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Non-destructive dodge and burn in Photoshop

Dodging and Burning are some of the oldest and most fundamental techniques in the history photo retouching. The term dates back to the dark room where photographers over expose some areas while under exposing other areas in the photo to achieve an overall better exposure (more detail in the blown out / underexposed areas, increase contrast etc).

Since the early days of digital post processing Photoshop made these tools available to us without having to leave our computer. The problem with these tools however is that by their nature they destructive i.e. using these tools changes the source pixels so once we save and re-open the document we can no longer go back to how the image was, it has been forever changed.

Luckily for us, as with most things in Photoshop, there are many ways to do a single job and in in tutorial we’ll look at how to achieve dodging and burning using layers, leaving the source image in it’s original state.

Final Image

None destructive dodge and burn in Photoshop

The Theory

This technique is achieved by taking advantage of Photoshop’s Overlay blend mode to combine two layers together (the original and the Dodge & Burn adjustment). We start by creating a new layer and filling it with 50% gray and setting the blending mode to Overlay. Because the new layer is all 50% gray it will have no effect on the overall image.

The magic happens because of how the Overlay mode works, any color that we paint onto the new layer that is lighter than 50% gray will result in an increase in brightness on the layer below and conversely any color that we paint into the new layer that is darker than 50% gray will decrease the brightness of the layer below.

The advantage with this technique is that it is all done in a new layer without touching the original, so all changes are non-destructive.. if we are not happy we can simply delete the new layer at any time and we get back to the original.

Source Files

Smoking Model

Creating the new layer

  • From the Layer menu select New -> Layer
  • Enter the name ‘Dodge & Burn
  • Set the Mode to Overlay
  • Check the ‘Fill with Overlay-neutral color (50% gray)‘ option

Paint with Light

  • Select the Brush tool (B)
  • Open the Brush options dialog and set the hardness to 0%
  • Set the brush Opacity to around 10-20%
  • Press the D key to reset the color pallet to Black and White
  • With the Dodge & Burn layer selected being to paint Black in the areas you’d like to make darker and white in the areas you’d like to make lighter
  • You can use the X key to switch between Black and White

Hiding the main photo at this point might look a little strange, but because the layer mode is set to Overlay Photoshop uses this information in its calculations to lighten the areas which are closer to white (above 50%) and darken the areas closer to black (below 50%).

Maintain Full Control

Because the adjustment has been applied to a new layer we have full control over that layer without effecting the original layer, so if we decide that the effect is too strong we can simply reduce the opacity of the Dodge & Burn layer.

Alternatively if we want to make the effect stronger we can duplicate the Dodge & Burn layer to push the contrast even farther.