Musings on Photography

Dodge/Burn is not enough

Posted in Adobe Lightroom, digital printing, photoshop by Paul Butzi on April 2, 2008

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Just this past week, Apple released a new version of Aperture, which now comes complete with a plugin that gives dodging and burning control. Today, Adobe releases into beta the next version of Adobe Lightroom, complete with (wait for it…) local dodging and burning.

And I’m here to tell you that while dodging and burning were the ‘de facto’ standard local controls in a wet darkroom, they’re not the right choice in the digital world.

In the wet darkroom, dodging and burning were strangely convoluted with the characteristic curve of the gelatin-silver paper. In the wet darkroom, the familiar S shaped curve of the characteristic curve (aka the H&D curve, or the Hurter-Driffield curve) had profound implications when we burned (increased exposure locally) or dodged (reduced exposure locally). If you burned down a shadow, you were forcing the tones in that region up onto the shoulder (highest density) portion of the curve, and so contrast would be reduced as you burned, and the more you burned, the lower the contrast got. Likewise, as you dodged the shadows, the tones would move onto the straighter portion of the curve, and contrast would increase as the tones in question moved off the shoulder.

Same thing in the highlights, but the other direction. As you dodged, things moved down onto the toe of the paper, and contrast fell. As you burned, things moved off the low contrast toe and onto the higher contrast middle portion, and contrast increased.

Sometimes those contrast changes worked to your advantage. Sometimes they didn’t, and you were forced to resort to other forms of prestidigitation to get the result you wanted. Things got easier with variable contrast paper, because you could dodge an area back during the main exposure, and then burn it in afterwards with a different contrast. In a very limited sense, using multiple contrast settings on a single print in the wet darkroom (something I did often) was equivalent to using a curve layer with a mask in Photoshop.

Every other technique (e.g. flashing, bleaching, or pouring hot developer on the print, or variable development) you might use in the wet darkroom means that you’ve started to employ tools that are much harder to control than dodging and burning. As a result, the vast majority of prints were made using the techniques of dodging and burning, and nothing else.

But it’s a mistake to think that as we move into the digital world, what we want is dodging and burning. We don’t, because dodging and burning have weak expressive power, and there’s an easy to use tool that can express every possible dodge and burn, plus a whole lot more.

That tool is called ‘curves’, and if we’re to be reduced to just one tool to do localized editing, we should run (not walk) away from dodging and burning, and instead rush to embrace curves with masks.

Let me demonstrate. When we burn an area down, we increase the ‘exposure’ and move all the affected tones down the tonal scale. This can be expressed with the following curve:
Burn

Likewise, a dodge moves all the tones UP the tonal scale, like this:

Dodge

Once we have a way to express the action of burning and dodging, all we need is a way to restrict the action of the curve to a local region – and we do that by editing the mask for the curve layer.

That’s not the imporant point, because if that was all there was to it, we be better off with the simpler interface presented by the burn/dodge concept. The important point is that we can express a lot of things with curves that we can’t easily express using burning and dodging. In particular, we can limit the effect of burning and dodging not just spatial (by using a mask) but also tonally (by putting bends in the curve).

So, for instance, if we want to lighten the shadows, but leave the highlights and mid-tones alone, we might use a curve like this:

Dodgeshadows

and if you want the mid-tones to increase in contrast, the shadows to get darker and lose contrast, and the highlights to get lighter and lose contrast (aka trade highlight and shadow contrast for mid-tone contrast), all without shifting the white point or black point, you use a curve like this:

S

The bottom line, here, is that by having curves and some way to control where on the image the curve is applied (and where it isn’t) you have the expressive power of burning and dodging, and then a whole lot more besides. There isn’t single tool I could deploy in my wet B&W darkroom that I can’t express simply and easily with curves and masks. Not a single one. Bleaching, flashing, variable contrast gradients, I can say it all with curves. And there are lots and lots of things I can express with curves and masks that were essentially impossible in the wet darkroom.

If you only get one tool, I’d suggest choosing the one that can do it all. It’s a shame that the developers of image editing software don’t see it this way.

[side note: Hurter and Driffield, the fellows who first graphically expressed the exposure/density relationship of photosensitive materials are two of my photographic heroes. Let me just close with a quote from them]

The photographer who combines scientific method with artistic skill is in the best possible position to do the good work

-Ferdinand Hurter and Vero Charles Driffield

12 Responses

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  1. prashant said, on April 2, 2008 at 10:36 am

    hi,
    have you tried tonys luminosity masks? Check it out –
    http://www.goodlight.us

  2. CMPatti said, on April 2, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    Some users of Picture Window editing software (see http://www.dl-c.com for links to some tutorials) have developed extensive procedures for using luminosity (or “tone”) masks that are extremely effective. I use them now on most images. They allow, for example, brightening shadows and increasing shadow contrast without affecting other parts of the image.

    While I agree that curves are generally the way to go, I find that there are times (usually toward the end of the editing process) when it is easier and just as effective to make a few “dodging and burning” adjustments, so I wouldn’t want to lose those tools.

  3. Dan L said, on April 3, 2008 at 7:23 am

    Wow … you sure are splitting hairs. Dodge and Burn is after all just a localized curve. Dodge & Burn doesn’t apply to the whole image as you implied. Suppose you want to lighten or darken an area of an image … with curves, you either make a precise selection using various methods and then make the curves adjustment, or you make a curves adjustment and then create a mask to apply the curves adjustment. Or … with Dodge and Burn, you make a curve/mask adjustment in one step, ie: the darkening or lightening applies only where you put it. What a simple way to add a vignette. In Photoshop there are usually four or five ways to do the same thing. Dodge & Burn is just another tool and another way to apply a simple, quick adjustment. Like all tools, it works in some situations, but not others. This is a bit like debunking the Levels command, because you can do the same thing in Curves. I agree Curves is the most powerful of the tools available and is the one I use most often, but Dodge & Burn will be a useful tool for many user. Another example: Even though you have a powerful computer, I bet you still use a handheld calculator occasionally, maybe even the simple one on your iPhone.

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  5. Paul said, on April 4, 2008 at 6:08 am

    Dan,

    Have to agree with Paul here. Dodge and Burn is, what do you call it, vestigal? I’ve used it a bit, it’s pretty horrible.

    Favorite thing to do, dodge and burn wise. Lasso tool, feather edges 100 px (for 5D pictures anyway). Select what I want to dodge or burn, or what I don’t want to (then inverse selection). Layer palet-create new curves layer. Adjust curves…done. Can do this in about 12 seconds. I don’t think the dodge and burn tool is any quicker, it looks worse, and the feathered edge selection thing is totally amazing.

    And oh yeah, you can work in non-destructive layers, change their opacities, etc, etc, etc.

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  8. Chris Beaumont said, on July 1, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    I think this article misses the point somewhat. Dan L is correct, in that the beauty of Photoshop is that there’s no one way to do something, there are frequently 4 or 5, and the skilled photographer will use all of them in the correct situations.

    Dodging and burning is an essential tool for me. If you take an image that has, for example, a person standing against some trees, and you want to apply one set of contrast adjustments to the person and another to the trees behind, attempting to get a good selection on either will take a very long time, and will most likely look quite un-natural and forced. Using the brush tool to apply a dodge and burn on both elements is much quicker and easier, and will invariably produce much more natural results.

    Paul – I would suggest perhaps that you’re using the dodge and burn tools too strongly. The tools at their default settings produce very harsh results. Have you tried reducing the amount for each tool to around 3-5%, instead of the 50% they are set to at default? Also make sure you set the dodge tool to Highlights and the burn tool to Shadows. It takes quite a long time to build up the necessary effect, but it’s much more natural looking than using selective masks. Using selective masks with feathered edges is great for certain situations, but it often produces a nasty halo-ing effect that’s not there with dodging and burning.

    As to the criticism of Apple and Adobe forcing tools into their software where they’re not wanted – both companies are highly responsive to the needs and demands of their users, and dodge and burn tools were one of the most highly requested feature-adds for the next iterations of Aperture and Lightroom.

  9. Paul Butzi said, on July 1, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    I think this article misses the point somewhat. Dan L is correct, in that the beauty of Photoshop is that there’s no one way to do something, there are frequently 4 or 5, and the skilled photographer will use all of them in the correct situations.

    Dodging and burning is an essential tool for me. If you take an image that has, for example, a person standing against some trees, and you want to apply one set of contrast adjustments to the person and another to the trees behind, attempting to get a good selection on either will take a very long time, and will most likely look quite un-natural and forced. Using the brush tool to apply a dodge and burn on both elements is much quicker and easier, and will invariably produce much more natural results.

    I’m sorry. I think you’ve missed my point. I’m not arguing that dodging and burning are bad.

    I’m arguing that the sensible, flexible, and powerful way to do dodging and burning is with masks and curve layers.

  10. Chris Beaumont said, on July 2, 2008 at 8:19 am

    Apologies, I didn’t mean to come off as rude and dismissive.

  11. Jordan said, on July 26, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    I was also confused by your statement that “dodging and burning… are not the right choice for the digital world”. I use the terms generically and have always thought of local application of Curves (with a layer mask of some sort) as simply the Photoshop extension of dodging and burning (with a lot more control).

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