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Photoshop – Dodge and Burn Using Curves for Monochrome Images

Level:  Intermediate

While there are many methods to convert colored images to monochrome, the initial result is hardly satisfying. Much like traditional black and white film images, the images usually require some darkroom magic to bring out the best in those images, the same can be said with digital images.

The most common art to master is to learn how to dodge and burn your monochrome images to create stunning contrast and tonality. Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom both allow you to perform dodge and burn enhancement but Photoshop offers more control and customization.

If there’s a digital image that deserves some time for post-processing, it will be monochrome images. Digital image files allow you to have infinitely-variable fine-tuning with instant image feedback, which is a far more flexible way to create monochrome magic compared to a chemical darkroom.

For this tutorial, we’ll be using Curves Adjustment Layers for dodge and burn adjustments. As I’ve mentioned previously, there are many ways to do this, but for this tutorial, we’ll be using two curve adjustment layers, which offers a lot of flexibility for adjustments.

As I’ve mentioned previously in our Lightroom monochrome conversion article, the key to a good monochrome image is to choose the right photo to begin with. Some images are just better in color, while others are just screaming to be devoid of color, in time, you’ll have a feel for which image works best for monochrome.

Let’s get started.

1) Select your color photo. I’ve chosen this old photo that I took in Chinatown, Singapore as there are a lot of tones between the bright lights and darkness of the night. The angular buildings and signs offers good contrast as well.

Colored Original

2) To have a feel of what the image may look like in monochrome, just desaturate the image first as a preview.  Press CTRL-U to bring up the Hue/Saturation adjustment menu and drag the saturation slider all the way to -100.



If you like how it looks, then go ahead and continue working on this photo. Undo the desaturation by clicking cancel or CTRL-Z (if you’ve closed the Hue/Saturation window already).

3) Now that we’re back with our colored photo, convert your photo with your favorite monochrome conversion technique or plug-in. In this example, I used a simple gradient map adjustment layer for the monochrome conversion.

Gradient Map

This is what came out.

After Gradient Map

4) As always, we need to set our black and white points in our image. To do that, we create a Levels Adjustment Layer first.

Black and White Points

We click on the little black eyedropper icon and click the area in your image where you want your pure blacks should be. Then click the white eyedropper icon and select your absolute white point. In this sample, I chose the sky in the upper right corner as my pure black, and the brightest part of the 2nd-story window as my pure white.

5) Once we have our desired monochrome image we can start dodging and burning. We’ll be using Curve Adjustment Layers for this tutorial.

First, create a dodge layer. This is an adjustment layer that will lighten the areas of the scene you choose to isolate later on.

Curves Adjustment

I renamed the layer as “BURN”, for easy reference.

Drag curve

As you can see, all I did was drag the center-most section of the diagonal line straight-up to about midway between the top and the mid-point.

We don’t want the whole image to be bright, so let’s hide this under a mask first. See that little white rectangle in your “Burn” adjustment layer? We need to invert that to make it a black mask (which hides all the effects of that layer). You can do that by simply pressing CTRL+I on a PC or use CMD+I on a Mac, the rectangle will now turn black and your image will return back to what it originally was prior to the curves layer.

6) Now we need another layer to darken certain parts of the scene. We basically do the same thing as the Burn layer but instead of lightening the image, we darken it.

Again, create another Curves adjustment layer and label it as “DODGE”. This time, drag the center point of the diagonal line straight down.


Again, we select the layer mask rectangle and hide everything for now.

Hide layer

Now we have two Curves layer named “Dodge” and “Burn”. Time to do some dodge and burn magic!

7) Let’s start with the “Burn” layer first. What this layer does is lighten certain parts of the scene we want to put more contrast on against its darker surroundings or lift up darker shadows.

Click on the “Burn” layer and select the black rectangle mask icon we’ve made earlier.

Select mask

8 ) Select your brush tool and choose a soft-edge (0 hardness) brush and set the brush opacity between 15-30%.


I prefer using a lower opacity as it allows me finer control when “painting” over the mask.

9) Press “D” on your keyboard to reset your color palette to white/black then press X on your keyboard until your foreground color is set to white.

White Brush

10) Start “painting” the areas you want to brighten up with your white brush. What you’re essentially doing is “revealing” the lighter tones caused by the adjusted curve in your “Burn” layer. The white that you see in your layer mask is the revealed areas, while the black are the hidden areas not affected by the adjustment curve.

For this exercise, you can see which areas received a lighter tone from our burning process.

Burn Before and After

You can see that I brightened the light reflections on the sidewalk and road, street sign highlights, the passing bus, and the building near the top left corner.

11) We’ll now do the same to darken certain areas of the scene by working on the “Dodge” layer. Again, select the layer mask and start painting with a white brush.

Dodge paint

and we get this…

dodge result

As you can see, the sidewalk shadows were darkened, as were the building windows, the shadows underneath the awnings, etc.

12) As a result of our two curves adjustment layers (dodge and burn), we now have this image.


We can end right here, but it’s not very refined. If you’re curious, these are the areas where we “revealed” the darker areas for this layer.

Dodge mask

You can see that the transition of the edges are pretty abrupt in the smaller sections of the mask, we can soften that effect by blurring the layer mask edges itself.

13) We will now blur the layer mask of both the “Dodge” and “Burn” layer just to soften the transition of our mask. We do this by using the Gaussian Blur tool (Filters >> Blur >> Gaussian Blur).

Blur Mask

The amount depends on your image size, the sharpness of your mask edges, etc. Try to experiment with the values and check the preview.

14) Lastly, I reduced the opacity of both “Dodge” and “Burn” layer to about 60-70% and we’re done, just flatten your image and save.

This is our final image.


Hope you found this useful.

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