The Art of Dodging and Burning

No matter how well you perform these vital photographic tasks, you can still do them better

By Steve Mulligan Back to


Dodging and burning offer the final, finishing touches to the process of creating a fine black-and-white photograph. These subtle manipulations allow a photographer to elevate a decent print into the sublime. A fantastic amount of control is available by delicately altering certain tonal areas and by changing local contrast within select areas of the print. The golden rule for either technique is that no modification should be noticeable in the final print.


Dodging is the technique employed to selectively lighten certain areas within the print by withholding light during enlargement, and it needs to be applied during the base exposure series. I keep a simple set of tools at hand, all consisting of various-sized cardboard circles taped to lengths of wire. The circles are cut from light but sturdy paper stock, such as a manila folder.

In addition to this standard set, I also occasionally need to make a custom tool for particular negatives. These run the gamut from simple circles to complicated shapes, cut to match a difficult tonal area within negatives. These custom tools are harder to use, requiring a delicate and active touch. Custom shapes must be cut smaller than the actual size of the area being dodged, to allow for a constant movement during the exposure. This wiggle will soften the edges of the manipulated area, disguising the dodging.

If a split-contrast method (a technique wherein two base exposures are used, one hard contrast, the other soft) is being used to print, the majority of dodging must be applied during the soft-contrast exposure, for two reasons. First, the longer duration of the soft-contrast exposure allows more freedom for manipulation; second, the softer contrast settings make it easier to hide the alterations. Dodging during the hard-contrast exposure is problem- atic, often leaving an obvious density halo. When such dodging becomes necessary (and sometimes it does), it must be done for only a fraction of the total exposure, and must be applied with a quick and delicate touch. If a single base exposure is being used, all the techniques discussed here will work, but the application times need to be modified.

The key to good dodging is to keep the tool in constant motion. By wiggling and moving the tool, and by never dodging for more than half the duration of the base exposure, the dodging should never be obvious. As a rule, only small areas should be dodged.

There are two types of dodging— flash dodging (used most often) and large-area dodging. Flash dodging consists of actively moving a small circle over a larger area for a certain fraction of the base exposure. A gradual lightening will occur in that area of the photo, leaving no evidence of the work done. This is an important step of the printing process, and can add an amazing amount of detail to shadow areas. The time during which this technique is applied will vary from negative to negative, but should rarely exceed half the base exposure time. More often, it will require less time.

Large-area dodging is the subtraction of light from a more substantial part of the image, usually by using a larger cardboard shape. This has to be applied in short bursts, otherwise it is hard to disguise. It is usually done with a custom tool cut to match the shape of the relevant section of the photo. The shape must be cut smaller than the actual area being dodged, as it needs to be held at least five inches above the paper during dodging. Even so, constant movement is required. Large-area dodging should be used infrequently, mainly because it is much more difficult to blend tonal edges during this type of manipulation.


Burning is an equally important technique, and is the last step before the paper goes into chemistry. Through a judicious application of density to certain areas within the image, usually in a highlight, burning offers the final control in the printing process. As with dodging, I have a standard set of burning tools, all pieces of cardboard with holes of varying size cut in the center. As with the previous method, I often make custom tools for certain negatives.

Burning is almost always done with soft contrast, either on a contrast dial or with a soft-contrast filter, as it quickly becomes obvious when laid down with hard contrast, leaving heavy density lines. A softer setting or filter allows for a gradual burn-down. This method also requires a constant movement, and the print density must be slowly built up. The circle of the tool must never be held steady, as this produces a glaringly obvious area of alteration. The cardboard must constantly roam over the area being burned, and density edges must be carefully blended. As in large-area dodging, the cardboard must be held at least five inches above the paper during burning, as the edges of the burned area become heavy and obvious if the tool is held too close to the paper.

There are two styles of burning, with flash-burning being the best and most often used. Using a small hole and gradually building up density in a particular area allows tonal alteration with no evidence of the manipulation. Constant movement over the area being altered is the key, along with soft contrast. In essence, you are flashing light over a certain area until the density comes down to the desired tone. As with dodging, custom tools are occasionally needed.

The second technique is large-area burning, which often involves a larger hole in the tool being used, thus adding a great amount of light quickly. The tool must be moved steadily to avoid tell-tale dark lines around the area being manipulated. This type of burning must be done with soft contrast and is difficult to hide.

The large techniques of burning and dodging should be used as a last resort, to rescue tonal areas that are impossible to alter any other way. The flash techniques are far more reliable, and should be your standard.

A subtle and useful modification when burning is to use different contrast settings. If your base soft-contrast exposure, for instance, was with a number 2 filter, then the burning can be done at a different level. To make a subtle difference, you might burn in the highlights with a number 0 filter. This adds another aspect to the tonal layering, giving one more level of control, allowing the burning to be gradual and indistinct.

As with all steps of the printing process, keeping detailed notes of any alterations used will save you trouble when the negative is reprinted. Listing all burning and dodging employed, marking the areas affected, and noting all contrast settings used allows for easy future printing.

The techniques of burning and dodging are invaluable, and every negative requires some degree of both. These offer the finishing touches to your darkroom time, and can be the difference between an average photo and one that glows, an image that transcends the medium used to create it.

About the Author

Steve Mulligan
Steve Mulligan has published four black-and- white and two color books, and is sole photographer for seven calendars. His latest book, The Art of Composition, will be released in early 2008. He was featured in the Professional Photographer's Showcase at Epcot Center. This article is adapted from his book Black and White Photography, A Practical Guide.