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Dodging and burning is a technique as old as time – or at least as old as dark room photography. Dodging and burning refers to the addition (burning) or subtraction (dodging) of light to a certain area of a photo. Traditionally, this was done by using your hand or a piece of cardboard to block a specific part of an image while it was being exposed in the dark room under an enlarger.

It’s a technique we still use today with digital photography, but programs like Lightroom and Photoshop make the process much easier and more exact. In this tutorial, we’ll learn how to master the dodge and burn tools in Lightroom to give your portraits a more finished, contoured look without having to add any extra physical makeup or complicated lighting equipment. 

While dodging and burning affects the contrast of the image, this technique is much more targeted and subtle than simply increasing the contrast slider. For this tutorial, we’re going to leave the contrast slider at zero in order to focus solely on how we can affect the highlights and shadows just by dodging and burning. 

Start by opening your portrait in Lightroom. The first step is to identify the natural highlights and shadows that fall across you subject’s face. It’s important to add to the tones that are already there to ensure the effect looks as natural as possible. 

Click the brush tool at the top right corner of the editing box. Double click the icon that says Effect to set all of the sliders to zero. Then bring the Shadows slider all the way down to -100, and pull down the Blacks slider slightly. Scroll down and increase the Feather to around 80 and set flow to 30.

Use the [ and ] keys to adjust the size of the brush. Start with a small brush and start brushing more shadows over the darkest areas of the subject’s face. Focus on the shadows below the cheekbones, the edges of the nose and lips, the hair and eyebrows and the small indent between the bottom of the nose and the top lip. Change the size of the brush as you go along so as not to make the effect look streaky or unnatural. Use the \ key to flip between the before and after, or press Y to see a side by side view. 

Once you like the effect of the added shadows, go click New under the brush icon. Double click Effect to reset the sliders. Then pull the Highlights slider all the way up to +100 and the Whites slider up slightly. Now do what you just did with the shadows, but this time focus on the highlighted areas of the picture. Pay attention to the top of the cheekbones, underneath the eyes, the middle of the nose and forehead and the whites of the eyes. Remember to change the size of the brush as you go along to give the effect a more subtle look. 

Once you’ve dodged all of the highlights, you might notice the effect looks a little too extreme or streaky. You can adjust this by clicking on the gray button where you make your first dodge and tweaking the sliders. By pulling down the whites slightly, you’ll decrease the brightness of every stroke you made with that brush. If you want the effect to look more extreme, you can right click on a gray dot and click Duplicate. This will double the effect, and you can now adjust each layer individually with the sliders. 

If you’ve dodged or burned too much in a certain area and don’t want to take out the brightness or shadow from every section you’ve painted, you can reverse the tool to make more specific edits. Click on one of the gray dots and click Erase at the bottom of the editing box. Decrease the Flow to about 20 and start brushing over the areas of the image where you want the effect to be more subtle. 

Finally, make one last new brush and reset the sliders again. Then increase Clarity slightly and start brushing over the areas of the image that you’ve dodged and burned. Make sure you get the eyes and hair. This will make the effect look even sharper. Continue zooming in and out as you make these edits to ensure the effect looks natural and the image quality remains high. 

You can use this technique for portraits as well as landscapes, sports images or anything that needs a little bit of tweaking to the highlights and shadows.

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