dodging and burning

Dodging and burning are both methods of localized density control: dodging reduces density locally, while burning increases it. An area that is too dark is lightened; an area that is too light is darkened. Masking, which is also covered in this module, is a closely related technique. With variable-contrast paper (see free glossary and the paid for module on paper grades) you can also adjust contrast locally.

Dodging and burning are, in a sense, mirror images of one another. If you burn all but one part of an image, you are in effect dodging the part you don't burn -- and vice versa. Usually, dodging is done during a single exposure, and is rarely for more than one-third of the overall exposure, or at most one-half: it may be for as little as ten per cent. Burning, on the other hand, is often done in steps: a base exposure, plus one or more localized 'burn' exposures, usually at one, two or even three stops more than the base exposure.

Although they can be used to a limited extent in colour, both are best suited to black and white printing.

Back roads, Gozo

Although it does not look like it, this is quite heavily dodged, as described below. Roger shot it on 6x7 cm Ilford HP5 Plus using a Graflex XL with an 80/2.8 Rodenstock lens and a mild yellow filter.


On the left is a straight print; on the right, the ploughed field has clearly been burned in somewhat. The lighthouse in the distance is however almost invisible against the clouds.



On the left, the sky has now been burned in as well. A small cut-out black paper mask was laid over the lighthouse on the hill, so it was not burned in. Note how the burning goes down into the hills, slightly, as a darkened edge to the hill is less obvious than a bright edge of sky all along the horizon. On the right, the tower and the wall behind it have been very slightly burned in too, so the only areas to have received the base exposure are the centre one-third of the image minus the tower and wall, and the lighthouse on the hill. 

why dodge and burn?

There are at least four reasons for dodging and burning. First, they can create a more natural impression than simply compressing a long brightness range onto the paper. Second, they can be used to suppress unwanted detail. Third, they can be used to draw attention to things. And fourth, they can be used to add drama or improve composition.

1  how the eye works

Dodging and burning often give a more natural impression than adjusting the tonal range of the subject (see the free module on subject brightness range) to suit the paper. This is because of the way the human eye works. When we scan a scene, our eyes constantly adjust to suit the brightness of the area we are looking at: the iris opens up to give us more detail in a dark area, and closes down so we are not overwhelmed by a bright area.

A still camera, of course, cannot do this, so it must either over-expose the bright areas (which normally looks very nasty indeed) or under-expose the dark areas (which may or may not work).

By dodging and burning we can bring both the light areas and dark areas closer to the density of the middle tones, and if we do it well, the manipulation should appear natural.

It is also worth remembering that the human eye is much more sensitive to variations in density in the high tones than in the low tones; variations in log density as small as 0.01 may be visible in the lightest tones, while variations of 0.10 or more may pass unnoticed in the dark areas.


Tug, Ramsgate

In a straight print the hull of the tug is close to a solid black, but dodging lightens it to the point where it looks a lot more convincing: much closer to the way the eye saw it. This is one of Roger's first shots on 120 Fuji Acros, using his Alpa 12 WA with Zeiss 38/4.5 Biogon and shooting on 44x66mm format.

2  suppressing unwanted detail

If there is an unusually dark area in a light area, or (more usually) an unusually light area in a dark area, they can be suppressed by dodging (lightening the dark area until it is no longer as obtrusive) or burning (darkening the light area until it is no longer as obtrusive). Dodging and burning can also be used to make a mid-tone lighter or (more usually) darker than it is in a non-manipulated print, thereby throwing the principal subject(s) into better relief.

Girl on a train

The window-frame behind the girl's head has been burned heavily in order to minimize its obtrusiveness, but burning it down completely so that her head merged with the background was less successful. The unburned version is shown below for comparison. Roger used a 75/2.5 Voigtländer Color Skopar on either an M-series Leica or (more likely) a Bessa-R, shooting on Ilford Delta 3200 at 3200.


3  drawing attention to something

The second approach above is very much akin to the use of dodging and burning to draw attention to the important part(s) of the image, by increasing the way it stands out against a light or dark background.

4  adding drama/improving composition

The fourth reason to use dodging and burning is simply to bring the picture closer to your heart's desire. The sky is a bit dull? No problem: burn it in. One corner is a bit light? Easy. Someone's eyes are shaded? Fine.

The important thing to remember here is that you don't have to reproduce what was there. Rather, you can print what you wish had been there, or what you felt was there but which didn't really come out on film in quite the way you had hoped.

overdoing it and underdoing it

It can sometimes be difficult to be bold enough in dodging and burning, because you remember what it 'really' looked like. Try not to let this worry you too much. On the other hand, if dodging and burning is too obvious in a picture -- for example, if there are haloes around things -- it can detract from the image. Some people are more worried about haloes than others, and a few even seem to like the beastly things. As far as we are concerned, if you can see a halo, it normally means that the photographer got it wrong at the taking stage.


Arnolfini, Bristol

Roger shot this and printed it (badly) in the 1970s. The halo is awful -- but some people seem absolutely indifferent to such incompetence, and even hail it as good printing (though not, surely, in this case). Nikon F; 58/1.4 Nikkor; Ilford HP5 pushed mercilessly to about EI 1600 in Ilford Microphen. Today he would look for a lot more shadow detail, rating HP5 Plus at maybe 650 or Delta 3200 at 3200.

the diagrams in magazines

Some of the dodging and burning diagrams that you see in books and magazines are really off-putting: hopelessly complicated, with endless different zones of dodging and burning.

Don't panic. In the first place, many pictures benefit greatly from very simple dodging and burning in just one or two places. In the second place, if you do want or need to do more, it comes naturally. You think, "Well, I'll just hold this bit -- and burn a little more here -- but hold that back" and before you realize it, your plot for dodging and burning is every bit as complex as anything you see in a magazine. It's just that when you work it out for yourself, and do it step by step, it's a lot easier than trying to read someone else's diagram.

Be alive, too, to the possibility that they are either showing off -- "Look how clever I am", which we have always thought was a pretty stupid way of trying to teach other people -- or they took a look at their original example; decided it was too simple; and therefore went for something more complicated. The truth, as we have already said, is that a great deal of dodging and burning is, indeed, pretty simple.

dodging and burning in colour

As already noted, dodging and burning in colour are exactly the same as in black and white except that colour variations -- shifts in hue and saturation -- soon become evident if the dodging and burning are overdone.


Chonor Lodge, Dharamsala

The screen on the left is woefully dark and there is not much detail under the table in the centre. A little dodging -- this is from a 6x9cm Kodak Portra NC negative -- soon restored matters. Frances used her Alpa 12 S/WA with her 35/5.6 Rodenstock Apo-Grandagon for this picture.


Many printers use only their hands for dodging and burning, but other tools include pieces of cardboard or paper, cut or torn to size or with holes in, and 'wands', thin pieces of wire or something similar with the actual dodging tool on the end: a disc, a triangle or a square of black card, or even a ball of cotton wool. The last has the advantage that it automatically shades off at the edges, even without movement.

Ku Klux Klan costume

The difference is subtle but should be visible -- and subtlety is what successful dodging and burning should be about. This was actually done in Adobe Photoshop, which often produces a slight colour shift in dodging and burning. The wall was burned in quite heavily; the very bottom of the robe, lightly. In a 'wet' darkroom it would probably be easiest to burn in three stages, using your hands or a piece of paper torn roughly to shape: a good supply of cheap black sugar-paper is an excellent resource, but watch out for dust if you tear it to shape. After making the base exposure, stage 1 would be burning one side; stage 2, the other side (for the same length of time); and stage 3, the bottom. Nikon F, 35-85/2.8 Vivitar Series 1 on Ilford XP1.


The easiest way to make a 'wand' is with a piece of stiff wire about a foot (30cm) long: strong enough to hold the tool on the end, but not so thick that it casts a significant shadow of its own. The wire can be straight or curved: some people find curved wires easier, as they can see the area being shaded while still holding the wire comfortably. A little loop at the handle end of the wire serves the double purpose of stopping it turning in your hands and providing a means of hanging it up. To secure the actual tool or mask, use tape; or thread the wire through two slits; or bend a little coil to hold the tool in place.

A 'wand' can be held at various angles, so that a circle can be round or an oval of any shape; a square can be a rectangle; and of course you can hold it at different angles. You need two or three different sizes for convenience, but you don't need as many sizes and shapes as you might think. If you keep a piece of black card in the darkroom you can always cut a new bit in a few seconds anyway.

Bar, Mokelumne Hill, California

A small rectangle of paper on the end of a piece of wire makes an excellent dodging wand for lightening such areas as the top right of the picture (around the flag and 'Main Street') and the elegant 1920s cupboards (probably an ice chest) below the mirror. We cannot over-emphasize the point that much of the most successful dodging and burning is very subtle. Roger used a 21/4.5 Zeiss Biogon on an M-series Leica, shooting on Ilford XP1.


The basic technique in all sorts of dodging and burning except masking (see below) is to keep the tool moving so you don't get unduly hard edges and so that with a wire handle you don't get a shadow of the wire. The height at which you hold the mask affects the softness of the transition from masked to unmasked (the penumbra) so this is a variable you can control too. A thin wire is easier to wobble during the exposure as well as casting a smaller shadow.

Catacombs, Bingemma, Malta

Frances shot these early Christian catacombs on Ilford XP2, but in a straight print the overhang is far too dark and the foreground is far too light. She therefore had to dodge the upper part during the initial exposure, holding it back for maybe one-third of the initial exposure time, then burn in the foreground for twice or three times as long as the base exposure. Nikkormat, 35/2.8 PC-Nikkor.


A mask is merely a dodging tool that is cut to shape and size. It can be a 'hard mask' (in contact with the print, giving a hard edge) or a 'soft mask' that is suspended above the print, either hand held (and quite possibly moved during the exposure) or supported in some way: on film canisters, matchboxes, whatever.

cutting masks

A hard mask can with advantage be cut using a work-print as a template, but an easy way to make a soft mask is to hold the black card above the baseboard at whatever you reckon will be a convenient working height (support it with a few film canisters or a book if you like); turn on the enlarger; and draw around the out-of-focus image on the black card. The image above the baseboard will of course be smaller than the image on the baseboard, and cutting the soft mask like this solves the problem automatically.

combination printing

With two masks, you can print two negatives sequentially on the same piece of paper. The classic application is replacing an empty or 'bald' sky with one that is more interesting, but some photographers use it for all kinds of other purposes, adding figures to a landscape or putting together tableaux that never existed in real life: a sort of forerunner of Adobe Photoshop, and subject to exactly the same strictures about what looks believable and what doesn't.

Sarre Mill

Frances's shot of Sarre Mill (Linhof Super Technika IV, 105/3.5 Schneider Xenar, 6x7cm Ilford FP4) has a certain bleak charm but the almost empty sky is dull and the windmill does not stand out very much. Roger's sky shot was taken purely for combination printing, using the same kit and a red filter.

In the composite shot the windmill is much more the centre of attention. The first exposure was of the whole windmill negative; the second, of the sky negative with the bottom masked off with a strip of cardboard, kept in motion for the whole exposure. Frances deliberately created a light area near the horizon, without heavy cloud (compare it with the cloud shot) in order to throw the mill into relief. Because the windmill shot was essentially a silhouette anyway, this was a very easy composite image.

local contrast adjustment

If you are using variable contrast (VC) paper, you may find that one area of the print would benefit from being printed at a different contrast from another. Sometimes it is sufficient to do an overall base exposure at one contrast grade, then burn in using a lower contrast grade (more rarely, a higher one): skies can be particularly rewarding when done this way. At other times you may find it more useful to cut masks and treat the whole exercise almost like a combination print (see above).

the bottom line

Like so many other things in the photo school, dodging and burning are not difficult: it's mostly a matter of self-confidence, and getting around to it. You have to be willing to 'waste' a certain amount of paper on your way to making the best possible print, but of course the simple truth is that it isn't 'wasted' -- it's a very cheap way of learning to print better. As Bob Carlos Clark memorably said, "You go on re-making the print until you make one that isn't as good as the previous one" -- and there are few if any better printers than Bob Carlos Clark.

Go to the list of modules

or go to the home page

or support the site with a small donation.

© 2006 Roger W. Hicks