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Dodge & Burn

Chapter Description

Learn how to dodge and burn photographs using Adobe Photoshop. In this sample chapter from The Hidden Power of Adobe Photoshop: Mastering Blend Modes and Adjustment Layers for Photography, Scott Valentine teaches how to selectively lighten (dodging) or darken (burning) individual areas of an image to regulate exposure.

Removing Vignettes

Now that we have spent some time adding vignettes, let’s think about how to remove them. Shooting wide open on most lenses can give you some vignetting under the best of conditions, as will using a polarizer. When I first encountered this and tried removing them in Photoshop, I relied heavily on manually painting them out. As you may expect, that was neither easy nor particularly effective.


Here’s a common situation with a simple vignette.

Let’s remove it! On a blank layer above your photo (with no other effects or adjustments active), create a radial gradient that mimics the existing vignette to a reasonable extent. Start by choosing the Gradient tool (G) and the Foreground To Background preset. Hold Opt/Alt while clicking on a representative dark area of the vignette, preferably in a fairly solid area. (You may find it helpful to instead use the Eyedropper tool (I) with a larger sample size to help average out the color.) Press X to swap the foreground and background, then Opt/Alt-click near the center of the image away from the subject to sample a representative color from that area. The gradient ramp in the options bar should have the lighter center color on the left, and the corner color on the right. Remember that you’re selecting colors that you want to neutralize.

Using the Radial style, drag out from the center to the corners. For smooth vignettes, this should be pretty straightforward, but be aware that you may have to transform the gradient a bit in some cases.

Change the blending mode of the gradient layer to Divide. The background should be nearly completely white. Remember: anything divided by itself is 1, and in Photoshop that means white. Now we can mask the subject and lower the opacity of the gradient layer to blend everything.

Of course, this is a really simple example to demonstrate the idea. Things get a little more complicated when there is more texture and a bigger subject. Consider this image across San Diego Bay in California; I took it at the same time and location as the gull picture above.

In this case, the corners have clouds and some rich color, so we’ll have to be a little more careful. Instead of sampling the sky near the center of the image, let’s just leave it transparent. Select the Transparency box in the options bar, and click the gradient swatch to open the Gradient Editor. Ensure the darker corner color is on the right, with its Opacity stop set to 100%. The lighter color should be on the left, and its Opacity stop set to 0%.

Again, drag out the gradient on a blank layer so that the corners are darkened.

It turns out that a few blend modes can work, so the important thing to remember is that you want to use the sampled color to lighten the area. Modes that lighten include Screen, Soft Light, and Linear Dodge (Add). In this case, because there is more texture and a slightly saturated color, Linear Dodge works really well, with about 60% opacity (and of course masking the buildings).

Something to watch for with Divide is desaturation in the blended areas. Moderating this result usually means adding back in some color on a new layer, or reducing opacity even further. Both can have some unintended results. For clear skies, it may be more useful to try a Luminosity blend, instead. This is effective when the actual hue is relatively constant across the area that you need to correct, but varies mostly in brightness. If your scene has any clouds or other elements, they’ll have to be masked out. But let’s skip ahead to a slightly more complex situation with Luminosity.

There’s a strong vignette in this image, but no real way to isolate a color or single luminosity value to put into a gradient. In this case, I tend to use a simple black-to-white radial gradient knowing that I’ll have to do some additional corrections. The gradient layer is of course set to Luminosity, but look how washed out everything is even at 20% opacity.

The solution is to toss in some Blend If goodness using the Underlying Layer slider, then mix with a little Curves and Hue/Saturation. This operation effectively equalizes the value variation from center to corner. You can think of it like another frequency, except at a very large scale compared to the image. To negate the frequency, you hit it with a little of the opposite frequency, the radial gradient. Because the larger frequency also affects the details, those will need to be brought back.

You may be wondering about the built-in vignette controls in Camera Raw. They’re great! If you haven’t discovered them before, now would be a great time to open an image in Camera Raw. Convert your layer to a Smart Object, then choose Filter > Camera Raw Filter. The vignette slider is under the Lens Corrections tab. There is a single slider that accomplishes some of what we’ve done above.

Even faster to use than Camera Raw is Lens Correction on the Filter menu. This is applied as a destructive filter, so either duplicate your photo layer or convert it to a Smart Object before using it. After choosing Lens Correction, you will need to open the Custom tab and look in the middle of the controls selection. The Vignette slider lets you choose to lighten or darken the corners, and the Midpoint slider adjusts the shape and transition of the correction (or effect if you choose to add a vignette).

While these built-in solutions are amazing, there are situations where they are just not enough. For example, the Vignette correction sliders won’t help much with darkening only in one corner, which can happen with polarizers or shadows. It also won’t help with smoothing out linear variations as may happen with a shadow in the foreground. Using the above techniques let you have direct, precise control over myriad situations that the Camera Raw and Lens Correction filters won’t handle.

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