Post Processing Tutorial – Dodge & Burn

January 15, 2013

“Dodge and Burn” (D&B) is a technique most digital retouchers employ when they intend to make the subject(s)’s skin look almost “perfect” in a portrait photograph. This is a widely used technique in the commercial world, and most likely one of the reasons why you see the models on catalogs, advertisements, magazines, and other media have that almost porcelain-like skin. Because, let’s face it, sometimes even the greatest makeup and lighting cannot conceal the imperfections we homo sapiens have at the pore level, so the use of digital retouching is a must to achieve these results.

This tutorial covers some more advanced tool sets and assumes the user has a basic understanding of Adobe Photoshop.

As cosplay photographers, we are faced with the same challenge when we photograph most cosplayers. In addition to having cosplayers put on great makeup and setting up the lights, we are here to show you how you can take it one step further in post processing to make your cosplay photographs just a bit more toward “perfection” by using Dodge and Burn.

The Technique

D & B is basically manipulation of light and shadow on a digital image. One “dodges” to brighten pixels and “burns” to darken pixels. By utilizing these two together, one could minimize the difference between a bright and dark pixel, therefore making both spots look leveled and flat. Now use this technique to every skin pixel in your photograph, and what you would get is a a very finely leveled, or smooth, skin.

Obviously there are many ways one can utilize this technique, may it be pore smoothing, highlight and shadow enhancement, or even “carving”, the principle of the technique remains the same throughout. So how does it actually work? Well, every image is different, so for the remaining of this tutorial we will use a portrait of meepy-girl to help us demonstrate the use and power of D&B.

The Tools

Photoshop’s Dodge and Burn Tools

Photoshop comes with actual tools called “dodge” and “burn”. These tools do provide the functionality that D&B employs, but because of some issues that D&B introduces which we will mention below, most experienced retouchers tend to shy away from using these specific tools.





Black and White Tool

D&B deals with the brightness of pixels, so turning the working image to black and white is sometimes preferred as color may pose as a distraction to some. There are many ways to create a black and white tool, but my preferred method is to utilize the “black and white” adjustment layer in combination with the “contrast” adjustment layer to visually increase the contrast between pixels. Group these two layers together to allow easy toggling.

The (preferred) D&B Tools

As always, many roads lead to Rome, but my preferred method for D&B is to utilize two curve layers; one with midpoint raised (lighten) and the other lowered (darken). Both should have black mask (which hides the adjustment) added. To do D&B with these two, one would use a white brush on the “brighten” layer mask to dodge (reveals the adjustment), and similarly, on the “darken” layer mask to burn.


Left: “lighten” curve. Right: “darken” curve

The Steps


Before any actual dodging and burning should occur, it is best to view the photo as a whole and identify the areas where work needs to be done. As mentioned before, to create smooth looking skin, it is essentially the work of brightening shadows and darkening highlights, so being able to identify these areas from a holistic point of view down to pore level would be extremely helpful.


There are obviously many levels of dodge and burn one can go about doing the work, and while the degree of difficulty does not increase, the degree of work and time required does increase quite significantly. From 30 minutes to a dozen hours of work is not unheard of, though the difference is also night and day.

The Work

For our example, it has already underwent some preliminary blemish removal and general fix-ups. As shown above, I have identified the basic areas where I will focus most of my D&B attention to, and from that point on it’s about repeating the D&B technique throughout the image to achieve the desired result. Meepy-girl already has very nice skin, so the majority of this image’s work is focused on fixing the light. If I have the chance to re-shoot this image, I would have probably moved her a couple steps back so the lighting on her face would be more even and perhaps eliminate the weird shadow.

For the most part I use the white brush with zero hardness, and the opacity down to 3-10%. Your mileage may vary depending on your other settings. When I do D&B, I am constantly zooming in and out, toggling the black & white tool, and changing the brush size to accommodate the area I am working with at the moment. This image probably took me around 30 minutes to an hour to finish, and that is generally how much time I personally would spend on D&B. With experience and better tools (e.g. graphics tablet), one might be able to achieve the same effect faster.

To give you an idea, here are the D&B masks I ended up creating with this particularly image, with the left being the dodge curve mask, and the right being the burn curve mask. And as you can see from the dodge curve mask, I also applied some additional D&B to selectively highlight areas of hair and darkening a part of Meepy’s cheek. This is treading into the realm of “carving”, which is a whole ‘nother kind of beast of which we will save for another article.

Left: “Dodge” layer mask. Right: “Burn” layer mask

And here shows the before/after comparison of the D&B work

Left: Before D&B. Right: After D&B.


Once you have experimented with D&B, you would realize this is a powerful technique that can be extremely time consuming. Prior to D&B, you may also question, why not just use one of the many skin smoothing plugins that exist on the market today? While there is no single answer to this question, what I can say is that, in truth, I use both. D&B provides the retoucher greater control over problem areas, especially so if there is a great degree of difference across the whole image and very fine, controlled adjustment is needed. Once those areas are addressed, I use the plugin to apply a slight degree of additional smoothing, just so I have some holistic coverage across the image. The bottom line is, all tools are useful, the only determining factors should be the level of control and adjustment that you wish to apply to the images that you work on.

So what do you think? Is D&B something you want to try out? Perhaps incorporate into your editing workflow? Tell us your story.

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I am a Seattle, WA based lifestyle fashion photographer who has Cosplay to thank for his adventure into the photography world. In addition to fashion, I also maintain Costographer as my cosplay work outlet:


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    Great tutorial, thanks.

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