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Burn Tool / Dodge Tool

Convincing light and deceiving shadows...

Burn Tool Dodge Tool Bringing light and shadow into flat images can be a challenging thing to do convincingly. The burn tool and the dodge tool are both designed to help you accomplish this task in a realistic and believable way.

As long as you follow some basic guidelines, you'll have no trouble creating images with real depth. But what are those guidelines? Read on for the simple guide to authentic shadow and light.

The use of the dodge and burn tools is discussed specifically in the second half of the article, after the information which is essential to using them well!

Light Source and Direction

It doesn't matter whether you're trying to make deceiving shadows to add depth where there was none, or make a dim day more convincingly bright, you must always consider where the light is all coming from.

Consider the following image, it's a very flat image, clearly defined in 2D.

No Light

We all know internally that it's true, but putting your finger on the reason why it looks that way can be tricky. It's all to do with light!

Even if an object is plainly colored, our eye can still gather information on it which gives us depth perception. Apart from the shape of the object and its perspective, variations in the light on the object, and the shadows it casts on other objects give us a natural idea of its depth.

These variations in brightness must be sensible to our eye however. Consider the image below now, after having the dodge and burn tools used on it:

Random Light

Because the highlights and lowlights are not structured, there is still no sense of depth. The surface looks a little shiny if anything, but that was not the desired effect.

Now consider the final image below, with less random highlighting. Exactly the same tools have been used, but this time in a structured way:

Structured Light

The dodge and burn tools have been used to pick out the edges of the shapes. The shadows correlate with one another, they are all on one side, and the lights do the same.

The important thing to note is that you can immediately see where the light source is. In the second image you can't tell, but in this image it is clearly coming from the top left. Because your eye can make sense of the light, it can perceive the depth.

Below this is illustrated with a figure. The unlit figure looks flat. The figure on the right has been enhanced with the dodge tool and the burn tool, to give him light and shadow around his edges. Again you can quite quickly see that the light is coming from the right of the picture.

Light and Shadow

The effect clearly brings out the second image.

So now that you know light and shadow must have clear source and direction, you can go on to learn about using the dodge and burn tools to achieve this.

Which One's Which?

The first thing to note is which tool does what. The dodge tool lightens an image, and the burn tool makes it darker. This means that the dodge tool can bring out details in shadowy parts of an image, and the burn tool can bring out detail in over exposed image parts or highlights.

Burn Tool Burn Tool
Dodge Tool Dodge Tool

Basic Usage and Options

The tools function just like the brush tool. Select either of the tools, and a similar option bar will appear at the top. Firstly select the type of brush shape you wish to use. You can use any shape brush, but I find mostly the default brushes and sometimes the square ones are most useful.

One thing to consider is how hard or soft you want the brush edge to be. If you want a very gradually noticeable effect then perhaps a soft brush edge is suitable, to fade in the alteration. On the other hand sometimes a hard edged shadow can add definition and substance to an image.

Once you have selected the brush shape, and changed the size if necessary, you are left with the two options specific to the dodge and burn tools, Range and Exposure.

Range is probably the hardest setting to use effectively. Many people just leave it set at Midtones and forget about it, but the image below shows how it can be useful:

Dodge and Burn Range Setting

The three lines were made by the burn tool, set to 100% exposure, but each with a different range. The top used Shadows, the middle Midtones, and the bottom Highlights. Notice how only the bottom burn has affected the white part of the image, because this was the only one set to influence the highlight tones.

The range decides which tones in the image the tool will effect, the darkest, lightest, or most average parts. For many jobs, leaving the tools set to Midtones will serve you fine, but occasionally it pays to know how to change this.

Finally the Exposure setting is just like setting the Opacity for a brush. It decides how strong the effect of the burn tool or the dodge tool is.


It is sometimes a good technique to use low exposures for these tools, and make several strokes. It gives you more control over exactly how much alteration you apply, and where you apply it. Don't be afraid to give it several goes, using the undo feature until you're happy it looks natural.

Another good point, less is often more! The human eye can make phenomenally precise distinctions between colors and shades, so don't make it to obvious! Subtle use of these tools almost always wins. Many of the examples I've used on this page have been exaggerated, to prove a point, but delicate and conservative application of these tools often gives the most realistic and believable effect.

Finally I remind you again of the most important point, decide on your light source and direction. Remember the images below, and the success achieved when we used a consistent light pattern.

From Flat to 3D

I hope this tutorial has been of use to you. If you want free advice like this delivered straight to your inbox, then subscribe to my Free Monthly Newsletter for great tips and techniques.

Kind Regards

Robert Redwood Robert Redwood - Bio
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A page about the Burn Tool and the Dodge Tool

Photoshop Elements