Using a Dodging/Burning Mask to Precisely Control Contrast

By Howard Bond Back to


This photograph shows the view to the east from the Aiguille du Midi, a 10,000-foot peak beside Mont Blanc, just outside the village of Chamonix, France. Chamonix is about 15 miles from the Swiss border and I like to go there whenever I visit Switzerland. The photograph includes a large shaded area that would be almost impossible to dodge in the usual way with enough precision to avoid being obvious.

Ideally, we choose paper contrast low enough to allow detail to be seen in the dark and light ends of the scale without dodging or burning. Occasionally, however, because this approach can yield a rather dull, boring print, I sometimes choose a paper contrast that theory says is too high. In exchange for the dodging and/or burning this requires, a more lively, sparkling print can be obtained. This is one of those cases.

Figure 1 shows an unmasked straight print. The loss of detail off the dark end of the scale indicates that the paper contrast was a little too great to accommodate the density range of the negative.

For Figure 2, I taped an unsharp mask to the negative. (See “How To Make Unsharp Masks:, PT September/October and November/December 2006.) The choice of printing contrast is again a little high, making the shaded rocks too dark, but the greater sharpness and separation of adjacent values caused by the mask are noticeable in the lighter parts of the image. Since 1995, I have used unsharp masks when printing all of my new negatives and any old ones that needed reprinting. If a new paper were to come on the market that could make as much difference as unsharp masks, without requiring the extra time that mask making does, I’m sure photographers would flock to it. Unsharp masks are suitable for all negative sizes, especially small ones that are likely to be enlarged a lot.

For Figure 3, I used the same variable-contrast filter as for Figure 2, but added a kind of mask first described by Alan Ross, which I call a dodging/burning mask. It is a sheet of plastic having a matte surface that accepts pencil for dodging and which can have holes cut in it for moderate burns. (See “Dodging and Burning Masks,” PT, September/October 2001.) The dodging/burning mask rests on a piece of diffusing plastic that is above the negative. In this example, I applied just enough pencil to the portion of the mask corresponding to the dark rocks to act as a dodge that would allow some detail to be seen. I chose to do this subtly, so that the actual prints look good, even though this carries the risk that the difference may not be great enough to be obvious in magazine reproductions.

Unfortunately, dodging/burning masks aren’t precise enough for 35mm negatives and are practical for 21⁄4 negatives only in simple cases. They are wonderfully powerful tools for 4×5 and larger negatives and allow control far beyond conventional dodging because of their accuracy, ability to simultaneously dodge multiple areas, and consistency from print to print. The greater precision of dodging/burning masks and the fact that a mask only has to be made once make them, to me, preferable to local bleaching of prints made from large-format negatives. Their only drawback is that the diffuser and matte plastic can increase print exposures by up to 11⁄3 stops.

About the Author

Howard Bond
Howard Bond is a fine art photographer who teaches printing, unsharp masking, D/B masking, Zone System, and view camera workshops. His photographs are in the collections of more than 30 museums in the United States and Europe. He has had over 60 one-man and 40 group exhibitions. The recipient of a Michigan Council for the Arts Creative Artist Grant, he has published 2 books and 23 limited edition portfolios of prints. His educational activities include 24 years of writing for Photo Techniques magazine and 34 years of teaching workshops that have been attended by over 2000 photographers from 5 continents.