In a traditional darkroom, dodging and burning refers to the manipulation of exposure to make selected areas of a print lighter (dodging) or darker (burning)—a technique covered in most photography classes. In Photoshop, however, the typical user doing a portrait retouch may never click on the dodge and burn tools—and for good reason. Rarely is "D&B" explained in Photoshop tutorial books other than in general terms, and usually applied to landscapes rather than people. Furthermore, finding usable information on D&B in forums is a foolhardy endeavor best left to people with too much time on their hands and a high tolerance for uncertainty. Or an insomniac with a blog.
The mystic order of hi-end beauty retouchers meets your high school art class
In Photoshop, the precision of dodging and burning can be taken all the way down to the level of a pixel (whether you should go to that extreme is up for debate). When it comes to retouching skin, the pro retouchers swear by (and at, I'm sure) D&B because it leaves the natural (a word which here means perfectly lit air-brush makeup enhanced) skin intact. While other "skin smoothing" methods rely on blur, which compromises texture at the risk of creating plastic-looking skin, D&B affects only shading.
At some point in your schooling someone (with wildly untamed curls, a smock, and Birkenstocks?) taught you how some careful shading can turn a 2-dimensional circle into a wondrous charcoal-smeared "3-D" orb. Erase the shading and the circle becomes flat. Now let's replace that circle with an ugly zit. The zit "pops" (sorry, as a Dad I am legally required to use this brand of groan-inducing humor) out on the face because of highlights and shadows. Tone down those highlights, lighten up those shadows, and the zit disappears. It's all about shading. Adjust the shading and crater-like pores lose their attention-getting shadows. Circles under the eyes? Gone. Wrinkles? Reduced. But wait! there's more. Want to create better bone structure? Sculpt perfect cheek bones? Add sparkle to eyes? Fill out lips and add extra shine? That's right, folks, all this and more can be yours for the low low price of...
Only 6 hours of your time! Per photo!
What? Doesn't sound like such a good deal? You'd rather just blur skin to smithereens in a few clicks and call it a day? I don't blame you. But before you give up on D&B, let me tell you about bread for just a minute.
I have a friend who makes the most amazing bread. Specialty flours. Supplies purchased in France. A custom built wood oven in his backyard. Poilâne himself would approve. Amazing stuff. But does this mean I'm going to build a bread oven in my backyard? No. I wouldn't even know where to begin. But this doesn't mean that I'm doomed to a life of store-bought bread. My wife makes a bread that can pass for artisanal that doesn't even require kneading.
The moral of this story is that it doesn't have to be all or nothing. The purists might disagree, but I say, learn some techniques, find a compromise that works for you, and go from there.
Step 1. Assess your photo
Here is the "before" photo:
I am using a stock photo because if it were an actual client of mine I couldn't say things like "Who does your eyebrows, Mrs. Potato Head?" Seriously, that is some criminal overuse of eyebrow pencil. But too bad, I'm dealing with skin here.
Before we start retouching, we need to assess the problem areas:
Her eyes look tired and red. The shading under her eyes adds to the worn-out look.
The skin near her mouth and chin area has some blemishes and dark spots.
Her lips are not bad, but a little better definition and fullness wouldn't hurt.
The overall lighting is making her face very flat.
Step 2. Create your dodge and burn layer
Some people like to do one layer for dodging and another for burning. I prefer to keep it all on one layer and switch between the tools.
Create a "New Layer" and in the dialog box change the mode (from the pull-down menu) to "soft light" and check the box that says "Fill with soft-light neutral color (50%) gray." I named my layer "Dodge and Burn," but you can name yours "Snooki" if it makes you happy. Now click OK, and we'll start dodging and burning on the gray layer we just created.
Step 3. The maligned Dodge and Burn tools—Use them.
Most people "dodge and burn" without actually using the dodge and burn tools. Instead, they use the brush tool with white or black paint. Prior to CS4, they had good reason to do so. The D&B tools were notorious for suddenly changing skin to shades of gray or orange. However, CS4 improved the D&B tools and added default settings that protect tones, so I think the actual D&B tools deserve your loyalty.
When the dodge or burn tool is selected, you will see some settings in the top menu bar that merit attention. You will be changing the diameter of the brush often, so learn to use the right (larger) and left (smaller) bracket keys on your keyboard to adjust as needed. The hardness of the brush should be extremely low (like 0%) for smooth transitions. The "Range" options let you choose to affect "Highlights," "Midtones," or "Shadows." You are more likely to get good results if you concentrate on the midtones. In fact, feel free to leave it there the whole time. The exposure setting should be kept very low, such as 5%. A low exposure setting means that the changes will be very gradual. Small repeated light strokes will give you better control of the effect.
Step 4. Choose an area and get to work.
I prefer to work by area and switch between the dodge and burn tools and then move on. For inside the eyes, see my previous eye tutorial. The following picture shows one of the eyes as seen when only the gray D&B layer is visible (you click the eye icon in the layers palette to toggle visibility on and off for any layer):
The lighter the gray, the more I dodged in that area (and the darker=burned). I brought out the catch lights in the eyes and I dodged the dark circles and wrinkles under the eye a little at a time (and changing the brush size to suit the area) until I got passable results.
Notice that I said "passable." A pro retoucher (and that is not me—I'm a photographer) would spend more time and do much more detailed work. But then, a photo used for a cosmetics campaign will be scrutinized more heavily than most portraits. What I am proposing is something that you can do in about 20 minutes (or less) once you get used to it.
It still looks natural and has exactly the same texture as before, but her eyes now look better rested. I could have done more, but I think it's better to do stay subtle.
A few tips before moving on to another area:
- If you have access to a pen tablet, your D&B "sketching" will be much easier. If not, well, be glad I'm not telling you to do pixel-level editing
- Zoom your view in and out to keep things in perspective. Don't bother doing individual pixels. Zoom in to about 300% when you need to get close for more control (changing your brush size as needed), then go back to 100% as much as possible. Finally, make sure you zoom out to see the whole image once in a while.
- If your skin tones start to shift (toward gray or orange), try switching to the "sponge tool" (it's in the same pull-down menu as the D&B tools) and under "mode" in the top menu settings select "desaturate" (to tone down the orange) or "saturate" (to move the gray back toward normal skin color. I use a higher flow (20%) with the sponge. But remember that if you are having a lot of problems with tone shifts, you are probably overdoing it and/or not being precise enough with your brush.
Step 5. Skin imperfections
Theoretically, you could retouch every blemish with D&B, but I wouldn't recommend it. Remember that I'm trying to steer clear of six-hour retouch sessions. For large blemishes, I would use the patch tool or the clone stamp to save time. If your subject has a very bad complexion (i.e. bad acne over most of the face), you may have to resort to the foundation method or some form of hi-pass skin softening. You can still use D&B for contouring (see step 6).
In the photo here, there is just a patch of blemished and uneven skin to the left of the mouth.
As in step 4, I will dodge out the darker areas to make it even with the surrounding skin. When I accidentally lighten something that doesn't need to be lightened, I simply switch to the burn tool and darken it up again. With only the D&B layer visible, you can see the dodged section on the lower left side:
In very little time, you can make the area vastly improved (or perfect if you're willing to take a long time):
Step 6: Contouring
This is the fun part. You can improve the shape of the face, lighting, and the lips with a little D&B. First the lips:
Dodge the highlights to get a more plump shape. You will want to accentuate the highlights and extend their reach. Next, burn to create more shadow near the bottom and more definition (like a light lip liner) around the edges (if needed). The shadows at the base of the lower lip will give it that pouty look.
Pay attention to how in the "before" photo, the lower lip has almost no highlights in the middle area:
After dodging to even out the highlights and burning a little at the base, the lips start to look more full.
Now you can contour as much of the face as you like. Here is what I did:
I dodged a highlight down the nose and burned some light shadows along the sides of the nose. This gives better lines and can be a great way to make the nose thinner as well. If you know how to do makeup or if you have illustration experience, chances are you can do a much better job than I have here. If you have absolutely no experience, just pick up a magazine and look at the highlights and shadows. The dark dot at the end of the nose shows where I burned in to reduce glare.
I also brought out the cheekbones with some D&B because the lighting had flattened them. I burned a little more definition into the chin, and I dodged a little more sparkle near the eyebrows. You don't need to change any of the settings (from your 5% and "midtones" as seen in step 3) except the brush size, and course switching between dodge and burn as needed.
This doesn't need to take much time because we are going for overall improvement rather than a 6-hour fashion spread perfection. As a final step, you can create a new blank layer (just normal blending mode, not a gray soft light layer), sample a nice pinkish tone, and dust areas that are still on the blotchy side with a soft brush (not the D&B tools) set to a low opacity (5-8%).
Here is the before:
and the after:
Here they are side by side:
As one final note, I should point out that I am a big advocate of subtle retouching. I don't think you should look at an image and say "Wow! Look at that retouching!" You can, of course, use the principles in this tutorial to do as much or as little as you like.