What Does the Burn Tool Do in Photoshop?

Before the advent of digital photography, if you wanted to develop photos in a particular way, you needed to go to a special photo lab or do it yourself. In the darkroom, photographers would increase the exposure to "burn" certain sections of a print and darken them in the process. Since those darkroom days, editing software like Adobe Photoshop has made it much easier to burn your images, simulating the same exposure effect but with pixels. 

So, what does the Burn tool do in Photoshop, and how can creatives use it to darken certain sections of a photo or graphic? Below, we've outlined how to burn images in Photoshop, so you can harness classic photography techniques in the 21st century. 
  1. First, start Photoshop and open the image that you want to burn. Before making any edits, keep in mind that using the Burn tool on a background layer is irreversible. To avoid running into issues, you can create a duplicate layer in the Layers palette and make edits to the duplicate image.  
  2. Next, choose the Burn tool from the main toolbar (the icon looks like a hand pinching something). You may need to click and hold over the Dodge tool to bring up the Burn tool as an option. Now, a Burn options bar will appear near the top of your screen, allowing you to choose different brushes, exposures, and more. The Range setting dictates how the Burn tool alters color in your image, so choose one of three options:
    • Shadows: Edit the darker colors
    • Highlights: Edit the lighter colors
    • Midtones: Edit the middle range (this is the best default option)
  3. In the same options bar, you can also specify the exposure level applied to your Burn tool. This is measured in percent, and by tweaking the exposure, you can achieve wildly different results. For a subtle effect, we recommend an exposure around 15% or less; for a more dramatic burn, start experimenting with a 50% exposure. 
  4. To the right of the exposure setting, there's an Airbrush button, which will change your solid brushstroke into a light spray. Lastly, there's a setting called Protect Tones, which compares burned sections with your original image and prevents colors from changing dramatically. You'll also find it reduces clipping when you burn highlights and shadows, resulting in a more natural look.  
  5. When you're pleased with the Burn settings, you can start drawing on the image and darken the sections that need adjusting. Feel free to undo any edits, go back to the options bar, and try different Burn settings along the way. We also recommend saving copies of your work periodically, so that you always have a backup version in case you make drastic edits and regret them later.  
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