How to Dodge and Burn in Lightroom

by | 3 years ago

Dodging and burning has become one of my best assets for retouching photos and getting me noticed as a photographer. These techniques take a nice photo to a spectacular piece of art. So, if you want to improve your retouching skills and make your photos breathtaking, keep on reading, practice all the tips in this article, and you’ll get there!

First let’s make it clear to everyone exactly what it means to dodge and burn an image. It’s a photography technique that guides the eyes of your viewer in your photo by making some parts of the photo darker and other parts brighter. Let me show you.

Step One: Open a photo in Lightroom that you’d like to dodge and burn. The example we’re using here is a photo I took at sunset in Montmartre, one of the nicest areas in Paris. I love the framing of the stairs with the rest of the view—really nice.

Step Two: Let’s start with the basic retouch of the photo in the Basic panel. For this image, I brought down the Highlights to –100 and opened up the Shadows to +100. For the white point, hold the Option (PC: Alt) key while dragging the Whites slider. The image will turn mostly black. Drag the slider until you see some colors appear in the image (+23 here). Do the same for the black point: hold the Option (PC: Alt) key while dragging the Blacks slider. This time, the image will turn mostly white. Again, drag until you see some colors appear (–62 here). Also, select the white balance that’s appropriate for your photo. I set it to Shade because this image was taken at sunset.


Step Three: This photo was purposely shot crooked, but let’s straighten it anyway so it’s not too distracting. For that, go into the Transform panel, and simply click on Auto.

Step Four: If you want to optimize your photo for Instagram, crop it to a 4:5 aspect ratio. This has been a successful action for me, as it’s the perfect crop for an Instagram post. Press R for the Crop Overlay tool, and then in the aspect ratio drop-down menu (where it currently says “Original” next to the padlock icon), choose 4×5/8×10. Position the image inside the crop boundary, and press Enter.

Step Five: To finalize the basic retouch, let’s boost the Contrast a little to +45, and make it a little less yellow by dragging the Temp slider to the left (7,463).

Step Six: Now let’s get to the fun part, the dodging and burning! The first thing I usually do is “close” the top and bottom of my photo, as needed, using the Graduated Filter (M). The idea is to darken those areas so people are attracted to the main subject. I want people to look at the light, which in this example, is on the building and stairs. So drag out a Graduated Filter at the top of your photo and lower the Exposure (–85 here).

You can also add some color in the Graduated Filter using the Temp slider. Here we added some blue by lowering the Temp to –5. I also lowered the Blacks (–16) to darken the top of the image even further, and lowered the Clarity (–15) to soften the details in the midtones.

Step Seven: Using the Adjustment Brush (K), we can “paint” the photo with light, meaning we can highlight the parts of the photo that we want to enhance for the viewer. When we dodge and burn, it’s important not to go overboard. A technique that I use is to make the edits very obvious at first, and then back them down until it’s more subtle.

Take the Adjustment Brush, and set its exposure to 1.18, Feather to 100, and both the Flow and Density to around 70. Here, I wanted to enhance the light of Paris, so I’m even going to add some yellow in my brush by setting the Temp to 17. Now paint where you want to add light. In this example, I painted around the landing on the stairs. It adds a nice touch, but now you can back down the Exposure until it looks right (0.97 here).

Step Eight: Now click on the words “New” in the Adjustment Brush panel to create a new brush. We’ll use this to “hide” areas by lowering the Exposure of the new brush to –0.64 and even lowering the Saturation a little to around –16. With that brush, I’m going to create a vignette effect around the bottom and right side of the photo. The red overlay in the image here shows you where I painted with this brush.

Step Nine: Another way to dodge and burn is to use the Radial Filter (Shift-M). After dragging out a Radial Filter, turn on the Invert option so the changes take place inside the radial. In this example, I drew a Radial Gradient around the warm colors in the sky, and boosted the yellow by setting the Temp slider to 27 and the magenta by setting the Tint slider to 19, as well as boosting the Exposure to 0.27.

Check out the before, followed by just the basic edits, and then the final image with the dodging and burning. You can see how the dodging and burning made a drastic difference. Basically, you have three tools to really focus the eyes of the viewer: brushes, gradients, and radial filters.

Dodging and Burning Black-and-White Images

Here’s another type of dodging and burning that’s a little different: black-and-white images. For this, we’ll use a portrait of me in Paris.

Step One: The first thing I did was click on Black & White at the top right of the Basic panel, and then I expanded the B&W panel. Using the little target tool in the top-left corner of the B&W panel, I clicked on different parts of the photo and dragged the mouse up to make those associated colors brighter or dragged down to make them darker. Here you can see some parts of the photo are a little brighter. It’s very subtle, but everything is in the details.

Step Two: Now, let’s get into the basic retouch for this portrait. It’s different than for a landscape, so don’t go too crazy with the Highlights and the Shadows: Here I set the Shadows at +44, the Highlights at –50. Then, I set up my white point at +14 and the black point at –25.

Step Three: To make the photo more dynamic, let’s crop it.

Step Four: We’ll use the same tools that we used in the previous example. First, let’s close the top and bottom of the photo using Graduated Filters and lowering the Exposure to around –1.64.

Step Five: Next, we’re going to use the Adjustment Brush. To make my face lighter, I boosted the Exposure to around 0.75, and set the Feather to 100 and Flow and Density to around 70. Note that if I start brushing my face, it will lighten the sky around my head, as well. So, to focus the Adjustment Brush on one element, click on Auto Mask and keep the center of your brush on your subject. That way, your brush will affect only that element.

Step Six: The last tool we’re going to use to dodge and burn this image is the Radial Filter. Drag out the filter in an area that you want to highlight, and then boost the Exposure (1.18 here). Make sure Invert is turned on and set the Feather to 100. Right-click inside the Radial Filter, choose Duplicate, and then drag that duplicate circle to another part of the photo that you want to highlight.

Just have fun when using the Adjustment Brush, Graduated Filter, and Radial Filter: The whole idea is to create a light that’s not flat, making the photo more dynamic, and highlighting parts of the photo where you want to enhance the detail. You can also lower the Exposure to make the areas you don’t like a little darker. You can even add Clarity in your brush to boost the midtone contrast and make it extra special!

A good way for you to determine if you went a little overboard with the dodging and burning is to take a walk and come back to your photo a little later to see if the lightened areas are obvious and jump out at you. If it simply looks awesome, then you nailed it!

This is an old technique that Ansel Adams used to do back in the day of the darkroom, using different lights to burn the film, and a kind of spoon to darken other parts of the photo. So the techniques described here are the same idea, but in Lightroom!

I hope you enjoyed this article and that you take the time to master these skills because they’ll definitely take your photos to the next level.