This is not a new technique by any means as photographers from the film era having been using this method for decades. It basically entails manipulation of the exposure in selected areas of the photograph by either darkening an area (Dodging) or to brighten an area up (Burning). In digital photography this is usually done using software such as Lightroom or Photoshop through the application of an adjustment brush of some kind.
For the purposes of this post I'll be using Lightroom 4. I'm not going to go into a lot of detail but just give a general overview of what you can do with it and how it would work. I remember when I first got into digital photography I found it hard to get my head around this concept of selective adjustments. I think a visual example really helps. So here goes!
Let's start off with a comparison of the original RAW file and the finished result so we know what we're aiming for and how we would get there.
This is a screenshot from Lightroom 4
Note that the RAW image looks almost void of any color and life and generally looks kind of drab. Also note the really dark areas under the roof. We know there's detail there but we can't really make it out. The goal here is to enhance the image but to keep the overall look natural enough that it reflects what it could look like if there was better light.
A point to note about RAW files is that what you initially see is not actually all of the information that was recorded by the camera. Instead what we see is a JPEG preview of the RAW data. In other words just ONE interpretation of the data. A decision made by Lightroom. You might argue that by manipulating the image it becomes fake. That's not true, we are just creating our own interpretation of the image and trying best to recreate something we originally saw. In this case I was drawn to the beautiful gold detailed architecture and the pillars of the temple. I wanted to show that but the camera had different plans!
I don't want to go into a long discussion about dynamic range here but if you have time it's worth learning about the limits of what a camera sensor can actually capture in comparison to what the human eye can see.
Anyway, we are here to talk about Dodging and Burning so let's get right to it!
Before I even think about D&Bing anything I need to fix the main problems first. These main problems are fixed via something called global adjustments; as in they affect all parts of the image. I talked about these in a previous post here. It's worth reading that post before continuing further.
First up I want to get as much detail as I can using the Highlights and Shadows sliders.
Highlights - 36 and Shadows +100
That made a huge difference to those dark corners and toned down the outside area a bit to balance everything out. This is my starting point and I build from here.
Next I add Color and Clarity plus a little Blacks to add life to the image.
Clarity +29, Vib +33, Color + 19
Not bad. It looks a lot better already and close to the finished image but there are a few tweeks we need to do first. I need to adjust the contrast and straighten it up. I'll skip the example image because it looks too similar to the one above.
Now comes the fun part! At this point I've done all the global adjustments and I take a step back and ask myself "OK, so what needs fixing?".
A few things were bugging me. The top right hand corner looks too bright and so do the outside parts. The iron fencing is a bit darker than I want and the lanterns are looking rather dull.
Let's fix the top corner first since that's easy. In Lightroom you have the ability to use something called the adjustment brush. It's real handy for a bit of Dodging and Burning. All I do is paint directly over the area and then set the exposure to what I want. In this case it was half a stop less.
Exp value was minus 0.49
It's not a huge difference. None of the selective adjustments are. They're subtle changes that bring out a little bit more detail. The eye naturally goes to the brightest area of the image and I didn't want that to be the corner! The aim here was to remove a distraction.
You might not notice a difference if looking at this on a small screen but this close up comparison might help.
Before on the left after on the right
Next the fence, lanterns and gold parts need brightening up. Pretty easy again, just paint away. One thing to note is that you should press enter after each area of adjustment and lock it in. Then, select a new brush and start afresh. This way you can adjust each area individually as you please and change the value later if you change your mind.
After all that that we sharpen the image up and tweek the color a little bit more to suit and we get our final finished image! Note those hanging paper lanterns are no longer dull and lifeless and the gold parts look nice and shiny!
The finished result
By changing the exposure of an area you not only change the brightness but you also change the way the colors look. Since we expect gold to be shiny it needs a brighter exposure value to make it stand out otherwise it would look yellowy brown. One way to figure out what needs changing is to ask yourself if a particular object is the right color. If it looks too dull or too light changing the exposure will help bring it back to normal. However, if we change the exposure for the entire image we would muck something else up so the solution is to use selective adjustments on only the parts that need it. Think of it as painting exposure!