Dodging and Burning Using Adobe Lightroom

Dodging and Burning Using Adobe Lightroom

The art of dodging and burning using Adobe Lightroom has been made massively easier with the introduction of masking tools.

In this post we’re going to cover dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening) using the tools available in Adobe Lightroom alone. There are other ways to go about this in Photoshop that I will write about in the future.

The photograph has not been chosen for its artistic merit – there is no obvious focal point. But it does offer a clean separation between three areas we might want to treat very differently.

The History of Dodging & Burning

Dodging and Burning owes its name to lab processes back in the day when tools of varying opacity were used to alter the amount of light that was reaching a print in the developing stage. Remember that in film, the dark/light areas are reversed so the process shines light through an enlarger onto photosensitive paper.

By doing this areas of the image could be less exposed or more exposed in the print than in the RAW negative.

The most famous exponent of dodging and burning is probably Ansel Adams, who used it to give depth and texture to his prints, utilising his zone system. His books, “The Negative” and “The Print” offer insight into the system that is useful for digital photographers today.


A card or other opaque object is held between the enlarger lens and the photographic papers that the amount of light hitting the portion of the scene that needs to be lighter, is reduced. Since the technique is used with a negative-to-positive process, reducing the amount of light results in a lighter image.


Firstly, the print is normally exposed. Then, extra exposure is given to the area or areas that need to be darkened. A card or semi-opaque object is held between the enlarger lens and the photographic paper in such a way as to allow light to fall only on the portion of the scene to be darkened.

Using a static object would result in hard edges so photographers use a technique similar to a brushing action where the card is moved, so that the edges receive less light than the centre.

What is Dodging & Burning for?

Dodging and Burning are techniques that allow the photographer to draw the eye to areas of the photograph that are important. Our brains are wired to be attracted to light areas in a photograph so these can be emphasised to draw the attention to whatever area the photographer wants to emphasise.

Also Dodging and Burning can be used to selectively add contrast to certain areas of the image, building on what appears in the RAW file in order to remain authentic. If this is done badly, for example by disregarding the direction of natural light in a landscape, many people won’t know specifically what is wrong, the photograph just seems ‘wrong’.

Dodging and Burning Using Adobe Lightroom

My aim here is to illustrate how Dodging and Burning work in Lightroom. I have a preference for realism in my pictures that is not necessarily shared by everyone. Editing is a subjective thing, and we all have our own ideas about the look we are trying to achieve. This is not therefore a recipe to create perfect images, it’s a guide and an illustration of how the tools in Lightroom map onto the practice of Dodging and Burning.

The photograph was shot early in the morning. Take a look at the RAW file straight out of the camera.

RAW file
RAW File straight out of the Camera (cropped)


In this picture, we see the effect of a low sun outside the right of the frame, burning through the early morning mist, a row of trees on a ridge cross the screen from left to right, outlined against some low clouds. The hills in the distance are very hazy and the foreground is slightly underexposed.

We want to draw the viewer to the trees on the ridge.

Lightroom gives us two ways of doing this.

Firstly by adding global contrast to the image which will bring out the natural differences between light and shadow in the picture as shot.

Secondly we can apply dodging and burning to selected areas by making local adjustments using Masks.

Stage One – Global Adjustments

Global adjustments - contrast, crop, colour temp

The first thing I did was crop the image to a 16 x 9 ratio. The sky is featureless so it adds nothing to the story which is essentially about the way clouds in the valley provide a backdrop for the trees on the ridge.

We need to get the balance between the overlit background and the underlit foreground right. This is done in three stages and each of these stages may need tweaking to make them appear consistent. The issue here is that you’re adjusting one part of the image at a time and so a ‘correct’ adjustment made during the first pass, may not look perfect once the other steps have been taken. So this very much an iterative process.

Add a little warmth to the whole image, (5,767) just enough to convey the impression that the early morning sun is warming the land. It’s important not to overdo this.

A touch of global contrast (+29) to emphasise the trees in the centre against the cloud

Stage Two – Masked Adjustments

In this stage, we’re going to use masks to apply different effects to three sections of the picture, the Sky, the hazy middle ground and the trees in the foreground. If you’re interested in more detail about the range of masks available in Lightroom, check out Using Masks in Lightroom.


Masked adjustments on sky
Masked Adjustment on Sky

Here we create a mask using the sky tool, reduce the exposure and increase the contrast a touch to give us a little less distraction from the cloud in the top right corner.

Middle Ground

We need to bring the middle ground into the image a little more. Our global contrast has brought the foreground into sharp relief but the middle ground looks a little lost.

The mask is based on a colour range taken from a patch of light yellow, then refined to exclude the yellows in the foreground. Note that the cloud is not selected.

Colour Range mask on mid ground
Mask with a Colour Range

We then apply a small amount of Dehaze on the mask – this has the effect of clarifying the background and as a result, showing some of the clouds that were previously lost in the haze. You should be careful with Dehaze as it can affect the colours – my aim is to retain a realistic look to the image.

Dehaze on Colour Range leaving clouds intact
Dehaze Background keeping clouds intact


Colour Range Mask

We use another Colour range selection, this time choosing a sample of the greens. This also selects some of the middle ground so we use the Subtract brush to reduce the selection to the foreground only.

So, we have seen how to use masks to support darkening and lightening of sections of the image. Because we are working with masks, we have a number of ways to adjust the picture.

Finishing off the Image

Dodging and Burning Using Adobe Lightroom

Once I have the balance right between each zone in the image, I’ll emphasise the highlights very slightly where the sun is striking the ground. This is a subtle way of introducing more contrast into the picture and makes the foreground a little more interesting (in my opinion).

Some images benefit from a lot of editing, but by no means all. I have many images in my portfolio that were wholly edited in Lightroom. Using the more sophisitcated tooling should only be done if the picture benefits from it.

It’s very easy to overedit, partly because your eyes get used to incremental edits very quickly. I make a point of taking a break between the local edits and the finishing off. Its amazing how often I’ll find myself going several steps back in the process because I’m viewing it with fresh eyes.

The example in this image is the clouds behind the ridge. The contrast picked up a little too much to be realistic, clouds should have soft outlines so I backed off on that control and then warmed up the whole scene.

Adjusting Individual Masks

This is non-destructive editing which means that we can adjust the effects we’re applying to the masks as we go along.

Firstly there is an effect slider on the mask dialogue itself that can be used to adjust the intensity of the mask.

Secondly if you need to radically intensify the effect of the mask, you can simply duplicate it. This causes the effect to be applied twice. You can then use the effect slider on the second mask to fine tune the effect between what you needed to alter and the effect of doubling it up.


Thanks for reading this article, I hope it’s been useful. As I mentioned earlier in the text, there is also an article that covers the other uses of Masks called Using Masks in Lightroom.

I’ll be publishing ‘How To’ articles much more regularly from now on – I’m aiming for once a week with at least three “How to”s a month. some of these articles will be drawn from my Introduction to Landscape photography course, others will cover more advanced techniques which may go on to feature in other courses. Many of these articles will be accompanied by a video which will appear on YouTube channel, particularly those videos that I feel could be enhanced by more words!

Whatever the case, the content gets published here first!

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