Dodging and Burning

I have mentioned dodging and burning before, but usually in the context of black & white images. Dodging and burning is much more general than that these days. They are techniques that should be known by all photographers.

History

We usually think of dodging and burning as something associated with black & white photography. This is because this is where they were invented and first applied. Ansel Adams and the masters before him used dodging and burning extensively to achieve the artistic look they wanted.

The technique has its roots in the chemical darkroom. Photographers discovered that during the sometimes minutes long exposure of a print, they could change the tonal values of the print by withholding or adding light to selected areas.

Remember that these black & white processes were built around negatives. That is, on the print material, the more light it receives the darker the area is and the less light it receives, the lighter it it. In the limit no light at all will give the white base of the paper.

Hence the origins of the names. The printer (a person creating a darkroom print) might use a small tool, usually a circular or oval shaped piece of paper on a stick, to shield a region from some of the light. This holding back some light was called dodging. It made the dodged region of the print lighter. The printer could also add light to a region, usually by cutting a small hole in a sheet of paper and using it to shield everything except the hole from the light. This was called burning. It made the region receiving extra light darker.

In today’s digital processing, the terms are archaic. I remember them by thinking that burning sounds like it would make it darker. They might better be called just lightening and darkening. In my LIghtroom process, I call these layers just “light” and “dark”.

What are they now?

In the more general sense, dodging and burning are a means of selectively changing the tonal intensities or other properties of regions of an image. We can do this in great detail now and it is not at all limited to black & white images.

I am fairly confident in saying that all images you see a professional fine art photographer print use dodging and burning. The artist may spend hours tweaking the relationships. It is so easy now and we have so much control relative to the chemical darkroom days that it would almost be foolish not to. It would be passing up a great opportunity to enhance the visual experience for your viewers.

Digital post processing

Virtually all software tools that photographers use have the ability to selectively adjust tones in regions. The different tools may use their own names for it, but they all do about the same thing. I will discuss Lightroom Classic and Photoshop since I am familiar with them.

Since we edit on a computer using software tools, we are no longer limited to it being a real-time “performance” in the darkroom. Artists back in the day had to repeat the lengthy dodging and burning process for each print. Now we can do it once to create our “digital negative”. Editing becomes a pleasant creative process we can enjoy in our office with a nice glass of wine and some relaxing music playing.

And because we are no longer limited to black and white and chemical processes, the range of what we can adjust is greatly increased. We use the same techniques to selectively adjust colors and sharpness and contrast. It is even almost trivial to remove distracting elements.

It’s a great time to be to be a photographer!

Lightroom Classic

Ah, a marketing blunder by Adobe. Renaming “Lightoom” to “Lightroom Classic” was an affront to photographers and a thinly disguised attempt to push most users to the (reduced capability) online version. Thanks. Now that I have that off my chest let me just say that I will call the product just “Lightroom”. Know that I mean the desktop version where I have all my images stored locally.

That out of the way, Lightroom is a fantastic product that is vitally important to a large percentage of photographers. It is where we store and catalog and search for and edit our image library.

In addition to everything else it does, Lightroom has very capable dodge and burn tools and they are being enhanced all the time. At the time I am writing this, Lightroom version 12 was just released. It adds some significant new features.

Lightoom has several selection tools for dodging and burning and general editing. They are called the linear gradient, the radial gradient, the brush, and color and luminence range. In addition, there are “AI-based” features to aid in selecting the sky, the subject, people, and objects.

The purpose of all these tools is to select a certain region of an image to modify. Once we have a selection there is a range of editing that can be applied, such as exposure, contrast, texture, clarity, dehaze, temperature and tint adjustments, saturation, and sharpness. This gives us a very fine degree of control of the look of our image, down to arbitrarily small regions. And a wonderful bonus is, all adjustments in Lightroom are non-destructive. Everything can be modified or rolled back however much we want, even all the way to the original image.

Photoshop

Lightroom gets more capable all the time and is used as the exclusive editing tool for many photographers. But Photoshop is the granddaddy, the patriarch. While Lightroom makes it easy to do a lot of things, Photoshop does not restrict us from doing anything. We can mash, bend, distort, replace and modify any of the pixels in an image. You can combine multiple images together. You just have to know how.

Adjustment layers with masks are a primary means of local adjustments. These layers can be used to do traditional dodging and burning adjustments. There are even tools in the Photoshop tool bar that do dodging and burning, but I would not suggest using them, since they directly modify pixels. The ability to use a non-destructive workflow is important in Photoshop. At least, it is important to me. Some people disagree. Do whatever works best for you.

There are probably 2 main ways to do dodging and burning in Photoshop: 2 curve layers or 1 overlay layer. The first uses 2 curves adjustment layers, one set to lighten about a stop and the other set to darken about a stop. Each has a black mask. By painting in white areas in one of the masks we can selectively lighten or darken.

The method I more often use is to create a layer filled with 50% gray and a blend mode of Overlay. Then when I paint lighter than 50% gray on the layer it lightens or darker than 50% grey it darkens. I like this better because it is only one layer and it is more intuitive to me to use white to lighten and black to darken.

Either method is easily alterable and non-destructive. Each can be set up by a simple Photoshop action.

It has been edited

So in today’s photography world, assume any image you see has been edited – a lot. It is easy. It makes our images better. We are making art, not documentary.

There are photographers who think any modification of an image is wrong. They are, of course, free to feel that and act on their beliefs. I feel sorry for them. They are severely limiting their artistic potential. And they are probably “stretching the truth”. They do some color and contrast correction. Maybe a little dodging and burning and vignetting. Take out an errant twig sticking in from the side. Be skeptical when someone tells you an image has not been modified. What is the limit of “purity” vs. “artifice”? Who sets the rule? Why should there be a limitation?

Dodging and burning and related transforms have been used since the early days of photography. Masters like Ansel Adams would never have become famous without them. That is why it took many hours to print an Ansel Adams print. Most people would say it was worth it.

If you are doing photography today, I believe you need to master dodging and burning and all the related tools we have to work with now. The tools are there for us to use to make our images better. The concepts are timeless, only the technology changes. The editing controls are there because we need to use them to achieve our vision for our images. Not using them is like tying one hand behind your back. Maybe it makes a statement, but it artificially limits you for no good benefit.

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