Reading the Rapids: An Example of Dodging and Burning by Todd Henson

Reading the Rapids, an example of dodging and burning.

Why should you dodge and burn when processing your photographs? What difference does it make? Is it really worth the effort? And what is dodging and burning, anyway?

The term is one from the film darkroom when using the enlarger to shine light through the negative and expose it onto the light sensitive paper or other media. Dodging is the process of covering parts of the print you want lighter in the finished product. And burning is the process of adding extra light (exposure) to areas of the print you want darker in the finished product. Bruce Barnbaum, in The Art of Photography, says “dodging and burning are essential techniques in making most prints.”

Barnbaum speaks of dodging or burning when working with film in the darkroom. But the technique is just as important in the digital darkroom. We just use different tools, namely software, to accomplish it. In Adobe Lightroom I often use the adjustment brush to dodge (lighten) and burn (darken) portions of an image. In fact, the image above was dodged and burned using this technique.

Guy Tal, in The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Photoshop, describes a technique he uses in Adobe Photoshop where he creates a new image layer using the Soft Light blending mode to allow him to selectively dodge and burn any part of the image. Because he uses a separate layer he can easily make adjustments anytime and the changes are non-destructive (meaning they don’t kill pixels in the original image).

The goal is to bring out all the desired detail and mold the light in a way that strengthens the composition wherever possible. Burning or dodging can also be used to add snap to selected areas. There are, of course, any number of reasons for burning or dodging. Use them, but use them sensibly for your goals.
— Bruce Barnbaum, The Art of Photography, page 191
Among other things, dodging can be very effective in recovering shadow details or lightening the main subject so it stands out from its surroundings; burning can be used to tone down highlights or to darken the area around a subject we wish to stand out more.
— Guy Tal, The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Photoshop, page 104

The image at the top of this post is the finished photograph after dodging and burning. Below is a slideshow to step you through how dodging and burning changed the look of the photo. The effects are often subtle as you apply them, and can be difficult to see in the slideshow. Look closely as you step through. I slowly darkened and lightened different portions of the water, rocks, and kayaker. Further below is a slideshow of the original and final versions where you can more easily see the differences. I hope this helps convince you of the power of dodging and burning to shape our photographs and help lead the viewer’s eye through the frame.

Click on the photograph, or the arrows on either side, to step through the slideshow.

Below is a slideshow of the before and after images. It's much easier to see what changed in these.

I see no magic to a straight print (i.e., one with no darkroom manipulation, such as dodging or burning) unless the tonal values of the scene miraculously fall into the perfect array of tonalities everywhere. Such perfect alignment rarely occurs, so darkroom manipulation is almost always necessary. Ansel Adams knew this, for nearly all of his prints were burned or dodged, some quite heavily. I know this to be true because I had spoken to him about the printing of several of his images, and he explained the extensive manipulations required for most of his images. Most of my prints are manipulated as well, some quite extensively. I recommend that all photographers recognize this and use the tools available in the darkroom for their creative and artistic needs.
— Bruce Barnbaum, The Art of Photography, page 193

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Books Mentioned in this Post

2017 Great Falls Race: Working the Race by Todd Henson

The Potomac River rushes by as people prepare for the race. A slalom pole can be seen to the left hanging over the river.

In previous posts I’ve shared photographs of the racers in the 2017 Great Falls Race, an annual whitewater event on the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. where kayakers and canoeists compete on the Class V rapids. In this post we take a look at some of the people who work the race, setting it up, monitoring and running it, and providing safety support when needed. Without these people there would be no race.

Working the race involves first getting to the edge of the river. People arrive by boat, haul their boat onto land, then set up at the edge of the river.

The folks who work the race arrive just as the contestants do, by kayak, canoe, or boat, over the river to the rocks on either side of the race lines. They have to haul their boats out of the water then hike over the rocks to the waters edge.

Some locations are more difficult to get to than others.

Setting up near the finish line to the race. This is below the last large fall.

Some of them run lines across the river to mark parts of the race. Some of the lines will hang the slalom poles which can be lowered during the slalom portion of the race and raised back out of the way during the classic race.

Lines are run across the river before the race.

Securing one end of a line to the rocks.

Some of the lines they run are safety lines to assure they don’t get swept away if they fall into the water. These are world class rapids with large volumes of water moving very quickly. You can see many of the people on the rocks have these safety lines.

People setup on both sides of the river.

Notice all the lines, some marking parts of the race, some hanging slalom poles, others for safety.

There are also people strategically staged along the course in kayaks ready to assist anyone who needs it in the water. Thankfully, it isn’t needed very often, but it’s good to have that support there when it is needed.

Sometimes people need assistance in the water when their boat overturns and they get pulled out into the river.

These races involve a lot of people, both in the race and behind the scenes. To any of you out there who do work these events, setting them up, tearing them down, working the river, know that your efforts are noticed and appreciated.

These amazing whitewater events are possible because of the hard work of the many people who work behind the scenes, along the river, and on the river.

A wide angle view showing the large numbers of people on the rocks. Some are race contestants, others are working the race.

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2017 Great Falls Race: Classic Race Winning Run by Todd Henson

Geoff Calhoun won the Classic race and was the overall race winner in the 2017 Great Falls Race, part of the annual Potomac River Festival. This is a whitewater event where kayakers and canoeists from all over congregate in the Washington, D.C. area to run some of the amazing Class V rapids along the Potomac River. The Classic race is a race for speed that in 2017 was run along the Virginia lines, which included the features: U-Hole, S-Turn, and the Spout.

Great Falls on the Potomac River showing major features. The 2017 race ran the Virginia lines.

Below are a sequence of photographs I captured showing Geoff Calhoun during his downriver final. Click on any of the photos for a larger view.


The race began just above U-Hole. Watch as his kayak dips down after going over that first rapid. You can see one of the suspended poles that was used during the slalom event, but it has now been raised up out of the way of the racers. Also notice all the crew and fellow racers along the rocks, most tethered to the rocks.


With U-Hole behind him, Geoff maneuvers his way into S-Turn, taking it from the top for a fast run straight through. He runs a line very close to the rocks on the left side before almost completely disappearing in the center of the turn. After emerging from S-Turn he straightens himself out quickly to continue moving downriver. In a couple of the latter photos you can see another of the slalom poles suspected high over the river.

The Spout

The Spout is the last major feature of the race and is the tallest individual drop at around 20 feet. Geoff angles himself right into the heavy flow of water and flies over the waterfall. The heavy spray of water at the base of the fall almost completely obscures him and his kayak, with just his helmet and paddle visible. That’s when I lost sight of him. It was a short sprint from there to the finish line.

Geoff Calhoun won the race with a downriver final time of 53.89 seconds, bettering his qualifier run of 56.88 seconds.

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