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Dodging and Burning

Dodging (reducing the exposure in selected areas) and burning (increasing the exposure in selected areas) are done to adjust the appearance of a print, when a straight print from the negative is unsatisfactory.

Very few high quality prints are made by a straight exposure. Shadow areas often need lightening, to prevent them filling-in to a solid black; highlights may need more exposure to avoid featureless areas of solid white. Local density control is the key. Burning (or burning-in) adds density by giving extra exposure to highlight areas; dodging (or holding back, or shading) reduces the exposure and therefore the density in shadows.

Dodging and burning - Roger Bamber

There are no rules about how much dodging or burning is needed to retain detail in shadows or highlights; it will vary with the tonal range of the negative, the paper used, and (where applicable) the MULTIGRADE filter used. However, additive corrections generally require you to change the exposure more than subtractive ones. Few shadow areas need less than 50% of the main exposure; but brilliant highlights often need three or four times the main exposure.

Don’t overdo it – the aim is to ensure that the darkest areas where you want to retain some detail are not quite black, and that the brightest highlights where detail is still important are not quite white. Don’t make the mistake of eliminating blacks and whites – the result will lack life and be disappointing.

When burning, give the whole print a basic exposure, then add extra exposure to the highlight areas. To do this, use a sheet of cardboard with an irregular hole cut in it: hold it half-way between the enlarger lens and the baseboard, and keep it constantly moving during exposure to blur edges. You will be able to see an image of the negative on the card, and position the hole where you want the extra exposure.

When dodging, use your hands or a simple dodging tool during the main exposure to reduce exposure where required. Dodging tools are easy to make – just fasten a piece of modelling clay or cardboard to a piece of wire.

The same techniques can be used more creatively to change the tones of a print and alter the whole “feel” of it. For example, burning in the sky can simply be used to prevent it washing out completely; but going further and taking it to a mid-grey can make the same picture look brooding and full of menace. Similarly, you can hide unwanted detail, and draw the viewer’s attention to the part of the picture you want to emphasise.