Dodging, Burning & Adjusting Individual Areas of Your Photo in Camera Raw

Excerpt from The Adobe Photoshop CC Book for Digital Photographers:

One of my favorite features in Camera Raw is the ability to make non-destructive adjustments to individual areas of your photos (Adobe calls this “localized corrections”). The way they’ve added this feature is pretty darn clever, and while it’s different than using a brush in Photoshop, there are some aspects of it that I bet you’ll like better. We’ll start with dodging and burning, but we’ll add more options in as we go.

Step One: This photo has two areas that need completely different adjustments: (1) the sky needs to be darker with more vibrant colors, and (2) the planes need to be brighter and punchier. So, get the Adjust­ment Brush from up in the toolbar (it’s shown circled here in red) or just press the letter K on your keyboard. However, I recommend that you do all the regular edits to your photo in the Basic panel first (exposure, contrast, etc.), just like normal, before you grab the brush.

Step Two: Once you click on the brush, an Adjust­ment Brush panel appears on the right side of the window, with most of the same sliders you have in the Basic panel (except for Vibrance), along with some extra ones (like Sharpness, Noise Reduction, and Moire Reduction). Let’s start by darkening the sky. With the Adjustment Brush, you (1) choose what kind of adjustment you want first, then (2) you start painting, and then (3) you tweak the amount of your adjustment after the fact. So, start by clicking on the – (minus sign) button to the left of the Exposure slider, which resets all the sliders to 0 and lowers the Exposure (the midtones control) to –0.50, which is a decent starting place.

Step Three: At the bottom of the Adjustment Brush panel, there is a really amazing Adjustment Brush feature called “Auto Mask,” which helps to keep you from accidentally painting on things you don’t want to paint on (so it’s great around the edges of things). But, when you’re painting over something like a big sky, it actually slows things down because it keeps trying to find an edge. So, I leave the Auto Mask checkbox turned off for stuff like this, and here, I’ll just avoid getting close to the edges of the planes (for now, anyway). Go ahead and paint over the sky (with Auto Mask turned off), but of course, avoid getting too close to the planes—just stick to open areas of sky (as seen here). Notice how the sky gets darker as you paint?

Step Four: Once you’ve painted in most of the sky (but avoided the edges of the planes), now you can tweak how dark it is. Try lowering the Exposure to –1.00 (as shown here) and the area you painted over gets a lot darker. This is what I meant by “you tweak it after the fact.” Also, you see that green pin in the top left of the image? That represents this one adjustment (you can have more than one, which is why you need a way to keep track of them. More on this coming up).

TIP: Deleting Adjustments If you want to delete any adjustment you’ve made, click on the adjustment’s pin to select that adjustment (the center of the pin turns black), then press the Delete (PC: Backspace) key on your keyboard.

Step Five: Okay, now that “glow” around the tops of the planes and tails where we haven’t painted is starting to get on my nerves, so let’s deal with that before we tweak our settings any more. When we’re getting near the tops and tails is when you want to turn Auto Mask back on (shown here). That way, you can paint right up against them, filling in all those areas, without accidentally painting over the planes. The key to using Auto Mask is simple—don’t let that little + (plus sign) inside the inner circle of your brush stray over onto the planes, because that’s what determines what gets affected (if that + crosses over onto a tail, it starts painting over the tail). It’s okay if the outer circle crosses right over the planes—just not that + (see how the brush here is extending over onto the tail, but it’s not getting darker? That’s Auto Mask at work).

Step Six: So, how do you know if you’ve really painted over the entire area you wanted to adjust? How do you know whether you’ve missed a spot? Well, if you turn on the Mask checkbox at the bottom of the panel, it puts a tint over the area you painted (as seen here, where I changed my tint color to red by clicking on the color swatch to the right of the checkbox), so you can see if you missed anything. If you don’t want this on all the time, just press the letter Y on your keyboard to toggle it on and off. You can also hover your cursor over any inactive pin (and it will temporarily show the masked area for that pin. Now that you know where you painted, you can go back and paint over any areas you missed.

Step Seven: Now, let’s unlock a little more of the Adjustment Brush’s power by adjusting more sliders. That’s right, once you’ve painted over (masked) an area, you can adjust any of the other sliders and they affect just the area you painted over (here, they’ll just affect the sky). Starting at the top, let’s drag the Tint slider to the right, toward magenta, to make the sky color more interesting (I dragged it over to +30), then let’s make it even darker by lowering the Exposure amount to –1.15. Now, head down to Saturation and crank that up a bit (I took it up to +60), and that flat dawn sky gets much more vibrant (as seen here). Yeah, that’s just like I remember it (wink). The ability to paint over one area, and stack up a number of adjustments on just that area, is what gives this tool so much power.

Step Eight: Next, let’s work on the planes (the Blue Angels’ F/A-18 Hornets). First, click the New radio button at the top of the panel, so we can paint over a new area (otherwise, the planes would get the same settings we used on the sky). Then, click the + button to the right of Exposure twice to reset all the other sliders to 0 and bump up the Exposure amount to +1.00 (twice the one-click amount). Now, with Auto Mask turned on, paint over the planes (as shown here), which lightens those areas because you increased the Exposure amount by quite a bit. Also, notice there are now two pins, and the sky’s pin is now white (although it’s not visible here because I zoomed in), letting you know it’s no longer active. If you wanted to adjust the sky again, you’d click on its pin, and all the sky settings would come back.

Step Nine: Finish painting over the rest of the planes, and then let’s add some more “juice” to them by increasing the Exposure amount a bit more (here, I dragged it over to +1.50), then open the shadow areas by dragging the Shadows slider a little to the right (here, I went to +10), and then let’s add some punch by adding Clarity (drag it over to around +17). Now the planes are really starting to pop, but you can see that I let the little + in the middle of the brush extend off the bottom of the first plane’s wheels a bit, and it started to brighten the tarmac (concrete runway) below them, which looks bad. So, we’ll have to deal with that next.

TIP: Choosing What to Edit If you have multiple pins and you drag a slider, Camera Raw will adjust whichever pin is currently active (the green-and-black one). To choose which adjustment you want to edit, click on the pin to select it, then make your changes.

Step 10: If you make a mistake, or need to erase something that spilled over, just press-and-hold the Option (PC: Alt) key and the brush switches to Erase mode. Now, just paint the area where you spilled over and it erases the spillover (as shown here; I also erased the adjustment from the last two planes because it made them a bit too bright). You can also switch to Erase mode by clicking on the Erase radio button at the top of the Adjustment Brush panel. When you switch this way, you get to choose the Size, Feather, Flow, and Density of the Erase brush (more on this in just a moment), so it’s at least good to click on the radio button, choose your preferred brush size, then from that point on, just press-and-hold the Option key to get it when you need it.

Step 11: Here are a couple of other things about the Adjustment Brush you’ll want to know: The Feather slider controls how soft the brush edges are—the higher the number, the softer the brush (I paint with a soft brush about 90% of the time). For a hard-edged brush, set the Feather slider to 0. The default brush settings are designed to have it build up as you paint, so if you paint over an area and it’s not dark enough, paint another stroke over it. This build-up amount is controlled by the Flow and Density sliders at the bottom of the panel. The Density slider kind of simulates the way Photoshop’s airbrush capabilities work with its Brush tools, but the effect is so subtle here that I don’t ever change it from its default setting of 100. The Flow slider controls the amount of paint that comes out of the brush (I leave the Flow set at 100 most of the time these days, but if I decide I want to “build up,” then I lower it to 50). Below is a before/after, which shows how useful dodging and burning with the Adjustment Brush can be.

Learn more about working in Camera Raw in The Adobe Photoshop CC Book for Digital Photographers. Also, be sure to check out all the great online Photoshop classes offered by KelbyOne.