How to Use Photoshop's Dodge, Burn and Sponge Tools

Use these tools to apply subtle color and lighting changes.

What to Know

  • Duplicate the background layer containing the image. Select the Dodge, Burn, or Sponge tool.
  • Paint over the image with the chosen tool. The Dodge tool lightens. The Burn tool darkens.
  • The Sponge tool brightens or tones down color. Adjust brush size and intensity in the menu bar.

This article explains how to use the Dodge, Burn, and Sponge tools in Adobe Photoshop to improve the quality of a photo.

Overview of Photoshop's Dodge, Burn, and Sponge Tools

Adobe Photoshop's Dodge, Burn, and Sponge tools are great ways to shift the focal point of a photograph that didn't turn out the way you'd hoped. They are based on classic darkroom techniques used to remedy under-exposed or over-exposed parts of a photograph.

Put simply, the Sponge tool saturates or desaturates the color in an area, while the Burn tool darkens, and the Dodge tool lightens. Before you reach for these controls, there are a few things you should know:

  • Dodge, Burn, and Sponge are destructive editing techniques. That means the changes are applied directly to the image. For that reason, it's a good idea not to work on the background layer. Making duplicate layers and working with those allows you to toss out mistakes if you go too far.
  • These tools are brushes, meaning you "paint" with them. You can make the brush larger or smaller by pressing the ] and [ keys, respectively.
  • Painting over an area applies a dodge or a burn. Painting over an area that has been dodged or burned reapplies the effect to the pixels being painted.
  • The keyboard shortcut command to access these tools is the number 0.

Working With the Dodge, Burn, and Sponge Tools

Select the background layer in the Layers panel and create a duplicate layer. You don’t want to work on the original due to the destructive nature of these tools.

Arrows point to the Layer, The Tools and the Tool Options

Next, select the Dodge tool in the menu bar. If you need to use either the Burn or Sponge tool, select the tiny arrow in the lower-right corner of the tool icon and then choose the appropriate tool.

If you need to brighten an area, choose the Dodge tool. If you need to darken an area, choose the Burn tool. If you need to tone down or increase the color of an area, choose the Sponge Tool.

Each option has its own set of options in the menu bar. Here is a rundown of each:

  • Dodge and Burn Tool Options: There are three Ranges: Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights. Each choice only affects the area falling into your category choice. The Exposure slider, with values ranging from 1% to 100%, sets the intensity of the effect. The default is 50%. If midtones are set to 50%, then only the midtones are darkened or lightened to a maximum of 50 percent.
  • Sponge Tool Options: There are two mode choices: Desaturate and Saturate. Desaturate reduces the color intensity and Saturate increases the color intensity of the area being painted. Flow is a bit different. The value ranges from 1% to 100% and refers to how quickly the effect is applied.

For example, to lighten the tower in this image, the best choice is the Dodge tool.

Using the Dodge and Burn Tools in Adobe Photoshop

When painting, treat the subject much like a coloring book and stay between the lines. In the case of the tower, mask it in a duplicate layer and name it Dodge. Using a mask means the brush cannot affect areas outside the lines of the Tower.

Image shows the building has been brightened with the Dodge tool and the Layers panel is open and showing the mask

Zoom in on the Tower and select the Dodge tool. I increased the Brush size, selected Midtones to start, and set the Exposure to 65%. From there, I painted over the tower and brought up some detail. I liked the bright area at the top of the tower. To bring it out more, I reduced the exposure to 10% and painted over it once more.

Then I switched the Range to Shadows, zoomed in on the base of the Tower and reduced the brush size. I also reduced the Exposure to about 15% and painted over the shadow area at the base of the Tower.

Using the Sponge Tool in Adobe Photoshop

Over on the right side of the image, there is a faint color between the clouds due to the setting sun. To make it a bit more noticeable, I duplicated the Background Layer, named it Sponge and then selected the Sponge tool.

Image shows sunset brighted with Sponge tool and the duplicate layer under the Dodge Layer

Pay particular attention to the layering order. The Sponge layer is below the Dodge layer due to the masked tower. This explains why I didn’t duplicate the Dodge Layer.

I then chose the Saturate mode, set the Flow value to 100% and started painting. Keep in mind that, as you paint over an area, that area's colors become increasingly saturated. When you are satisfied with the change, let go of the mouse.

Photoshop is all about subtlety. You don’t need to make dramatic changes to make parts of a photo “pop.” Take your time to examine the image, develop a strategy, and move slowly to avoid "overproducing" an image.

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