Dodging and burning are two of the oldest, and likely still the best tools in landscape photography to control the light after the photo is captured. You’ll find these tools available in one form or another in just about every photo editing software out there. I dodge and burn nearly every landscape photo I create. Ansel Adams was even famous for spending hours in the darkroom manipulating the light and dark areas of his landscape photos. One of the reasons his imagery was so powerful was because of how he masterfully controlled shadows, mid-tones, and highlights. Dodging & Burning simple post processing technique can be used to alter how the eye flows through an image. It essentially alters the light that was recorded in the original photograph by toning down highlights, brightening shadows, or vice versa.
What is Dodging & Burning?
So what does it mean to “dodge” or “burn” an image? Dodging simply refers to making an area of your image brighter while burning refers to darkening portions of your image. It’s pretty easy as a beginner to get the two mixed up. I just remember that when I burn my toast, it gets dark… therefore burning is making my image darker. Ok… that’s kinda lame but hey, whatever works!
As lansdscape photographers, we do not have the option of bringing soft boxes and reflectors to photograph a mountain range or a waterfall. We have to work with the light that is provided to us in the field. Our next best option to control light is in our post-processing workflow. I’ll briefly cover the two most popular programs but know that these tools are available in many places… even in apps on your phone.
Dodging & Burning in Lightroom & Photoshop
Dodging and burning for landscape photography in Lightroom are done with brushes. You add a brush, lower the exposure for a burning effect, and simply start painting the darkness into your image. You have to use another brush with a brighter exposure setting, to dodge areas of your image.
I prefer to do all of my dodging and burning for landscape photography in Photoshop with an overlay layer. It takes a moment to create this layer, but if you take the time to create a Photoshop action for this process, it can be quickly accessed with the click of a button. You can certainly get into more complex manipulation of the light and dark areas through Luminosity Masking, but I consider that an advanced technique to be covered sometime in another post. Let’s start with the simple one.
- Open an landscape photo you want to dodge and burn in Photoshop.
- Add a New (empty) layer.
- From Edit > Fill, select 50% gray from the Contents drop-down menu and change its blending mode to Overlay.
Type B to access brush settings and Set the opacity of the brush (not the opacity of the layer) to anywhere from 10 to 25%.
Paint with a white brush to brighten/dodge and paint with a black brush to darken/burn. You can quickly switch from dodging (white brush) to burning (black brush) by typing X.
Here is an example of a before and after the use of this simple, yet powerful technique. The Image #1 on the left is straight out of camera. The Image #2 on the right had about one minute of dodging and burning done to it.
With the opacity of the brush so low, the effect is cumulative. Start subtly and build it up as you see fit. It’s an easy way to make dramatic changes for your landscape photos, to add contrast, paths of light, and focus attention on your subject.
Here is a quick video demonstrating this simple but highly effective post processing technique for landscape photography. Sometimes it’s just easier to see it than to read it.
Have fun with your dodging and burning. It’s up to you how you want your images to be perceived.