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Correct tonal range problems in your images with the Dodge and Burn tools

Added on Monday 28th of February 2011 02:31 am EST


Adobe Photoshop CS2/CS3/CS4/CS5

Operating Systems:

Macintosh, Microsoft Windows



The tonal range of a digital image can be a wonderful thing, but when it’s too bright or too dark it can be annoying and distract from the focus of your subject. Even more frustrating is controlling tonal range in small areas of your image. We’ll show you how to use Adobe Photoshop’s Dodge and Burn tools to easily correct localized tonal range problems in your shots.


To show you how to correct tonal range problems in your images we’ll:

     Explain the meaning of tonal range to understand its effects on digital images.

     Review the function and options of the Dodge and Burn tools to know how they work.

     Use the Dodge and Burn tools to correct over- and underexposed areas in an example to see how they perform.


The tones of an image can often be a complex and intricate arrangement. When in harmony, they can strengthen and reinforce your composition. But, just as out-of-tune notes in music distract the listener’s attention, out-of-range tones in an image, as shown in Figure A, can distract the viewer. For general tonal range problems, there’s the Brightness/Contrast command in Photoshop. Although it’s perfect for correcting an entire image, it isn’t good for small, localized areas. For those, the Dodge and Burn tools are a better option. Let’s begin with a short explanation about image tones and tonal range, and then use the Dodge and Burn tools on a sample problem to see how they improve an image.




Understand the concept of image tonal range

An image has many aspects, such as hue, tint, saturation, chroma, and tone. All these terms, except tone, refer to pixel area color.


Image tones

Tone instead refers to pixel area brightness—that is the degree of dark to light an area exhibits. This means that different color areas in an image can possess the same tone, as shown in Figure B.




Image tonal range

Tonal range refers to the scope of tones that exist in an image, from the brightest to the darkest. That range can run from a pure white to a pure black, from a light gray to a dark gray, and to every variation in between.


Image tonal range adjustment

When adjusting the tonal range of an image using the Brightness/Contrast command, you adjust the entire range of the entire image. That means, for example, that if you lighten a shadow area, you also lighten the midtones and highlights as well. That may be acceptable in some cases. But if you begin to lose important detail in the highlight areas, you end up instead with a new problem. To control shadow, midtone, and highlight areas independently, apply the Dodge and Burn tools. Use the Dodge tool to lighten areas, and the Burn tool to darken them. Let’s now work on an example.


Open and examine a sample problem

Because of the position of the sun in the sky, early morning and late afternoon exterior shoots often contain deep shadows and bright highlights and need adjustment. Let’s now open such an example so we can use both tools. To follow along using our example download the file file from the URL given at the beginning of the article, and extract the file dodge_burn.png.


To examine the image for tonal problems:

1.       Launch Photoshop, navigate to and then open the dodge_burn.png file, as shown in Figure C.

2.      Inspect your image and identify the areas that you feel are too dark and too light. The sections on the left side of the urns are too light, and those under the cornice and arch are too dark. Now, let’s see just how much tonal detail is present in these areas.

3.      Select Image > Adjustment > Brightness/Contrast, and the Brightness/Contrast dialog box opens.

4.       Select the Use Legacy checkbox (not available in CS2).

5.       Move the Brightness slider to the left to a value of about -60, fo...


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