Dodging-Burning-Lightening-Darkening in GIMP

(Stampede) #1

This is a very common task when retouching - brightening or darkening a specific area of an image. I wonder if people can share the differences between these methods, and what to use when.

Method 1 - The Dodge/Burn Tool
The thing that confuses me about this is the highlight/shadow/midtone option with this tool. First of all, I’m never quite sure exactly where the defining line between midtones and the other tones is.

If I just want an area to be generally brighter, do I need to dodge all three tonal ranges in separate passes?

Method 2 - Painting Black or White an a separate layer. Mode: Overlay
This seems to be the easiest that I have found. I make a separate transparent top layer, set mode to “overlay” then paint with a soft brush or airbrush white or black where I want to lighten/darken it. What are advantages/disadvantages to this versus using the dodge/burn tool?

Method 3 - Gray layer set to grain merge + dodge/burn tool
This one I picked up from a youtube tutorial on retouching people’s eyes. Part of the tutorial was:

  1. Make new layer
  2. Fill layer with middle gray (#808080)
  3. Set layer mode to grain merge
  4. Dodge tool on highlights where you want to brighten
  5. Burn tool on shadows where you want to darken
  6. Dodging and burning is done on the gray “grain merge” layer

I am not sure where this method is superior or inferior to the other two, but the results look pretty good when I use them on people’s eyes.

Can anyone say what technique to use when, or what’s going on behind the scenes with these different methods?


As I have said in the other thread, use what works for you. Each tool or set of tools have their pros and cons, and limitations and bugs. Personally, I never dodge and burn; guess I never learned how to (I also have low dexterity due to pain and muscular issues). :blush: I do blend and mask, so method 2 would make the most sense for me. The neat thing about methods 2 and 3 is that you have the flexibility that layering provides; i.e., you could mask, blend (any mode) and select, and perhaps do other cool things.

(Morgan Hardwood) #3

Method 1 is great to make thing “pop”. Dodging highlights adds depth in a natural-looking way. I don’t know what numerical luminance values the pivot points between shadows, midtones and highlights have, but their names match their effects.

Use method 2 for that.


I assume that you are duplicating the layer and editing the copy. If you are not happy with the result you cannot make any corrections afterwards. Maybe throw in a mask and limit that way dodging/burning, but this is cumbersome.

Easy and you can use any shade of gray, but do you get good results? Advantage: easy to fix with middle gray paint if something goes wrong. Disadvantage: you have to paint very carefully if you want smooth transition between painted and unpainted parts of the image.

I am using this method all the time, with soft light blending mode. You can paint on it just like it is done in the Method 2 and use dodge/burn tool to build the effect gradually. If something goes somewhere wrong just paint over it with middle gray and do it again. With overlay and grain merge you get more pronounced effect / applied dodge/burn.

Method 4, can be good sometimes

  • duplicate layer twice and set blending modes to lighten only and darken only
  • use curves to lighten/darken the image
  • use masks to control the areas of effect

Method 5

  • use gmic’s local contrast enhancement or similar tool to make things pop and limit the effect with a mask

(Stefan Schmitz) #6

I admit that I am pretty useless in tweaking photos. Ideally the work is done when I press the shutter-button. After developing the RAW, I only use #1 (dodge & burn) out of that list here above. #2 and #3 are way out of my reach (I never use layers).

most skin tones are mids, eyebrows and leashes are dark, teeth and eyeballs should be bright. If I’m not sure, I just go for it and worst case I hit C-z ( ctrl-z for that tiny minority who doesn’t use emacs every day) and try another option…

(Lisa Golladay) #7

I use method 2 except with the Soft Light blend mode, which has a more subtle effect that’s easier to control. I need to experiment more with Overlay to get a better idea of how it differs for this task. A 25% soft brush at 15-20% opacity is where I start. Often I use separate layers for dodge vs burn, and I might use different layers for different parts of the image.

Sometimes I “dodge” by duplicating the image, brightening it in curves, and painting it in with a layer mask. Sometimes I “burn” by duping the image, setting the mode to Multiply, and painting on the mask. There’s probably a ton of good techniques using various blending modes and I look forward to learning more in this thread.

Even when I think a photo looks good already, a few minutes spent on d&b makes it better.

(Stefan Schmitz) #8

Please don’t take this personal, but I totally disagree. For me, every kind of post-production is a sign that I still didn’t get the picture right when pressing the shutter-button.

This is just my approach and I only do b&w portraits; things may be very different in landscape- or architecture-photography. sometimes I need d&b in order to accentuate soem contrast or features, but when a photo is good, you don’t need to do anything on it.

(Andrew) #9

I should try the above.
I’m no expert in this stuff, what I do in Gimp is -
select the area to change; expand by N pixels (thinking of a suitable width of transition area);
feather by about N pixels; Edit Copy; Edit Paste As New Layer; then working on the new layer -
use Levels or Curves to make the change. Levels seems good, adjust left or right sliders for overall light/dark plus contrast, tweak until good plus of course good transition; maybe alter saturation.

Does this sound ok?

(Lisa Golladay) #10

No worries. Everyone here has a unique eye and a different set of personal goals. We enjoy shooting different subjects under different conditions. The great thing about photography is there’s room for all of us!