Dodge and Burn in Photoshop Elements :: Digital Photo Secrets

Dodge and Burn in Photoshop Elements

by David Peterson 19 comments

What if you want to fix a part of an image that was overexposed or underexposed? Maybe you want to draw emphasis to a certain part of your photo. What about when you forget to use a lens hood and stray light makes it into your photo? If any of these scenarios sound familiar, you should consider using the dodge and burn tools that come with Adobe Photoshop Elements. Here are a few things you can do with them.

If you prefer to watch and listen rather than read, watch the video below on the Dodge, Burn and Sponge tools..

What do dodge and burn do?

The terms dodging and burning comes from film photography. In the process of developing an image, the photographer had the ability to lighten or darken certain areas. It’s exactly the same in Photoshop Elements. The dodge tool lightens while the burn tool darkens.

There are a number of applications for dodging and burning. It’s typically used to correct parts of an image that were not exposed correctly. It’s also used for a unique artistic effect (more on that later).

In Photoshop Elements, you can find the dodge and burn tools near the bottom of the toolbar on the left side of the screen. They occupy the same menu as the sponge tool.

Once you have selected either tool, you can pick a brush size, a range, and an exposure percentage. All of this is located in the upper toolbar.

The range selection allows you to emphasize certain areas. Let’s say, for example, that you want to lighten only the shadows in your image. You could do that by selecting the dodge tool and picking “shadows” as your range.

It’s also good to know what the exposure number does. Simply put, it determines the strength of the dodge/burn effect. I like to pick smaller values for this because it lends more subtlety to the effect. I typically choose a value between 15% and 50%.

Using the burn tool to fix exposure issues

Have a look at the following image. Does anything seem amiss?

Photo By: Ted Bendixson

The bottom left hand corner has a strange pink haze. You can get rid of that haze by using the burn tool and selecting “midtones.” The key to getting this one right is to keep your exposure setting low. I noticed that the logs start to blacken as I apply the burn effect, and you want this to look as natural as possible. Too much intensity, and half of the log turns black while the other half turns white.

Here is the finished result:

As you can see, it looks a lot more even and balanced.

Using the burn tool to emphasize a subject

Let’s say you want to give your subject pop out just a bit more. You can use the burn tool to do that. Have a look at this little photo taken with Instagram.

It’s already pretty cool on its own, but we could probably do more to emphasize the main subject. So we’ll simply use the burn tool on the darker sections.

Here’s the same photo after burning:

As you can see, it’s dramatically different. I sort of went overboard to show you what’s possible. All the confusing tangle of wires below has been replaced with complete and total darkness. The other airbrushes are still there, but they sink into the darkness as well.

I really love the burn tool in black and white photography. Because there is no color, you can get away with a lot more visual tricks like this one.

Using the dodge tool to fix underexposed portrait photos

The next time you take a portrait photo, and it turns out a tad underexposed, don’t fret. You can use the dodge tool to brighten up the areas you want to emphasize. Let’s start out with this photo from a Flickr User.

Photo By Flickr User s.ho

It’s already pretty good, but it does feel a little dark. Using a small brush and the dodge tool, you can pick out the areas you want to brighten. In this image, I simply stuck to the couples’ faces, going for a relatively even and overall brightening of the photo. Notice their faces and under their chins isn't so dark.

Here’s the result:

Now it’s a lot less dark. Be careful with the dodge tool. It can easily whiten an image much more than you’d like. If you’re going to use it, I would suggest keeping the exposure option low like 10%.

The dodge and burn tools were useful back in the heyday of film photography, and they’re still useful today. Give them and a try, and I think you’ll like the results.

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  1. says:

    The Photoshop Dodge Burn tools work pretty much like the darkroom techniques except its more powerful and precise.

  2. Gezina says:

    I've got PS Elements 11, but do not see the Sponge, Burn or Dodge tool. What must I do to have them in my Tool collection?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Gezina,

      They are there, but you might need to switch to the "Expert" editing layout. Click on the Expert button then search for the Sponge, Burn or Dodge tool in the Enhance section of the toolbar on the left. Click on that and you'll also see the other two tools down the bottom of the scree.

      I hope that helps.


  3. Aileen Clark says:

    Thank you for this, very easy to understand. I need all the tips I can get with PSE !

  4. Aileen Clark says:

    Thanks for this, very clear and concise. I am just getting used to using PSE so this was a great help. :)

  5. John Leslie says:

    Hi David,the videos are a great idea,reading then watching is a great way to go, no problems with your accent you are easily understood,I currently have photoshop cs5 & lightroom 4 any chance on getting videos on these in the future ?? I have been following your tips since day one I even passed on your info to the beginers group in the camera club I belong to they think your great too keep up the good work,Regards John L.

  6. Gail says:

    Love love love the video, so much easier to understand than text. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Noelene says:

    Thanks David, accent no problem, very clear instructions, much better than written form, I can now follow along and use the tools correctly.

  8. Malcolm says:

    Thanks a lot for all the tips u give , and the video is great , i understand it a whole lot better . ( AUS lucky against WALES )

  9. David Avery says:

    Well done I have been trying to get to grips with the dodge and burn tools but could not work them out, just watched your video on these tools and feel much more confident to use them now. Cant wait to see some more of your tips.
    Many thanks

  10. Jules says:

    Love the videos. I find it much easier to learn by watching and listening.
    Yhanks.....keep it up

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