The film photography & darkroom work of David Kirby

How To: Make a Black & White Print - Part IV - Dodging & Burning

Before I built my darkroom the only experience I had with dodging and burning was people were talking about Photoshop - and it confused the hell out of me!  It’s one of those tools that Photoshop just makes overly complicated when it really is so simple.  Dodging and burning are basic tools used by printers to get the most out of their negatives and once mastered becomes second nature.  They can be used to simply balance a print or to change the mood of a print entirely.

The best thing is you don’t need any special tools to do it.  Sure, there are companies that make and sell them but save your money for film and chemicals.  All you need is some cardboard and some thin wire.

What is dodging and burning?

Think about the light path from your enlarger for a second.  When it hits the paper it starts to make tones.  Denser parts of your negative block the light so less hits the paper and less dense parts of your negative allow more light through - that's how you get blacks, whites and greys.  Dodging and burning are extensions of this principle except light is deliberately blocked or added between the enlarger lens and the paper.  Blocking light is a dodge, adding light is a burn. 


To make dodging and burning tools all you need to do is attached a cardboard shape (whatever shape you deem necessary) to a piece of wire.  When dodging and burning it’s important to make sure that you keep your card/tool moving.  Why's that?  If you keep it still then once your print is developed you will see the outline of it on your paper which is obviously no good!  By keeping the tool moving you reduce the edge effect it produces.  This is also effected by how close you hold your tool to the paper.  Turn your enlarger on and try moving your tool up and down in the light path.  You’ll note that the closer the tool is to your print, the sharper its edges are and the smaller the area it covers (the closer to your light source) the more blurred the edges and the larger the area it effects.  It’s good to practice dodging and burning on some old paper, experimenting with where you place your tool in the light path and how much you move it.  As with many things in the darkroom it takes practice to get used to.

Simple Dodging & Burning

Let’s now look at a few practical examples of using dodging and burning from the simple to the complex.

We'll take this print as our first example:

To be honest it's a scan from a negative but we can still apply the principles.  There is a good overall balance across the image but two areas could use a little extra work - the floor where the sun is coming in is a little too bright and the ceiling directly above is too dark and lacking in texture a little.  The floor needs a burn and the roof needs a dodge.  Look at the test strip you made when you created your print - find where you chose your base exposure and then look either side for which time gives you the best exposure for the roof and floor.  

Let's say for example that my base exposure for this print was 18 seconds.  I look at my test strip and estimate that 22 seconds will give me the best exposure for the floor, while 15 seconds gives me the exposure I want on the ceiling.  I prepare my tools (probably a disc on a wire for the roof and a piece of card with a hole in for the floor) and set my enlarger running for 18 seconds.  When 3 seconds remain I place my tool in the path of the light so that it blocks off the roof area I want to dodge and keep it in constant motion.  Next I set my enlarger to run for and extra 4 seconds so that I can burn in the floor.  I set my enlarger running and let the light pass through the hole in the card onto the floor only.  Develop the print and voila, you have added density to the print on the floor and removed density to bring out shadow detail in the ceiling!  

Let's now take a look at this print:

It's not the best print in the world but it will demonstrate dodging and burning nicely.  When I produced a flat print from one base exposure there were a few areas which needed attention.  Firstly, the grassy floor was too light, secondly the dark tree area in the top right was too light and blended too much with the tree in the foreground.  Both of these areas clearly needed burning in.  For the floor the long edge of a piece of card was perfect.  I dialed in a few extra seconds on the enlarger and used the card to shade the rest of the print - keeping it in constant motion and holding it about halfway between the paper and the enlarger, thereby making sure the edge of the card wasn't too clearly defined.  Next I did the same for the top right area of the print but used a flexible kitchen mat which I could fold into a nice "u" shape.  These burns enabled me to darken the areas of the print that were taking attention away from the main subject.

Let's Get More Complex

So far we have looked at using simple dodging and burning to balance out a print and keep focus on the main subject.  But as I mentioned earlier, dodging and burning can also be used creatively to change the mood of a print entirely.  This is where your personality comes into play.  If we gave the same negative to ten different people you would get 10 different prints because each individual would have a different idea of how they wanted to present the image.  Dodging and burning allow you to get onto paper what you saw in your head at the time of camera exposure.  Let's take this print as an example:


Obviously that is not what the scene originally looked like when I tripped the shutter.  A straight print from this negative resulted in a very flat print.  The sky was very pale grey with little cloud definition, the grassy foreground was a uniform mid grey, and the sky beneath the clouds just melted into the horizon.  The get from this flat print to the final print I saw in my mind when I exposed the film was going to take a lot of work. 

I set my enlarger filters at grade 3 which gave me the contrast I wanted on the main subject (the wooden branch) and I chose my base exposure time of 18 seconds (for an 8 x 8 print).  I used the test strips i had created to determine the exposures i wanted for the rest of the image and planned out my dodges and burns.  It is good to write down the dodges and burns you plan out both for future reference and ease of workflow while you are printing.  Here's a copy of my notes on which you can see my dodging and burning map: 

You'll note that the dodges and burns are expressed in terms of f-stops not seconds.  That's because I have recently adopted the f-stop method of printing (more on that later).  For the sake of continuity I will talk about these dodge and burns in terms of seconds.

The first box shows I dodged the sky.  This is because I wanted whiter clouds on a dark sky in my final print.  So, I used the edge of a piece of card to move gently up and down the sky dodging it for 9 seconds.  Next I turned my attention to the foreground.  I wanted that to be dark, moving the viewers eye towards the centre of the frame.  I used my trusty flexible kitchen mat in a "u" shape again to add 4 seconds extra light to the right side and 8 seconds to the left (this balanced it out as in the flat print the left side was much lighter).  Next I added 18 more seconds to the very top of the sky which would significantly darken it and start to create a nice graded effect.  Then I did an edge burn all the way around the print, 4 seconds on each edge.  This slightly darkens all the edges which I feel adds a nice balance to a print and keeps the eye focused on the main subject matter.

Now, we come to something we haven't mentioned yet.  Multigrade dodging and burning.  If you remember the article where we discussed split grade printing we talked about how grade 00 and 0 are very low contrast and so only really affect the highlights of an image.  On the reverse, grades 4 1/2 and 5 are very high contrast and so only really affect the shadows.  We can use this principle when it comes to dodging and burning.  If we have areas in our print we want to darken but want to preserve shadow detail we can use a soft grade.  This will darken highlights but leave your shadows untouched.  Likewise if we have an area in our print we want to darken without affecting our highlights we can use a hard grade.  And the same is true of the opposite scenario with dodging.  You can lighten shadow and highlight tones without affecting surrounding tones by dodging using a soft or hard grade.

In the example of the print we are discussing I switched from grade 3 to grade 0.  I then used a piece of card with a thin rectangle cut out to burn in a little highlight detail of the pale grass just below the horizon.  On the flat print there was very little detail in this grass and I wanted to bring some of that back.  Had I merely added more time to the base exposure this would have effected the rest of the print.  Burning in at grade 0 allowed me to preserve the rest of the print as I wanted it and bring back some of that highlight detail.

Next I switched to grade 4 1/2 and burnt in the sky.  This would leave the highlights of the clouds unaffected but add greater density to the sky.  This burn combined with the previous dodging and burning I had done created a nice gradational effect to the sky but preserved cloud detail.

As can be seen from my notes I did a little local bleaching (using potassium ferricyandie/bromide) and then toned the print - more on that at a later date i'm sure!

These are the basics of dodging and burning.  All I can recommend is that you get into the darkroom and keep doing it.  You may struggle at first but one day a light will just turn on in your head and everything will just slip into place.  Remember to be creative with your dodging and burning, your print doesn't have to look like it did when you shot the scene with your camera.

Until next time, happy printing!