Dodge and Burn portraits

Darken shadows and lighten highlights with two easy-to-use tools to create a striking effect and instantly dramatise portraits.

Dodging and burning are two techniques that have been used in photography for many years, and have found their way from the traditional dark room to the digital dark room used today. The basic idea behind these is to selectively change the exposure in an image by darkening some areas and lightening others, while leaving the rest of the image untouched. The result is a striking image that offers the eye plenty of contrast to gaze upon. Photoshop CS, CC and Elements all include these techniques as part of their standard toolkits. The Dodge tool lightens areas while the Burn tool makes them darker. You can approach dodging and burning in many ways, from using the built-in tools to simply wielding a black or white brush.

We’ll be using the Dodge and Burn tools, and painting with them on layers filled with 50% grey, as well as enhancing the burn effect with a black paintbrush and applying some standard retouching.

Open and duplicate

Open your image in Photoshop. If you’re using Elements, make sure you’re on the Expert tab. Ctrl/right-click the Background layer and select Duplicate, so you can revert to the original if needed.

Heal blemishes

Zoom into the subject’s face and then select the Spot Healing Brush (J) from the left-hand Tools palette. Brush over any spots and blemishes on the face of your model to clean up his skin. Also smooth over the cracks in his lips.

Smooth skin

Ctrl/right-click the Background Copy layer and select Duplicate — rename it Gaussian Blur. Select Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur and set the Radius to 4 px; the whole image will look blurry. Click the Add Layer Mask icon at the foot of the Layers palette.

Paint in layer mask

Select the layer mask, grab the Paint Bucket (G) and pick black as the Foreground colour. Fill the mask with black to make the blur effect invisible. Choose a soft white brush with an Opacity of 70% and paint the cheeks and forehead to reveal it.

Enlarge eyes

Select Gaussian Blur. Select the model’s eyes with the Marquee tool (M) then copy/paste onto a new layer. Head to Edit>Transform>Scale (Elements: Image> Transform), increase Height and Width by 5%. Blend with a black brush on a layer mask.

Smooth lips

Grab the Magnetic Lasso (L) and select the lips, ensuring the edge is smooth, then copy/paste onto a new layer. Go to Filter>Filter Galley and choose Plastic Wrap. Add a Color Balance adjustment to redden the lips and reduce Opacity to 20%.

Create grey layer

Create a new layer by selecting Layer>New Layer. Now select Edit>Fill and choose 50% grey; your whole canvas will turn grey. Select Overlay from the blend mode drop-down in the Layers palette and then rename this layer Dodge.

Paint with Dodge

Select the Dodge tool (O), set the Exposure to 20% and choose a soft brush. Zoom into your image and start painting in all the light areas with the Dodge tool. Look out for areas such as the ears and the line along the chin.

Fill in hair highlights

Zoom into the hair area and, again, paint with the Dodge tool over any areas you want to highlight. Any lit areas on the face and hair that you want to downplay, such as beneath the eyes, should be left out.

Set up Burn tool

Create a new layer by selecting

Layer>New Layer and then fill it with 50% grey. This time, set the layer’s blend mode to Soft Light, and then pick up the Burn tool and set it to 15% Exposure.

Burn shadows

Zoom right into your image and start painting over the dark areas of the model’s face. The low exposure on the tool makes it easy to build up colour, so use what you can see as a guide and then paint darkness into the darker areas.

Extend shadow

In the Spot Healing step we cleaned up the face, including a darkened area on the forehead. To restore this shadow, use the Burn tool to extend the shadow on the head to the position that it would naturally fall upon. Paint slowly and build up colour.

Burn clothing shadows

Zoom out and increase the Exposure of the Burn tool to 25%. Now paint over shadowed areas of the model’s clothing in order to highlight the contours and details of the jacket and shirt.

Merge Visible Layers

To dramatise the effect we’re going to darken the edges of the image with a vignette. To apply it evenly over multiple layers, we’re going to merge the ones we’ve created. Hide the original Background layer and the select Layer>Merge Visible.

Lens Correction vignette

With your merged layer selected, go to Filter> Lens Correction and untick all options expect Vignette. Pick Custom then move the Amount and Midpoint sliders down to add an even vignette. Use a layer mask with a black brush to hide part of the effect.

Paint in shadow

Make a new layer and set the blend mode to Soft Light. Grab a big, black, soft brush. Set its Opacity to 40% and Flow to 30%. Paint from the top-left corner into the face of your model, darkening the area.

Add Brightness adjustment

Select Layer>New Adjustment Layer and then Brightness/Contrast. Lower the Brightness slightly to -6 while bringing the Contrast up to 20. Click OK. Make sure the adjustment sits at the top of your layer stack.

Apply Color Balance

Select Layer>New Adjustment again and pick Color Balance this time. Introduce a slight blue tinge to the image by moving the Yellow-Blue slider right to 17. This will lift the black background slightly.

Merge Visible again

Before adding the final touches, flatten the image by hiding only the original Background layer, to preserve your image as it was. Then choose Layer>Merge Visible. You will now have two layers.

Sharpen features

Duplicate the Background layer and name it Sharpen. Select Filter> Sharpen>Unsharp Mask and set a value of 50%. Add a mask and, as before, fill it with black. Grab a white brush and paint over the eyes and mouth to reveal the sharpen effect.

Final Dodge and Burn

Create another new layer and fill it with 50% grey again. Repeat the steps of the previous Dodge and Burn, using a low Exposure brush to fill in the highlights and the shadows in the image and to increase the contrast between light and dark.

Curves adjustment layer

To round things off we’ll apply one last adjustment. Select Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Curves. Make a very slight S-shaped curve to increase the contrast in the image and enhance the overall effect of the dodging and burning.

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