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This Dodge & Burn Technique Gives Portraits an Edge

Harness the power of a classic method through Photoshop
Photo of dodging and burning technique

(Editor’s Note: James Patrick is an award-winning photographer, best-selling author, entrepreneur coach, podcast host and public speaker based in Phoenix, AZ. You can learn more about him at Read his DPP story on how to create cover photos that sell here.)

Certainly, dodging and burning is a photo technique that’s been used since those long (and laborious) days in the darkroom spent leaning over an enlarger waving your hands and flags as you added or subtracted light to lighten or darken areas of the print. But the control we now have in Photoshop not only allows for general refinements to this classic method, it also gives you the ability to contour the face and body of your subject for an enhanced final portrait.

So, while dodging and burning might seem “old school,” there’s no better time than now to use it for your portrait photography. This technique is an incredibility easy way to achieve amazing results in a non-destructive approach while allowing you more control over the final image.

Here’s is my step-by-step process for dodging and burning portraits in Photoshop. You should also watch my video at the bottom of this story where I walk you through the process.

Photo of dodging and burning technique 1

Step 1

Look at the areas of the photo you want to brighten (dodge) and the photos you want to darken (burn).

Starting with areas to burn, I look at any part of the subject that would be further away from the light or moving away from the light. These can include the hairline, jawline, sides of the nose, under the nose, under the chin, the outlines of the muscles, etc.

From there I look at areas that would look better slightly darker such as light patches of skin (like armpits), tan lines, areas of hair that are too bright, eyebrows and eyelashes to add more contrast.

Now looking at the areas to highlight, I look for areas that are coming towards the camera (or light) such as the forehead, bridge of the nose, cheeks, chin, tops of muscles, etc. Then there are areas that look better highlighted such as the eyes, bottom lip, teeth, highlights in the hair, etc.

Photo of dodging and burning technique 2

Step 2

Create a Curves Layer and drag the histogram down from the left third down, darkening the entire image. Hit Command + I and this will invert the layer mask to hide the curve effect. Name this layer “Burn.”

Then create another Curves layer and this time select the histogram towards the right third and drag straight up, brightening the entire image. Hit Command + I and this will invert the layer mask to hide the curve effect. Name this layer “Dodge.”

Photo of dodging and burning technique 3

Step 3

Select a White Paintbrush with a Hardness of 0, Flow of 50% and an opacity between 10-20%.

Beginning with the burn layer, paint with the white paintbrush on the layer mask anywhere you want to darken the image. If one pass was not dark enough, do another pass with the brush as at 20%, each pass will build upon itself.

Happen to go too far? You can undo on the history window or just paint over with a black brush on the layer mask. From there select the dodge layer and paint on the layer mask where you want to add highlights.

Doing these edits on the curves layers and not using the actual burn and dodge tools on your photo itself keeps your work nondestructive allowing you to undo, tweak and refine as you go.

Photo of dodging and burning technique 4

Step 4

You can then edit the overall opacity of each curves layer if you want to slightly back off on the effect.

That is all you need to do! A quick, nondestructive approach to burning and dodging your portraits to give your images that extra impact!

James Patrick is an award winning and internationally published photographer with more than 500 published magazine covers to his credit. He is the host of the Beyond the Image Podcast and his work can be seen on Instagram @JPatrickPhoto or on his website Read his DPP story on how to create cover photos that sell here.

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