The Dodge, Burn, and Sponge Tools are often overlooked in Photoshop. After all, why not just use “Curves” and “Levels” to adjust shadows and highlights in an image? Well, not only do these three tools offer effective ways to improve the quality of an image, they do so by only changing a specific area and often with more precision.

Quick Tip: “Shift + O” is the keyboard shortcut for all three tools. Hold “Shift” and tap the letter “O” to toggle between the tools. The Dodge Tool Lightens

Let’s begin with a quick overview of the Dodge Tool, which lightens, brightens, and/or creates contrast for a specific area of an image. The Dodge Tool has four settings (found in the Window > Options bar): Brush Selection (Size and Type), Range, Exposure, and Airbrush.

The area of the image will determine the size and type of brush. A good choice is a soft brush at the largest size possible, with the “Airbrush” option enabled. In the Brushes Window, select Brush Presets > Brush Tip Shape and be sure the box for “Spacing” is selected to avoid choppy “Dodge” tool results. The soft brush choice with an “airbrush” option will create a more natural result.

For the most part, the Range should be set in the “Midtones,” since “Highlights” and “Shadows” should be used sparingly. In most cases, the Exposure setting should be set below 10%. Though more passes will be needed at a low Exposure setting, this will result in a more subtle result. Keep in mind that each pass over an area will increase the “dodge” effect on that area.

Quick Tip: In Photoshop CS4+, enable the “Protect Tones” option.

The Dodge Tool can be used effectively to brighten eyes, bring out details, lighten a background, remove shadows (such as dark circles under eyes), and/or create highlights. For example, a heart created in Photoshop can have highlights quickly added. Simply duplicate the original heart layer, change the fill color to gray and set the blend mode to Overlay. Select the gray heart and sweep the Dodge Tool across the top and sides to add subtle highlights to give depth to the heart.

The Burn Tool Burns Dark

Next up is the Burn Tool, which shares the same four settings as the Dodge Tool. However, this tool darkens where the Dodge Tool lightens.

Quick Tip: Protect the original image. Copy the original image and create a selection around the area where the Dodge/Burn/Sponge Tool will be used with the Lasso Tool (L).

The Burn Tool can be used effectively to create shadows, darken a background, or tone down highlights. For example, a simple photograph of a flower can quickly have the background edges “burned” for a desktop wallpaper.

The Sponge Tool Saturates (or Desaturates)

Finally, the Sponge Tool changes the color saturation level of a specific area of an image. The settings include: Brush Selection (Size and Type), Mode (Desaturate, Saturate), Flow, and Airbrush. Set the mode to “Saturate” to intensify the vivid colors and “Desaturate” to mute colors. The higher the “Flow” percentage, the stronger the intensity of (de)saturation. Again, enabling “Airbrush” is always a good idea.

The Sponge Tool can effectively be used to create vivid colors in a photo, saturate color in one area to focus attention, desaturate the background to bring focus to the forefront, or desaturate an area of an image with color (such as a blemish).

The following photo shows how using the Sponge Tool to saturate the bird’s feathers with a little more color, creates the illusion of more feather detail. The extra added color increases the contrast with the cyan sky and the aged wood.

These are just a few examples of what can be accomplished by using these three Photoshop tools. Once you’re familiar, you’ll find they’re all both versatile and timesaving.