. Evaluate the Image: What Result do You Want to Achieve?

Balance is the key to using dodge and
burn well. To get that balance, you need to know what you want your
finished image to look like. Are you going for high contrast? Do you want to
maintain a realistic look? What parts of the image are important to emphasise? What parts would you like to de-emphasise?

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Your ideal result will probably depend on the type
of image you’re editing and what constraints that might provide in itself. If
you’re editing a portrait, for example, you’ll need to keep in mind
the quality of skin tones: manipulating shadows could have a detrimental effect
on the face shape. Every style of photography—from landscape to architectural to product photography—carries their own possibilities and pitfalls in altering the shadows.

When you know what you want to achieve, you can use
the tools at your disposal effectively to create the look you desire.

2. Make Global Corrections

This is the image I’ll be working on. You can see
that the shadows are underexposed and the sky a tad overexposed.

Dodge and Burn: How to Rescue Shadows in Adobe Photoshop

RAW Conversion

The first place to start with any image is to make
global corrections, that is, broad corrections to the whole image. As I shoot in RAW,
my first step is to develop the image in Adobe Camera RAW before opening to Photoshop.

The image was taken in the evening. It has
a particular quality of light that I’d like to keep. For that reason, I’m not
pulling the shadows up here as far as I can in RAW, even though you can see from the
slider, there’s still some give.

Dodge and Burn: How to Rescue Shadows in Adobe Photoshop

Take a look at the histogram in the top right corner: the graph shows that the majority of information in the image (the big peak) is weighted to
the shadows, but none of the shadows is crushed, or losing information. That’s perfect, because I want to retain that cool, damp
evening feel to the photo without losing detail.

Correct Local Contrast With Curves

I rescued the highlights in RAW, and
brought them down a little, bringing detail back to the sky. The whole
thing looks a little flat though, and that’s where our local adjustments come

Dodge and Burn: How to Rescue Shadows in Adobe Photoshop

An ‘s’ curve in Photoshop (a gentle one in this
case) introduces more contrast: the light pixels get lighter, the dark pixels get darker. That puts some drama back into the sky and water, but also darkens our shadows
again. That’s alight, we’ll use Dodge and Burn to recover those.

3. Make Local Adjustments

The next thing to look at is specific parts of the
photo that you want to improve on. I mentioned that I want to keep some of the
shadows deep, to stay true to the mood of the time of day, but there are areas
like the water and even parts of the trees where I think we could lighten the
shadows without boosting the overall light and changing the feel of the image.

Rescue Shadows With Dodge

On the duplicate background (Control-J), I’m going to work on
the tree shadows with the Dodge tool, with the Range set to Shadows, at a very
low Opacity (between 2-5%) to bring some of the shadows back up. The idea of
this is to leave the midtones and highlights untouched and simply brighten the
darkest parts of the image, which I’ll brush over.

I always think a good technique is to go slightly
further with your adjustment than you actually want to, and then reduce the Opacity of your adjustment layer to get things just right.

Dodge and Burn: How to Rescue Shadows in Adobe Photoshop

This result is from brushing over the shadows on 5% Exposure but you can see the differences
already in the blackest areas. If it needs it, you can change the Range to Midtones and bring those up too.

The differences are
subtle. Build up the effect by continuously brushing over the same areas in successive passes
until you’re happy.

Dodge and Burn: How to Rescue Shadows in Adobe Photoshop

This is the image with
the Dodge layer at 90% opacity. Next, I’ll duplicate that layer and
work with Burn to add in more depth and contrast.

Add Depth With Burn

The curves layer helped
with overall contrast, but there are still areas of the photograph that could
use a little punchier contrast. Using the Burn tool, with the Range set to Shadows and the
Exposure again set to 5%, I’m going to brush over some areas that will add more
contrast and depth when darkened.

Dodge and Burn: How to Rescue Shadows in Adobe Photoshop

You can see the
difference that brushing over the sky a few times makes to the shadows here,
while still leaving the highlights untouched. This has caused a tad
over-saturation and also highlighted some halo-ing around the tree on the left.
The layer is still at 100% opacity, so bringing it down a touch will solve
those issues.

4. Extra Touches

The shadow recovery and
adding of contrast are great uses of dodge and burn, but you can also use them
to draw the viewer’s eye to a particular focus in your image. I’m going to use the Burn
tool again, this time with the Exposure set to Shadows, and burn around the
edge of the image to create a subtle vignette to help lead the eye to the
bright, centre of the image.

5. Finish Up

Once you’re happy with
your changes, make any final adjustments or edits to your image. One problem
with dodging and burning can be over-saturation, so you may need to use a very mild Saturation adjustment layer to do some final correction.

Dodge and Burn: How to Rescue Shadows in Adobe Photoshop

Here, I’ve slightly
tweaked the colour balance and given it a slight crop to cut out a distracting
gap in the trees on the far right.

Final Thoughts

Knowing how to use Dodge
and Burn alone isn’t enough to make a picture perfect, it never will be. Instead, the most important thing is
to know what you want from your image. If you don’t know what you’re trying to
finish up with, you could spend forever making tweaks and adjustments and still
never feel like it’s quite right. Deciding your end goal before you even begin
will save you a lot of trouble and also stop you from over-doing things.

Be sure to make all your
global adjustments first. Start with RAW, if that’s how you shoot, and play
with your shadows and highlights there until it looks how you’d like it. That
won’t always mean pulling the sliders as far as they’ll go—remember, that has
an effect on all your shadows/highlights. The trick at this stage is to get all the parts of the image into a not-to-anything state so that you have the flexibility to dodge and burn.

When it comes to making
your local adjustments, duplicate your layers so you can work non-destructively
and focus on one place and method at a time. If you brush over your whole image
then it will apply to all areas of that range. Zoom in and work on small parts
at a time, coming back out to look at the whole image now and again so you can
see how it looks in context. When you’re happy with one part, create a new
duplicate layer and move on to the next.

When you’re happy with
how your Dodge and Burn layers look, you can make final edits such as colour or
temperature adjustments, and so on. It’s important to do these last, as burning
or dodging can exaggerate colours and highlight problems.

As with all things, how
far to go with your edits is a matter of taste, but I tend to find less is
more. By all means, go wild on your layers, as long as you can pull back the
opacity and make the whole process more subtle. If you’ve edited for too long
and become blind to how much is too much, save your project and come back
later, with fresh eyes.