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"I Used Dodge & Burn"

You have heard many photographers say it, but honestly, what is it? Can it really solve all those wonky skin issues? Can it really make my images look like a piece of art instead of just a snapshot? Is the photographer just full of themselves and say “dodge & burn” when you ask how they edited that amazing image so that they do not really have to tell you what they did? The term "Dodge & Burn" just perhaps might be one of the most misunderstood terms in modern photography.

I will start with a little history lesson. It will do us much good to know where this technique came from and why it was used. Turns out dodge and burn is nothing new. It has been used for decades in dark rooms for developing film. If an area of the photograph is too light, you would burn that area to make it darker. If an area of the photograph was too dark, you would dodge that area to make it lighter. All of this dodging & burning was done in hopes of achieving a consistent exposure throughout the image.

Let us move forward to today. Thanks to Photoshop (and programs like it) we can now apply this dodge & burn technique to digital photographs. There are numerous ways to digitally go about this. Just Google the subject and you will find millions of tutorials, actions, and presets to help you out with this dodging & burning. However, we can not really appreciate and understand it until we have painstakingly attempted it, and failed, all on our own. Shortcuts are nice, but you only learn from epically failing.

My journey of dodge & burn has been nothing short of monumental ruin, success, failure, epic awesomeness, tears, how the fuck did I do that, more tears... in that continuous order. You get the jest. Until that one day, last month actually, it just clicked. BAM. Mind blown. After 8 years it fucking clicked. But in all honesty, you did not come here to read about my dodge & burn epiphany. You came here to read about struggles. I do not blame you. So, let us start from the beginning of this journey, where it is most interesting.

Early 2014 - The Beginning - Abbigail's Newborn Pictures

This one. I used natural light. Window light. I used a point and shoot camera. My bed sheet. A homemade tulle tutu. I had no idea about anything at this point other than I needed to hurry up and take as many images as I could because she was going to need the boob in T minus 5 minutes. That giant speck of glitter on her forehead really sets the image off. I did not have Photoshop or any other editing program besides the Windows editor that came already installed on my computer. I am not sure why this did not win any awards. I am still kind of salty about it honestly.

Early 2015 - Abbigail's 1st Birthday

At this point I knew what dodge and burn was, that is about it. I was new to the Facebook group scene. I had Photoshop. I only used Photoshop to add this amazing vignette, desaturate the colors and add my new watermark. I tried to remove the tag from the Minnie ears. Failed. But look at that sweet chunky butt!! I was off to a great start!

Later this year I started college for photography but that wasn't teaching me what I wanted to know either. College was such a hinderance. I had 4 kids, a husband who worked out of town all week, I was pregnant with my 5th child, I had severe morning sickness to the point I lost 40+ pounds and was so weak I could not get out of bed. I remember feeling like death sitting at my kitchen table wrapped in my blanket literally crying doing my homework. I had to continue though. Quitting was not an option. We needed the money. I did not quit, I just took a slight break. Photography was all I could think about even though I was laying in bed wasting away. I needed it back.

Early 2016 - Abbigail's 2nd Birthday

I still knew about dodge & burn... I think at this point I was just hoping it would just magically happen. I still had no idea about anything. I was weak, intimidated and scared. I did not know where to start. I would Google it, I would read a word I knew nothing about and would have to Google that word and learn about that word and so on and so forth. I found myself getting nowhere. It was overwhelming.

I was able to be upright for most of this year thanks to nausea meds and IV fluids. I was able to slowly get back to photography. I was experimenting with light and working on getting the correct exposure in camera. I thought maybe that would give me the look I was wanting. It did not. It helped but it was not dodge & burn. I kept going.

Early 2017 - Abbigail's 3rd Birthday

I moved outdoors to fail with all natural unfiltered light at this point in my journey. Dodge & burn was still not happening for me at this point. I was becoming more active in the photography groups on Facebook. I started posting my work and asking questions. I did not get the answers I wanted. I was still needing a step by step run down of everything at this point. I did not get that. Understandably so too. I mean they have lives and I am nobody to them. Why would they help me? I kept going.

Early 2018 - Abbigail's 4th Birthday

I was becoming more confident here. Check out that amazing snowflake artistry! I was getting more into Photoshop at this point. I successfully added a snow overlay and changed the tones of the image to blue. This was a far cry from where I wanted to be, but we all start somewhere right? It was time to get to work. I knew the kind of images I wanted to produce. I was going to do it. I watched everything. I read everything. I tried everything. I moved from natural light to studio light. I started to like studio light better. I could control it more. This opened up a whole new world for me. Dodging & burning was something I was starting to do. Finally! I had been waiting for this moment for years. People were starting to like my work. People were starting to ask me how I did what I did. I must keep going!

Early 2019 - Abbigail's 5th Birthday

It was between 2018 and 2019 that I got serious and stopped making excuses for myself as to why I wasn't creating the images I wanted to. I thought I was doing dodge and burn at this point, but I actually wasn't. I was using curves. Raising the midtones for my dodge and lowering the midtones for my burn. WRONG. Even though I was doing it wrong, I was proud of this image. I was learning. It was working. It was somewhat like a band-aid until I could actually understand this dodge & burn technique.

Early 2020 - Abbigail's 6th Birthday

I knew what I wanted. I also knew that something was stopping me. Was it the pink background? The lighting placement? The wardrobe? I was uncertain. The only thing I was certain of is that I was still unable to achieve the look I wanted. The look I wanted more than anything. I was doing something wrong. I just kept pushing forward. Watching tutorials. Stalking photographers that had the look I wanted. Studying.

I realized that my images were starting to lack skin texture. In my efforts to dodge & burn with curves I was taking skin smoothing to the extreme. I was not only lightening the light areas and darken the dark areas, I was majorly messing with the texture. The skin looked plastic. Once I noticed this, I started to hate every image I was creating. What a devastating blow. I had been using curves to dodge and burn for years. I had to start all over.

Early 2021 - Abbigail's 7th Birthday

At this point I still used curves because it was the only technique I found that would get my image close enough to what I wanted. I just backed my dodging & burning adjustment off a bit. I had my own, recognizable style at this point. It wasn't what I was longing for, but it was me. Story of my life. Close enough but no cigar. Some people hated it. They hated it to the point my Facebook block list was upwards of 1k people. Some people loved it. They loved it so much that they liked my page and followed me personally. Enough people loved it that I was regularly teaching my backwards methods at this point. If I was to be completely honest with myself, I do love it, but it still wasn't what I wanted.

June 2021 - When It CLICKED

I was discouraged, tired, grumpy, mad at the world, teary eyed and ready to give up when I edited this image. I finished editing this image 1:00 am. I edited this image with a last ditch dodge and burn technique effort. A technique I had known about for YEARS but always blew off because there is no way it can be that easy. I was such a fool. It was that easy. I could have been doing this for years.

Photoshop has "Dodge" and "Burn" tools. No need for curves. No need for levels. No need for Brightness/Contrast. There is just no need.

Create a 50% grey layer for Burn. Set blending mode to "Soft Light"

Create a 50% grey layer for Dodge. Set blending mode to "Soft Light"

Use the Burn tool on your Burn layer.

Use the Dodge tool on your Dodge layer.


Why did I not just try this from the beginning?

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