How To Use the Dodge Burn Tool in GIMP {Complete Guide}

large featured dodge burn

The terms Dodge & Burn bring back horrific memories from childhood… dodge ball and a sunburn. However, they also bring back pleasant memories of “editing” my images in the good ‘ole darkrooms of yesteryear. After all, these two tools have been carried over from analog days to our current digital world.

In today’s tutorial, you’ll learn everything you need to know about the Dodge Burn tool for GIMP users. If you’re ready… let’s do it!

Table of Contents

What Is the Dodge Burn Tool?

dodge burn sculpting

Image by Ali Pazani. Ali does an excellent job of sculpting his models. Although I don’t know Ali’s specific workflow I suspect he used the Dodge and Burn tools for retouching and sculpting. It also looks like he uses another advanced editing technique known as Frequency Separation.

As mentioned previously, the Dodge/Burn tools are based on a traditional darkroom technique for adjusting the exposure in specific areas of an image. In essence, the Dodge and Burn tool is used to brighten or darken parts of an image. The Dodge tool is used for brightening, and the Burn tool is for darkening.

Think of dodging and burning as the art of sculpting the tonal range of an image. In particular, photographers Dodge & Burn to bring out or tone down Highlights + Shadows.

Tool Options

tool options

As with other paint tools in GIMP, both the Dodge and Burn are applied with a brush. Like many of the others, they have standard tool options in common. Below you’ll find those settings that are designed specifically for these two tools.

To use the tools, you can either access it from the toolbar or via a keyboard shortcut, which is Shift + D. Then, in the Tool Options, you’ll find the following settings specific to them…




This defines the intensity of the exposure effect. A higher setting is more intense.

How To Use the Dodge & Burn Tool

original before edit dodge and burn

Photo by me… I used the Dodge and Burn tools to shape the shadows and highlights.  This resulted in more shape and dimension.  Plus, dodging was used to bring out detail in the clothing that wasn’t visible initially.

Applying dodging and burning is not that much different from other paint tools. You’ll grab the tool with Shift + D and make your selections in the Tool Options. Then you’ll paint over the pixels to be adjusted accordingly.

However, suppose you simply apply the brush without consideration for sculpting and retaining detail. In that case, the end result will be less than desirable. You should consider the art of sculpting so the dodge effect or burn effect isn’t flat. Following, you’ll find a few pro tips for the best results.


original dodge + burn

Photo by Ali.  Personally, I found the model to be a bit underexposed and fixed by dodging and burning.

Suppose you prefer shooting in natural light without any form of fill light. In that case, you’ll often find that either the subject or background is on one extreme end of the exposure… over or underexposed. With the Dodge and Burn tools, you’ll be able to balance the light for a better photo.

When it comes to sculpting the face of your subjects, you’ll want to darken and lighten in the right places. Otherwise, the edit will look fake. Look for natural contours of the face to highlight or darken as needed.

You could also emphasize other parts of your subjects by adding shape and definition. This could be to enhance their muscular form. Or to strengthen or de-emphasize their clothing.


Another application for dodging and burning is to use them for retouching your portraits! When photographers think of “blemish removal,” they often think of the Healing Tool or the Clone Tool. After all, they are the go-to tools for removing blemishes.

However, you can also use the dodge and burn tools for removing blemishes too! It’s an advanced technique that is seldom used or known about. I’d argue that these two tools are superior to Heal or Clone.


When it comes to adjusting the exposure of landscapes, you have a little more leeway vs. photos of people. By shaping and defining specific details, you’ll be able to draw your viewer’s attention to essential elements.

Not all photoshoots are perfect. Even if the lighting was excellent at the time of capture, your camera might be limited in its Dynamic Range. If this happens, you can dodge and burn to fix the highlights + shadows.

Dodge & Burn Techniques

Dodging and burning begins by analyzing how the light is interacting with your subject. Study your image to determine where the brighter and darker areas are.

Are they in harmony with each other? Is detail being clipped? If so, how can you use the dodge or burn tools to fix it?

With a plan in mind, you can begin to dodge and burn as needed. In the process of editing, always keep an eye on both the highlights and shadows. This will ensure you keep the details in those tone ranges while maintaining natural skin textures… or the textures in your landscapes.

What's Next?

The art of retouching can not be learned or mastered, for that matter, overnight. It will take time to learn the tools of the trade… and practice… lots of it.

To help you continue your editing journey, I’ve put together multiple tutorials to help you achieve your creative vision. Start by reading this collection of free tutorials. For more advanced training, check these out.

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