Dodging and burning

Rediscover dodging and burning in black and white

Back in the days of film, a ‘straight’ black and white print was only a stepping stone. A properly finished print was almost always enhanced with some skilled ‘dodging and burning’.

Dodging and burning is a classic technique in black and white, where certain areas of a print are held back (dodged) under the enlarger to make them lighter and others are given extra exposure (burning in) to make them darker.

The technology may have changed, but these terms are still used to describe the way black and white images can be improved digitally. Whether it’s a chemical print made in a darkroom or a digital print from a desktop printer, a black and white image can be truly transformed with some creative local adjustments.

There are two parts to this. The first part is working out what needs doing, which is a purely creative decision. This can be the trickiest stage.

The second part is working out how to do it, and once you’re familiar with your software’s adjustment tools, this is relatively easy. For this we’re using Adobe Lightroom, but any software that can make localised adjustments using selections or masks can do pretty much the same things.

Dodging and burning

Our start shot is a straight black and white conversion from a RAW file. It’s pretty dull and dark, and as much proof as you need that simply converting something to black and white doesn’t instantly make it ‘creative’.

And here’s the end shot, with numbered annotations showing what was done and where.

Dodging and burning


01: The stone jetty has lots of detail and texture that needed bringing out, and the boat and shingle needed the same treatment. These areas were selected with the Lightroom Adjustment Brush (below) set to a large, soft size. Using a soft brush helps to blend in adjusted areas with their surroundings. Once this area was selected, boosting the Exposure and the Clarity gave this area the lift it needed.

Dodging and burning

02: The sky had some texture and tone, but not enough. This was fixed using the Lightroom Gradient Filter (below). The Adjustment Brush would work too. All this needed was an Exposure reduction and a Highlights slider reduction to bring down the very brightest tones. The darker sky also helps to ‘frame’ the image more effectively.


Dodging and burning

03: The darker corners and base are an important part of the composition. They add a subtle vignette effect and help focus attention on the centre of the frame. They didn’t get any special treatment – they were just deliberately left out of the Adjustment Brush selection so that they retained the darker look of the original image.

Dodging and burning is as important now for black and white images as it ever was in the darkroom, but image-editing applications make it both easier and more sophisticated. In the darkroom, the only control you had was over exposure (and maybe contrast if you used Multigrade paper and tricky filter swapping techniques), but now you can adjust exposure, contrast and clarity to achieve a much more control and creative power.

But you still need that creative ‘eye’ to know what to do.

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