Beginner Cat Photo Skills

Dodge and Burn Your Way to Purrfect Cat Photos

Ever capture a portrait that you are really happy with, but there is a touch of shadow or you wish you had used a bit of exposure compensation? You know it could be a showstopper, yet that nagging “what if…” drifts at the back of your mind. Cat photographer a digital darkroom secret weapon can transform your almost purrfect cat photo into a masterpiece.

Two Words to Enhance Your Cat Photos

Dodge and Burn.

Dodge and what? It sounds like your cat’s crazy antics at 3 a.m. doesn’t it? How will this help your digital images look better?

Dodge and Burn – A History

A quick non-technical peek into photographic history will help you understand the two names and what they do. Affordable digital cameras for cat photographers like us arrived in the late 1990s. Before this a photographer had two options when developing images:

  • They could be developed at a shop or developing company.
  • Experts could process their film in a special dark room.

There was no photo editing software like Affinity Photo, or Photoshop. Photographers had to manipulate their images using skills in a dark room. The technique that lightened parts of an image is still called ‘dodging‘. The darkening of an image is called ‘burning‘.

Now Photo Editing Software Does This For Us

All photo editing applications have this as a standard tool. The dodge looks like a magnifying glass, referring to the enlarger used in a photographer’s darkroom, and the burn is a stylised flame.

This image of cafe cat Betty shows the two tools in the left sidebar of Affinity Photo. (I do not cover the sponge tool in this post). Your tools will be in a similar place but if you are in any doubt, check your manual or an online pdf for instructions.

How dodge and burn can transform a photograph by removing shadows and evening out texture
How to dodge good with a cat – small steps works best

Work with very low pressures…. This means the effect builds very slowly but a slow build up is the key to realistic gradients (of light and shade) and is essential to avoid overdoing the burn and dodge.

Tom Ang

How Do You Use Dodge and Burn Tools

If you open your own photo editing software and locate the two tools, you will see that the familiar cursor turns into an adjustable circle. This circle has two options:

  • It can be resized from very small dot to a circle over 4000 pixels wide.
  • The strength or ‘pressure’ of the stroke can be regulated from soft to strong.

You move the tool across your screen where you want to make changes. The power of the two tools lies in their ability to adjust your photographs in subtle ways. A light touch is recommended as you build your skills and confidence.

The dodge and burn tools in Photoshop look similar.

How to use dodge and burn to improve your cat photos

Give yourself permission to play, learn and fail

When learning, always work on a duplicate copy of your photograph and push the tools to their limit. Try to burn your way across a photograph. Dodge to the limits then assess the results you create. When you push the boundaries of each tool you learn what works and what doesn’t.

  • TIP: Cmd/Ctrl D is often the duplicate command.

When Would I use Dodge and Burn?

I suggest three fun opportunities cat lovers to build your skills with dodge and burn tools.

Cat Portraits

If your digital cat portrait looks good, apart from a stubborn shadow, or small area of overexposed fur, you can see if dodging or burning will help. Make a duplicate and play around with the two tools. You can see how effective a light touch of dodging works on this black cat photo.

Here is an example of how gentle adjustment was make a difference to a photograph. You may not see much of a difference here at first but the smallest touch to lighten a shadow draws attention across your photograph.

Dodging lightens a cat photograph very gently so it can be appreciated more
Cat Portrait before gentle ‘dodging’.

Work gently and use your keyboard to zoom in for close work:

  • Ctrl/Cmd + (plus sign) zooms in.
  • Ctrl/Cmd (minus) zooms out again.

Remember too that your changes are not permanent. You can use your photo editing software’s ‘undo’ options to step back from the decisions you make. Check under ‘Edit’ in your menu bar or use Ctrl/Cmd Z.

Gentle lightening of the fur and a reduced brightness of the window allows the cat to be the centre of the picture.

TIP: When you lighten very dark shadows that contain little detail, you end up with grayish shadows. Darkening very light areas that are completely washed out doesn’t make your image look very good, either. You will end up with white patches.

Photoshop Elements for Dummies

Cat Product Photos

You definitely want to ensure that your photos look good for a sponsored post for a cat toy, furniture or food product.

If you check your images after a photoshoot on the camera’s LCD screen, they seem good and you feel happy. Later, when you review the photographs on a computer screen or tablet, you feel there are some distracting overbright areas. That shot of your cat enjoying the sponsor’s product is close to perfect, what can you do to adjust it?

Here’s an example. This image of Miranda (below) uses the burn tool around the edges, and the dodge tool to highlight the treat packets. See how the packets are just a little bit brighter? The changes are subtle.

To reduce strong bright areas I used the burn tool and worked in small increments to lower the bright highlights. I adjusted the opacity of my tool, and the size of the brush.

  • Your aim is to make adjustments that will not be noticed!
How to use Dodge and Burn Product Photo

Family and Friends Portraits

Your cat portraits may be spontaneous, you might not think about camera settings until later. If this is the case, don’t worry. As long as you try to work with good light it will not be hard to adjust shadows or highlights using dodge or burn.

Remember that in a portrait, you aim to focus on sharply focused eyes. If you succeed with good eye definition your viewers will forgive you almost everything.

This sample shot is of Harvey. It shows a before and after treatment. Glogirly transforms the photograph with subtle adjustments. These include brightening the eye nearest the light source. First, take a look at the image that needed adjustment.

Now take a look at the gentle use of light (dodging) and how it transforms Harvey’s photograph.

The changes are understated but well placed and transform the image. Practice and experience make a difference so don’t be discouraged if things don’t work out first try. Always use a light touch and work slowly. Always practice on a duplicate copy of your photo.

#RememberMeThursday 2018

Sometimes Your Photo Can’t Be Rescued

No matter how hard you try, there are times when nothing will work. When this happens you just have to swallow hard, keep calm, and edit on.

If I try to adjust a photograph and it doesn’t work, I have two choices. Either keep the picture in my ‘treasures’ folder (see the second photo below) or I try running it through a filter. Filters can transform your image into something completely different.

Look at this grunge interpretation of Phoebe from Photo Lab. The original smartphone photograph was cute but overexposed (too light) so I played around with a few filters. I gave myself permission to fail and had no expectations. With the photo app’s help I created a really dramatic image without stress. An overexposed photograph I could not rescue was transformed into a steampunk fantasy.

Grunge Filter Picture including a cat is stunning.

The second photo I could not improve comes from 2014

This was taken with a Samsung compact camera and I managed to capture a precious moment. Here’s what happened.

This is the first time Harvey played with a catnip mouse in his forever home. He plays under the watchful eye of his mentor young Miranda who you can see watching. The incident took place not long after Dash Kitten himself passed away. It was a landmark in Harvey’s journey towards confidence as a late adopted senior.

I have tried to sharpen it, lighten it but nothing works to improve my precious moment. So I added a soft focus frame and left the image alone.

Finally for Dodge and Burn Newbies

Dodge and burn skills are simple to learn and can with a dash of patience raise your photographs to another level. I recommend you explore your own photo editing tools and see where they take you. The results can be subtle, or brave and fearless so I hope you will try this useful way to enhance your photographs.

Let me know if the techniques help and if you have any questions please email me. I am happy to help.

Dodge and Burn Resources

  • Dodge and Burn in PaintShop Pro – Corel Discovery Centre
  • Dodge and Burn in Affinity Photo – Affinity Help (plus tutorials on YouTube)
  • Dodge and Burn in Photoshop – PSD
  • Darkroom – A darkroom is used to process photographic film, to make prints and to carry out other associated tasks. It is a room that can be made completely dark to allow the processing of the light-sensitive photographic materials, including film and photographic paper. Various equipment is used in the darkroom, including an enlarger, baths containing chemicals, and running water. – Wikipedia
  • This post has tips on sharper fur, you might find helpful.
  • iOS and Android the best filter apps for 2020.

23 thoughts on “Dodge and Burn Your Way to Purrfect Cat Photos”

  1. Yore a furabuluss foto graffer Miss Marjorie!
    An out fave foto iss THE one of Harvey Buttonss~~~ hee was so adoorabell.
    Toulouse looks speck-taculur!
    **purrss** BellaDharma an ((huggiess)) LadyMew

  2. We have a lot of photos that may benefit from these tools which we have seen (Paintshop Pro) but had no idea what they were. Thanks so much we will experiment and see what comes

  3. I love this! I often forget the power of editing programs and that I can actually make very precise changes to photos.

    • Sometimes I think we need to realise the time is right to learn a new tool. This is how it worked for me

  4. lighter black cats….. yeah.

    I love the kitty in the window in your picture. It was really pretty in the first shot, but the kitty stands out more in the second even though the changes were subtle. It’s beautiful.

    I’m terrible at editing – I just take a shot and love it or hate it . I’m getting better at it.

  5. Wow, I could have used some of these tips for the poor lighting in my post this week! I’ll have to try the dodge and burn tool. It could be really helpful. I especially like how it highlighted Harvey’s face. I also like the grunge filter image of Phoebe.

  6. I think I delete 50 percent of the photos I take and slowly I think getting there but with my lousy camera it does not help much. Love reading your posts with their tips though, thanks

  7. Another excellent post!

    Just a little dodging and burning can really change a photo for the better and it doesn’t take long. And using an art filter can really save a photo too 🙂

  8. I will have to look for these tools on the editors I use. Until now I have used the highlights and shadows in Windows pictures, but that affects the whole photo, not just the area I want.

  9. Dodging and burning is really helpful sometimes, especially when we have a lack of natural light at the shelter. 🙂

  10. Excellent explanation & examples. I’ll have to see if my free photo software has these tools. I’ve been adjusting lighting on the entire image.

  11. So THAT is what those little tools I didn’t know about do. Wow!]\I use PSE2018, I wonder if they work the same way there?

    Love how your pics got fixed.

  12. My human has been doing photography for so long that she actually had to dodge and burn in the darkroom!

  13. I used to do that when I made my own prints but I rarely do that in the digital age because I mostly just forget about it. Thank you for reminding me. I should try to do that more often in the future.


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