Digital Focus: Improve Exposure With Dodge and Burn

When I was a just a wee lad, my dad explained the basics of darkroom editing to me. One of the first things he discussed was the concept of dodge and burn. This pair of editing tricks is a darkroom fundamental--it has been used by photographers for over a century to improve the exposure of photos after the picture was taken.

Dodging refers to lightening the tone in a picture, while burning makes the picture darker. These techniques are powerful because they're selective; you can dodge and burn anywhere in a photo, affecting an area as large or small as you desire. And it's easy to do digitally in your favorite photo editor. This week, we'll dodge and burn in Corel's Paint Shop Pro (though the technique will work in almost any program).

If you need a sample picture to experiment on, open this file in your photo editor.

Automatic Dodge and Burn

Most photo editors have automatic dodge and burn tools, and Paint Shop Pro is no exception. You'll find both tools in the 11th cubby from the top of the toolbar on the left side of the screen. Choose Burn, for example, and start painting in the somewhat overexposed white sweater. To lighten a dark part of the picture, switch to the Dodge tool.

If you don't see much of an effect, that might be because of the tools' settings. The most important settings for Dodge and Burn are the brush size and the brush opacity, both located in the Tool Options Palette at the top of the screen. If you don't see it, toggle it on by choosing View, Palettes, Tool Options. Try setting the opacity to around 20 percent and the brush to about 20 pixels, then paint in the photo again. You'll want to experiment with these settings to get the results you're looking for; you can make the brush smaller to affect tiny details in the image, and you can lower the opacity level to create more subtle variations in exposure.

Be Careful With Overlaps

Keep in mind that the Dodge and Burn tools are progressive: Every time you click on the same region, you make it somewhat darker or lighter, depending upon which tool you selected. That means it's possible to accidentally double the dodge or burn effect in a small section while you're trying to correct a region.

The best way to fix a section is to hold the mouse button down continuously while you paint, and don't let go until you have treated the entire area. If you decide it's still not dark or light enough, click and hold the mouse again while you cover the whole section a second time.

If you try to work on a large area in sections, lifting the mouse after painting a small area, you can end up with overlapping edges that have been doubled up, like this.

Dodge and Burn in a Layer

The main disadvantage of using dodge and burn is that you're changing the original photo. Many photographers prefer to work in layers, preserving the original image from damaging edits.

An alternative approach is to dodge and burn in a layer. To try that, open the sample photo and choose Layers, Duplicate . Now you can use the same technique--dodging and burning--but the changes will be contained in the top layer of the photo.

When you're done, you can further refine the effect by reducing the opacity of the top layer using the opacity slider in the Layers palette. (If you don't see the Layers palette, turn it on by choosing View, Palettes, Layers. The opacity slider has a checkerboard pattern.) If you save the photo as a Paint Shop Pro image, you can preserve these layers for editing again later. If you save the image as a TIFF or JPEG, it will be "flattened" into a single layer when you save it, using whatever opacity levels you set the picture to before saving.

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