How to Lighten and Darken with Dodge and Burn Tools in Photoshop CS6

Photoshop CS6 gives you many options for lightening and darkening. Dodging and burning originated in the darkroom, where photographers salvage negatives containing areas that are too dark or too light by adding or subtracting a bit of exposure when an enlarger makes prints.

With the Photoshop Dodge and Burn tools, you can set the size of the tool and its softness independently by selecting a brush of the size and the hardness or softness you require.

You can also set the Photoshop tools to operate primarily on shadows, midtones, and highlights. You can adjust the degree of lightening and darkening applied by specifying an exposure, too.

The Dodge (used to lighten) and Burn (used to darken) tools can be very effective, but you can’t add detail that isn’t there. Keep the following in mind:

  • When you lighten very dark shadows that contain little detail, you end up with grayish shadows.

  • Darkening very light areas that are completely washed out doesn’t look very good, either.

In either case, you want to use the Dodge and Burn tools in moderation and work only with small areas. To dodge or burn a portion of an image, just follow these steps:

  1. Open an image with under- or overexposed areas and select the Dodge or Burn tool from the Tools panel.

    Press the O key to choose the active toning tool or press Shift+O to cycle through the available toning tools until the one you want is active.

  2. In the Options bar, make these adjustments:

    • *Select a brush from the Brush Preset Picker or toggle open the larger Brush panel.

      Larger, softer brushes spread the dodging and burning effect over a larger area, making blending with the surrounding area easier.

      You can choose the same brushes available with any of the painting tools, including preset brushes from your library.

    • *Under the Range options, select Shadows, Midtones, or Highlights.

      Use Shadows to lighten or darken detail in the darker areas of your image, Midtones to adjust the tones of average darkness, and Highlights to make the brightest areas even lighter or (more frequently) darker.

      Note the increased detail in the eyes, teeth, and hair. A couple swipes were added to the highlight areas with the Burn tool.

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    • Select the amount of the effect to apply with each stroke by using the Exposure slider or text box.

    • Enable the Airbrush option for a softer, more gradual effect.

    • *Check the Protect Tones option.

      This setting provides more natural and subtle dodging and burning results by preserving the hues and tones of the image pixels.

    • *If you are using a pressure-sensitive tablet, click the last icon. Doing so overrides any settings you made in the Brush Preset picker or Brush panel.

  3. Paint over the areas you want to lighten or darken with the toning brush, gradually building up the desired effect.

    Using a soft-edged brush is often best when dodging and burning. You want to create a realistic, not retouched, appearance.

    The Exposure control is similar to the Opacity control offered by other painting tools, but it’s especially important with dodging and burning.

    Using a low value is best so that you can carefully paint in the lightening or darkening you want.

    High exposure values work too quickly and produce unnatural-looking, obviously dodged or burned areas in your images.

  4. If you go too far, press Ctrl+Z (Command+Z on the Mac) to reverse your most recent stroke.

  5. When you finish, choose File→Save to store the image.

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