If you have been using Photoshop for any time at all, you probably know about the dodge and burn tools. They are generally among the first things we all learn when we dive into Photoshop. After all, they are a great way of adding subtle – or even dramatic – impact to an image.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of drawbacks when you dodge and burn in Photoshop. First off, they tend to alter colors in the photograph. When you burn an area of an image, there is often a slight color shift. The more you burn, the worse it gets. This can be especially problematic in areas like skin, often leaving it with an ashen appearance. It is also a destructive process. You are actually altering and damaging the underlying pixels. You can burn down an area, then attempt to dodge it back to normal, but it will never look the way it did before.

dodge and burn in photoshop - using the burn toolUsing the Burn Tool

Luckily, there is a fairly simple workaround that will give the same effect, but without the damaging side effects. I call it “Grey Layer Dodging and Burning”, and it is one of the best tips I have ever come across in Photoshop. This technique allows us to manipulate the image, but in a totally nondestructive way. At any point, we can go back and reduce the effect or even remove it completely.

The technique

Start with your favorite image in Photoshop and add a new layer by typing “Control+Shift+N” (or Command+Shift+N on the Mac). This will create a new layer, which I usually rename “Dodge & Burn”.  At the bottom of the dialog box, we will change the blending mode to “Overlay” and then click the box that says “Fill with 50% gray”.  If you look at your layers palette, there should now be a new layer above your main image, but the image should still look exactly the same. Confusing, huh?

dodge and burn in photoshop - editing photoUsing the Dodge Tool

Because the layer is in Overlay mode, the grey does not show up on the image. However, the dodge and burn effects will! Select the Dodge tool and set it to midtones and about 15% opacity. Now, begin to dodge the areas that you want to lighten – highlights on the face, catchlights, etc. By using a relatively low opacity, it will allow us to layer on the effect slowly. Next, select the Burn tool with the same settings and begin to burn down the areas that you would like to darken.

You will notice that you are able to get the desired effect without a noticeable change in color. The real beauty of this system, however, is the fact that it is on a separate layer. This way, you can mask out any of the effect you don’t want later. You can even adjust the layer’s opacity and reduce the effect overall. This is handy for those times you go a little too far with the tweaking, and then want to remove some of it.

Speed it up

If you are like me, you will probably find that you are doing this technique to just about every image – even if it is just for a subtle upgrade. It can be a real time-saver to set up a Photoshop action for the preparation steps. You will also want to figure out what opacity works best for you. Everyone has a different idea of what looks best, and you might find that a lower opacity, like 8-10%, will give a more pleasing result. Conversely, you might want to speed up the process by going with an opacity of closer to 20%. My advice would be to stick with the slower option. Rushing things in Photoshop doesn’t always yield the best results.

Want to see it in action?

If you are one of those people who prefer to learn by watching, I’ve put together a short YouTube video that will walk you through this entire process.  It is a pretty straightforward technique, but I know sometimes it helps to see the technique in action.  You can view the video here.


I think you will find that this is a very quick and easy way to add impact to your images.  Give it a try and let me know what you think!

About The Author

Since earning his Bachelor of Arts in 1992, continuing education has always been a priority for Larry. Countless art classes and photography workshops have helped to mold his style and technique. In 2001, Larry earned his Certified Professional Photographer designation from the Professional Photographers of America, followed by his Master Photographer degree is 2007.  In 2009 he became a PPA Approved Juror.

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