Retouching skin with dodge and burn is one of the most valuable skill a photographer can learn. It can have such a dramatic effect on your image, but it does it completely non-destructively. While dodging and burning has been around since the darkroom days, the precision of a digital workflow gives us so much more control. It’s an incredibly powerful tool.
In this video, photographer and retoucher Zoë Noble talks us through her process. You’ll want to clean up the skin first to remove major blemishes, which Zoë also covers in this video. But then, let the dodging and burning commence!
Zoë’s favourite method of dodging and burning is with curves adjustment layers. These layers are then masked, with the effect painted onto that mask. Two curves adjustment layers area created. One to lighten, and one to darken. After creating each and dragging the curve up or down to lighten or darken, respectively, you’ll notice each layer has a mask.
The mask is shown as a white box. This means that the effect is being displayed across the entire image. But we don’t want that, we want to hide the effect, so that we can paint it back in afterwards. So, hitting CTRL+I makes this white mask black, and hides the effect. A second curves adjustment layer is created in the same way, but with the curve dipping downward.
It helps to rename them “dodge” (to lighten) and “burn” (to darken), just so that you can remember which layer you’re working on. Next we add a couple of temporary helper layers. These are only for use while working on the image, and don’t actually make it into the final result.
The first layer converts the image to black and white. Without colour, you’re only seeing the brightness levels, which makes it much easier to spot uneven areas. This is done with a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, with saturation brought all the way to 0. Another curves adjustment to help increase the contrast, or brighten & darken the image overall, really highlighting those areas.
Then it goes into a little more detail that’s beyond the scope of this particular post. Zoë goes into a lot of detail about various brushes and techniques she uses. A lot of it will depend on personal preferences, level of ability, and the equipment you’re using.
But with your brushes set, it’s a case of just painting white onto the layer masks in the areas you want to dodge or burn. You’ll want to adjust the helper layers as you go to help you more easily see different sections. You may also end up stacking multiple dodge & burn layers to help fix some of those more stubborn areas.
As you can see, though, the effort is worth it, and the skin still looks natural and retains its texture.
The big problem with dodge & burn is that it’s very easy to go over the top. So, you’ll want to keep zooming back out to look at the overall image. Or, if you’re running multiple displays, you have another option. What I do is create a new window of the same image. Then I drag this onto my second display. This way I can quickly glance over and see which areas I need to target, and which I’m wasting too much time on.
The big advantage of dodge and burn, though, is that it’s easy to dial it back if you do go overboard. All of the original image data is still sitting there underneath. Dialling things back is as simple as just painting black back onto the mask.
With the fine detail work done, the next process is dodge & burn contouring, to provide more depth to the image. Zoë will be covering this technique in a future video. For now, we’ll just have to wait.
You can see more of Zoë’s tutorials on her YouTube channel, and you can see more of her work on Instagram or her website.
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