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How to dodge, burn and create depth in Photoshop with soft light

(Editor’s note: In this guest post, photographer Kelly Anderson shows a simple Photoshop technique that anyone can do to lighten or darken (dodge or burn) areas in a photo. Kelly Anderson is a photographer, often gathering inspiration from music, painting, photography and dancing. See her work on kellyandersonphoto.com.)

I love Adobe Photoshop. It’s a big, wonderful whale of a program that offers something for everyone — from color management to image correction, compositing through video and 3D. Considering all of that, I have consistently been using the same simple technique over and over again for years. It is light painting using the soft light blend mode on a new layer. It is by far, my favorite Photoshop technique.

Dodging and burning

Originally, I learned to do this as a great replacement to Photoshop’s legacy dodge and burn tool. This technique can open up the shadows and/or darken the highlights with everything held on a separate layer, so no damage or change is happening to the original file information. Keep in mind that this works only when there is information in the shadows/highlights. If the shadows are reading 0/0/0 in RGB (pure black), then there’s no detail to bring out. It can still be lightened, but be careful to not go too far. The same goes with the highlights if they read 255/255/255 (pure white) in RGB.

Detail in shadows and highlights
The shadows and highlights have enough information for dodging and burning to work.

A sunrise example

This image was captured at sunrise, creating great color along with some deep shadows. I lightly opened up the shadows paying special attention to the darker areas at the bottom of the image.

I wanted this image to be dreamy, but it also needed some depth. I used soft light to burn in certain areas of the water to add some dimension.

Painting with soft light step-by-step

1. Create a new layer

Click the new layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. From the keyboard, Command + Shift + N does the trick (Win: Control + Shift + N). It’s a good idea to name the layer something other than the default “layer 1.” Burn and Dodge would work nicely.

2. Select Soft Light as the blending mode for the new layer

In the new layer window change the blending mode of the new layer from Normal to Soft Light. Check the Fill with Soft Light neutral color (50% gray) box then click OK.

3. Select the Brush Tool, size and settings

I tend to go for the Soft Round brush, but this can change depending on your image and intended outcome. In the Options bar at the top of the document window and just below the menu bar, select Normal for the Brush’s blending mode. I recommend starting with the brush opacity low (around 13%). A little painting on this layer can go a long way. Hover over the area to be lightened. Press the bracket keys ([]) until the brush diameter covers the area to be dodged.

4. Select the default foreground and background colors

The keyboard shortcut is D. Or by clicking once on the two small black and white boxes above the color choices. They are near the bottom of the toolbar. The color on top (aka foreground color) will be used while painting. When the color is black, you’re ready for burning. When it’s white, you’re ready for dodging. Quickly switch back and fourth between white and black by clicking the double arrows above the boxes or use the shortcut Q.

5. Start painting as needed and have fun

I painted with white over the ice to dodge (lighten) it. When doing this technique, remember that 13% is not a lot. If the effect isn’t enough, continue painting over the area until it looks right to you. It’s your photo! Don’t worry about being precise with edges and lines. It’s normal at this time to see where you have dodged and burned in areas.

6. Blur layer 1, the Soft Light layer

Here’s how to smooth the edges of the dodging and burning. Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur … A radius of around 30 will work for smoothing most painting. Adjust it according to the preview to be sure. The higher the radius the more likely the subtle dodges and burns will be lost.

Since your painting is done on a separate layer, the blur does not alter your original image. This is a visual adjustment of the bright and dark areas. Typically the more painting you’ve done, the more blur you’ll need.

7. Save your photograph with the layers

Choose File > Save as … (Command + Shift + S for Mac or Control + Shift + S for Windows) then select Photoshop as the format. With the layers saved, you can go back and make changes if you want to.

Soon after learning this technique, I went a little further and started to use soft light painting as a tool to create more depth in certain images. Much of my photography tends to be straight from the camera. But, I do believe most images can benefit from a little love in Photoshop, especially before printing.

The opening photo is an abstract macro image of ice on a window (from the inside looking out). I was really attracted to the natural design and color in the scene. The layers of ice were creating multiple blues, and an oak tree outside of the window added a nice brown contrast. So, I painted with soft light and worked on bringing out the multiple layers of ice, emphasizing the design that was already in place.

The examples I have showed you here focus on landscape and abstract, but soft light painting can be used on any kind of image. I’ve used it to quickly brighten eyes and teeth, along with any image needing a little shadow or highlight love.

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