Thursday, September 3, 2009

Dodging and burning family photos

What's dodging and burning?
Dodging and burning are the processes of lightening ("dodging") and darkening ("burning") the exposure of parts of a photo. The picture below illustrates the tremendous improvement in tonality and subject three-dimensionality that can be achieved with dodging and burning.

How do you do it?
There are many ways to dodge and burn, not just using the dodge and burn tools that come with many postprocessing software. Here's one way to do it in Picasa Premium to improve tonality.
1. Load the picture in Picasa, fix the basics first (white balance, saturation, exposure, crop, etc.), then click on the create tab.
Here's a sample picture:

2. Under the Create tab, click on Advanced, and click on Curves.
3. Darken the subject. If the background is too bright, darken it as well.
- Click on the middle of the curve and drag it slightly to the lower right. Observe the change in the picture as you do this. Drag it to the point where the shadows you want to create are the right shade.
- If you want to darken both the subject and the background you're done with this step. If you want to darken just the subject, go on by clicking on the paintbrush icon beside the fade slider.
- In the Effect Painting dialog box, click on "reverse effect" checkbox. The image will revert to its original.
- Paint the subject with the darker exposure. First, make sure the Effect tab is selected (because you're "painting in" the shadow effect). Choose an appropriate brush size, select 0 for hardness and 100% for strength. Now paint the subject.
- If you want to, you can change the darkness by adjusting the curve.
4. Add the highlights.
- In the Effect Painting dialog box, click on the "Original" tab (because you're "undoing" the shadow effect from step 3). Choose an appropriate brush size, select 0 for hardness and around 66-75% for strength. Now paint just the brightest highlights. Generally I find it more effective to click repeatedly than to drag the mouse. The effect is easier to control and looks more natural.
- Reduce the strength to 33% to 50% and paint the next brightest highlights.
- Reduce the strength to 25% and paint the least bright highlights.
- If you wish, you can readjust the contrast of the created shadow by adjusting the curve.
Here's an exaggerated sample:

5. Click Apply to finalize the curves adjustment. Save it. You're done.
Here's the result:

Test your understanding of the above process: if you started out with an underexposed photo, how would the process change?
If you start out with an underexposed picture, then you can skip step 3. In step 4, adjust the curve to the upper left until it's where you want the highlight shade to be. Click on the paintbrush icon, click on the reverse effect checkbox, select the "Effect" tab (because you're "painting in" the highlight effect). Paint progressively from brightest to least bright highlight.
If you started out with an overexposed photo, how would the process change?
One method would be to "paint in" the shadows. I find that to be difficult, because it's harder for me to imagine the correct shadow placement. Instead, I would either fix the exposure first, then proceed as normal, or use a similar process as normal, except:
- I would drag the curve deeper.
- I would darken both the subject and background.
- When "painting in" the highlight, instead of starting out with 66% strength for the brightest highlights, I would start out much lower, depending on how overexposed the picture was.
With Picnik Premium, you can modify the process above to "paint in" different effects. For example, in our toddler's birthday album, I made the aquarium much more vivid by applying the Velvia preset in the curves, and using it to paint just the aquarium.
Where do you learn more about dodging and burning?
I'm still very new to this myself. The classic reference is Ansel Adams' the Negative but I haven't even seen or read it.
Please share your results, techniques and resources by posting links in the comments! Thanks.

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