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

A Before and After view of the project


It has happened to all of us. We take a photo and when we look at it in Photoshop, the image is not exactly what was envisioned. For example, in this photo of Hong Kong, the dark cloud over Victoria Peak darkened the buildings to the point where the eye is drawn to the sky on the right and the buildings across the harbor are in shadow. One way of bringing the eye back to the buildings is to use the dodge, burn and sponge tools in Photoshop.

What these tools do is lighten or darken areas of an image and are based on a classic darkroom technique where specific areas of a photo were underexposed or overexposed by the photographer. The sponge tool saturates or desaturates an area and is based on a darkroom technique that actually used a sponge. In fact, the icons for the tools show exactly how that was done. Before you get going with these tools you need to understand a couple of things:

  • This is a destructive editing technique. That means the changes are applied directly to the image. If you are going to be using these tools, don’t work on an original; duplicate layers as you move through the process. This way if something goes wrong you can toss the layer.
  • These tools are brushes. You paint with them and you can make the brush larger or smaller by pressing the ]-key to make the brush bigger or [-key to reduce the brush size.
  • Painting over an area will apply a dodge or a burn. Painting over an area that has been dodged or burned will reapply the effect to the pixels being painted.
  • The keyboard shortcut command to access these tools is the letter “o”.

Let’s get started.

Overview of the Dodge, Burn and Sponge Tools in Adobe Photoshop

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


The first step in the process is to select the background layer in the Layers panel and create a duplicate layer. We don’t want to work on the original due to the destructive nature of these tools.

Pressing the “o” key will select the tools and clicking the little down arrow will open the tool selections. This is where you need to make some decisions. If you need to brighten the area, choose the Dodge tool.

If you need to Darken an area, choose the Burn Tool and if you need to tone down or increase the color of an area, choose the Sponge Tool. For this exercise, I will be concentrating, initially, on the International Commerce Building which is the tall one on the left.

When you choose a tool the Tool Options Bar changes, depending on the tool chosen. Let’s go through them:

  • Dodge and Burn Tool Options. There are three Ranges: Shadows, Midtones, Highlights. Each choice will only affect 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%. What this means is, if Midtones at 50% is chosen, only the midtones will be darkened or lightened to a maximum of 50%. The two icons are for those of you who use a graphics tablet, not a mouse, to paint.
  • 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 values range from 1% to 100% and the value is constant. The more you paint over an area the more the tool will do and the value is how fast it does it.

In the case of this image, I want to lighten the tower so my choice is the Dodge tool.

Using the Dodge and Burn Tools in Adobe Photoshop

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


When painting I try to treat my subject much like a coloring book and to stay between the lines. In the case of the tower, I masked it in the duplicate layer which I named Dodge. Using a mask means if the brush goes beyond the lines of the Tower it will only apply to the Tower.

I then zoomed in on the Tower and selected 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 especially at the top.

I liked that bright area toward the top of the tower. To bring it up a bit more, I reduced the exposure to 10% and painted over it once more. Remember, if you release the mouse and paint over an area that area which has already been dodged that area will brighten up quite a bit.

I then 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

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


Over on the right side of the image, there is a faint color between the clouds, which was 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.

Pay particular attention to the layering order. My Sponge layer is below the Dodge layer due to the masked tower. This also 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 the area, that area's colors will become increasingly saturated. Keep an eye on the change and when you are satisfied, let go of the mouse.

One final observation: The true art in Photoshop is the art of subtlety. You don’t need to make dramatic changes with these tools to make selections or areas “pop.” Take your time to examine the image and to map out your correction strategy before starting.