Posted by Claire Wade

Adobe Photoshop and indeed, Elements, are such large programs that I’ll bet not many people know what the software is completely capable of. Do you ever look at some of the tools and wonder what exactly are you meant to do with them? Cropping, paint brushes and erasers are pretty obvious (or are they?!) but others are not so.

This is why I’m writing this article on the Dodge, Burn and Sponge tools. Whatever are they about? All three are together in the tool bar and here’s what they look like in Photoshop and Elements:

So I’ll go through each one with all options they have.

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Dodge Tool

dodgeThe icon for the Dodge Tool looks like a dandelion clock. Its job is to lighten. You will see that in both Elements and Photoshop there’s a drop down menu named ‘Range‘, the three options being: Shadows, Midtones and Highlights.

So, if you are using the Dodge Tool and you choose Highlights, the brush will lighten only the pale tones in your photo. For example, in the photo of a zebra below, only the white stripes will get lighter.

Also note at the top of this example, you can see the other useful settings for the Dodge Tool, ie, the brush size, the range, exposure and protect tones, in other software you should have these settings but they may be in other places on your screen.


*Please note that the more you use the tool, the more it will affect the other tones; you can see on the zebra above that it has started to lighten the dark areas too. This is because I’ve overused the tool in the examples just to illustrate what can happen.

On every tool there is the option to adjust exposure, I suggest keeping this down to 20% to give you more control and subtlety.

If you use the Dodge Tool on the Shadows setting, you will lighten the darker tones so, in the image of a zebra below, you can see that the dark stripes are getting lighter:


So when you use the Dodge Tool on the Midtones setting, it will lighten the midtones. I have used this particular setting before on people’s eyes to brighten them, but I did it subtly otherwise the eyes might start to appear to glow!

I’ve also used the Dodge Tool on the Midtones setting to gently lighten dark shadows and bags under people’s eyes. I used a brush at 10% exposure as a general rule.

In portraits of people on white backgrounds, I have used the Dodge Tool set to Highlights to clean up around loose hair. This makes the background whiter without losing too much hair.

Burn Tool

burnThe symbol on Burn Tool is a hand; I’m not sure what it’s meant to be doing though!

So this is the opposite of the Dodge Tool and darkens. So when using the Burn Tool set to Highlights, you will darken the pale colours. Be warned, this can just end up looking a bit grey rather than darker. See the example of the Burn Tool used at Highlight setting on the zebra below, the white strip looks dingy. So be subtle when using it!


And here is an example of the Burn Tool set to Shadows, the dark stripe below has turned almost full black:


The Burn Tool set to Midtones will darken the midtones. I’ve used this to darken eyes in portraits, or darken slightly over-exposed areas of photos using a larger brush.

Sponge Tool

spongeThe Sponge Tool looks like a sponge, which I find to be handy!

This tool has two settings, saturate and desaturate.

If you set the Sponge Tool to Saturate, the areas you brush with it will become more vibrant and saturated. In the example below, I’ve used it on one of the lion’s eyes.


And using the Sponge Tool at the Desaturate setting will do just the opposite, it will dull down the areas you use it on until it eventually becomes greyscale. This can be handy to tone down parts of your photos that are overpowering other areas that you want to stand out.

I’ve used it very roughly on the image of a tiger below, I’ve brushed over an area of grass, so that it is a less vibrant green:


Another useful time to use the Sponge Tool on the Desaturate setting is when you’ve been doing some colour popping (that is, having part of your image colour whilst the rest of it is greyscale. Click here for an article on colour popping). After you’ve finished your colour popped image, you may notice part of it you have accidentally left colour, well you can put your Sponge Tool at 100% Desaturate and brush over the missed coloured area!

Keyboard Shortcuts

Pressing the letter O on your keyboard in Photoshop and Elements will select either the Dodge, Burn or Sponge tools for you. (Whichever was last used will be selected.)

Once the tool is selected, press the Shift and O, this will go through the three tools.

Pressing Shift and (the – to the right of the number 0) will go through the Shadows, Midtones and Highlights options.

Pressing the [ and ] keys (to the right of the letter P) will make your brushes bigger or smaller.