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How to dodge and burn portraits in Lightroom

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How to dodge and burn in Lightroom: it’s easier than you might think.

Dodging and burning is commonly used to create depth and contrast in photos. It’s an easy way to amplify and enhance portraits too!

I first learned how to dodge and burn portraits in my high school darkroom. It involved tight quarters, a lot of chemicals, and a steady hand to make sure the photo wasn’t ruined in the process.

Dodging and burning is a long-time photography phrase dated back to darkroom developing.

The development process was simple: the photographer would use light (or the absence of light) to make a portion of the photo print either lighter or darker.

But today, dodging and burning is a lot easier and quicker with digital photography and Lightroom.

Why dodge and burn photos?

While it’s not an absolute necessity when it comes to editing photos and portraits, dodging and burning can help enhance a photo in many ways.

First, it can deepen shadows or lighten areas to create more well-rounded tones in your images. Dodging and burning can help fix problem areas in your photos due to common lighting mistakes.

Secondly, it can add more contrast and intensify the overall look and light of your photo. Basically, dodging and burning can help polish the look of your images.

Selective dodge and burn techniques can take a flat image and turn it into a work of art.

dodge and burn after lightroom


Where to dodge and burn in your photos

Before you start grabbing Lightroom brushes and going to town on your photos, it’s important to understand where to dodge and where to burn.

Generally speaking, you’ll want to dodge (lighten) faces in portraits and burn (darken) backgrounds and shadows to create depth.

You can see in the example above where the dodging and burning takes place. The overall area of the face is lightly lightened, while the edges of the image and certain shadow areas are burned.

This is how you can increase depth and visual interest in your photos. It’s as simple as darkening some areas and lightening others.


Step-by-step to dodge and burn

Before dodging and burning, it’s important to visualize where you will be doing this technique in your photos.

In this photo, I want the background to be darkened and the face of the child to remain bright.

The first thing we can to do is to apply basic edits, presets, and adjustments.

By using a Lightroom preset, increasing the shadows and blacks in the Lightroom basic panel, more depth was created.

But, we can still do more.

Brighten skin with brushes

When editing portraits, you will want to enhance the brightness of the face while still maintaining good exposure, without blowing out any highlights.

In order to lighten the face area properly, apply a dodge brush where it’s needed.

Applying a dodge brush over the facial region will separate it even more from the background and allow it to stand out.

dodge brush lightroom

In this case, a subtle increase of exposure applied over the face helped it pop more without blowing out any details.

This also helped make the eyes pop and “sparkle” from the natural catch lights.

Dodge other places that need more light

Now that the face and eyes look great, we can now focus on other areas of the photo.

Since this is a portrait, we want to make sure that the focus is on the face and that includes the hair. Dodging part of the hair will help it stand out and have more texture as an end result.

Select “new” to create a new brush and apply it over the part of the hair that you’d like to stand out.

In this case, I applied it to the parts where the light naturally fell on the subject to help it stand out more and add contrast.

I ended up using 2 different brush strokes to go over an area twice, without blowing out other parts of the hair.

Adding depth to the face

Can can add more depth and contrast to the face when you also utilize burning.

To apply a burn brush, select a “new” brush and adjust your exposure settings. The settings will vary from photo to photo, so setting it at a lower number is a good place to start.


Here, I applied a burn brush to the natural contour of the face, including the scratch on his cheek.

This helps emphasize a more natural look and shadows to your portraits.

With the mask overlay turned on, you can see where the brush strokes are applied. The cheeks where the shadows are naturally falling and the bridge of the nose.

dodge and burn lightroom brushes

You can even take it a step further and add more brush strokes to other areas on the face such as the outside of the eyes and facial marks.

You can also add a slight burn brush to freckles, eyeliner, and eyebrows for a more dramatic effect.

before and after lightroom brushes

It might not seem like a huge difference at first, but dodging and burning on the face can really help the facial features stand out better.

Notice how these is more contour and shape of the face now.

The finishing touches

Now that the face looks great in this portrait, I want to work on the background.

I want to get rid of the clutter and distracting objects in the background, so a burn brush is a must!

Like before, you can adjust the amount of the exposure for your brushes.

In this case, this calls for a darker brush to remove all of the distracting objects in the background.

I applied it to the top corners of the background, then went ahead to blend it with the foreground with another lighter burn brush.

This creates a more gradual gradient look that blends better and looks more natural.

before and after dodge and burn in lightroom

Again, it’s a subtle difference, but now the objects in the background are no longer visible (which makes me a very happy photographer).

Prefer to learn by watching?

Here’s a quick and simple tutorial to show you how to dodge & burn in Lightroom.

Above all, using dodging and burning to edit your portraits will subtly enhance your final results.


Want to learn how to master Lightroom?

Watch more Lightroom tutorials on my Youtube channel or view them right here on the blog.

New to Lightroom Presets?

Check out this post to help get you started and make sure you download your FREE starter set here!

Hey, I'm Heather!

I've been an Ohio based family photographer for the past 12 years and have been loving every minute of it! But you know what I love even more?! Helping photographers stand out from the crowd with their photos and getting BOOKED. I am happy you found me - thanks for being here!

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