Dodging and burning to creatively lighten and darken areas within a photo is a technique essentially as old as photography itself. In the digital darkroom we now have many ways in which we can make dodging and burning types of adjustments.


Before making creative adjustments.


After creative adjustments including dodging and burning to creatively darken and lighten specific areas within the image.

Many years ago I learned the Photoshop technique of dodging and burning areas of an image by painting with white (to lighten) and black (to darken) using a blended 50% gray layer. In a previous PhotoCascadia article I demonstrated the 50% gray layer technique and why it is a better option than using the Dodge and Burn tools within Photoshop. That article gives a great lead in to the techniques in this article. In this article I will expand on the 50% gray dodge/burn technique and share a simple way to get even more control with this type of adjustment.

For some time I have known that dodging and burning on a 50% gray layer set to the Overlay blending mode would give results that differ from dodging and burning on a 50% gray layer set to the Soft Light blending mode. I would choose one or the other depending on what looked better. More recently I realized that one blending mode is often more suited to dodging and the other is often more suited to burning. By separating my dodging and burning on to two different layers I can get the best results from each of the two blending modes and have the greatest control over my dodging and burning.

Both the Soft Light and Overlay blending modes lighten light tones and darken dark tones while blending the 50% mid-tone transparently. That’s why a 50% gray layer becomes invisible when it is set to Overlay or Soft Light. However, Soft Light and Overlay shift the dark and light tones differently.

The Soft Light blending mode shifts the tones towards the lights and the darks less aggressively than the Overlay blending mode. Lightening and darkening with the Soft Light mode will create a lower contrast dodge and burn, and using the Overlay blending mode will create a higher contrast dodge and burn.

Basic Gradiant

Normal Mode

Soft Light 2

Soft Light Mode – Moderate tonal shift from the mid-tones to the darks and lights.


Overlay Mode – More aggressive tonal shift from the mid-tones to the darks and lights.

Depending on your intentions and the characteristics of the tones in the image it is fine to dodge or burn with either blending mode.

However, I have found that in many cases that dodging (painting white) on a 50% gray Overlay layer lightens while maintaining good contrast in the lightened areas. Painting white on a 50% gray Soft Light layer tends to lighten with a loss of contrast giving a very washed out or faded effect.

Similarly, I have found that most often I like the effect of painting black on a 50% gray Soft Light layer to darken. This does a good job of darkening mid-tones while preserving some of the highlights and not over darkening the shadows. Painting black on a 50% gray Overlay layer tends to darken too aggressively resulting in a dull, flat, over darkened effect.

It is quite challenging to explain or visualize these concepts in writing so I produced the following short video tutorial to take you through the steps of setting up the separate dodge/burn layers and show how to use them. Make sure to watch the video at the highest resolution (720p).  I think you will find this dodge/burn technique will be a great addition to your workflow.

Finally, I’ll mention that this Overlay/Dodge and Soft Light/Burn technique can also be used in combination with Tony Kuyper’s Luminosity Painting technique. I briefly demonstrate Luminosity Painting at the end of the video in my previous dodge and burn article. For those who have The Complete Guide to Luminosity Masks videos you can also find a complete tutorial on this technique in segment #31 Localized Adjustments – Luminosity Painting.

For more image developing instruction you can visit If you have comments or questions about this topic make sure to join the discussion in the comments section below.

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