Dodging and burning is an easy and effective way to make portions of your image lighter or darker.
So why is it so confusing to understand how it works?
Because the terminology comes from the old darkroom days when processing photos was a two stage process. First we made the NEGATIVE by exposing the film to light. Just like when you make an image in your digital camera today, adding more light, or more exposure, makes the image lighter.
More light = lighter
But then there was the second step: making the print, which is a POSITIVE. Everything is the opposite of making the negative. The photographic paper starts off being white and when light is added it becomes darker depending on how much light gets through the negative.
More light = darker
The dodge and burn technique is something we used to do when making the positive. Therefore, dodging light (i.e. using less light) makes a portion of your image lighter and burning light (i.e. using more light) makes a portion of your darker.
No wonder it’s confusing!
I’ve noticed that some post processing software is changing the terms dodge and burn to lighten and darken, which makes more sense if you’ve never used film or made prints the old fashioned way.
But then it might still be confusing since there are so many ways to make portions of your image lighter or darker. There is contrast, which makes the lights lighter and the darks darker. There is highlights and shadows which makes the lights darker and darks lighter. Adding “lighten” and “darken” to this mix probably seems confusing too!
Essentially dodge and burn lightens or darkens the image where you say so, regardless of whether that section would be considered a light or a dark tone in the grand scheme of things.
This demonstration should help shed some light on the situation (haha, sorry):
You can do this technique in most image editing programs, but I have used Lightroom and Luminar in the demo. I prefer to use Luminar since it seems to retain more detail than Lightroom.
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And, if you’re interested in checking out Luminar, which is now my favourite image editing tool, you can get a free trial here.
Also, you can get $10 off Luminar by using the coupon code MCKINNELL.