Burning Dodging Darkroom Techniques

How to make burning and dodging tools for darkroom printing and tips for successful technique.

Unlike other photography gear, making burning dodging darkroom tools is simple. All you need is some light cardboard, coat hanger wire or similar, scissors, tape, or Blu Tak.

Possibly the most common burning and dodging darkroom tool is a piece of card. Frequently, the empty cardboard envelopes of photographic paper make for an excellent tool. You can choose to either use the card curved or can be used straight-edged. Shapes can easily be cut into the sheet using a craft knife or scissors, creating holes for burning in.

burning in darkroom printing
Cardboard sheet can be used as burning and dodging tool: straight edge, curved edge or cut shapes are possible

Another favourite dodging tool is light card, shaped in an oval or any shape you desire, and attached with tape to the end of straight length of coat hanger wire. This tool allows you to reach into small areas of a projected image and dodge an area. The wire’s shadow, with constant movement during exposure, is usually not seen in the final print.

print dodging darkroom
Simple dodging tool: cardboard on wire is another simple dodging technique

Dodging and Burning Techniques

Simple burning & dodging techniques are achieved by placing an object, usually a card, in the path of the light during print exposure. The area where the light falls over the card’s edge receives additional exposure and is “burnt in”. Conversely, the area under the card’s shadow is blocked from exposure and hence “dodged”.

Simple dodging and burning techniques work well for me when the difference between the burning or dodging areas and their adjacent print area’s exposure does not exceed one f-stop. If it does, then I require a more repeatable and more graduated burning and dodging technique, such as burning dodging masks.

Dodging and Burning Should Not Be Noticed!

To be successful, the viewer’s attention must not be drawn to areas of the print where burning and dodging techniques have been applied. The print should look normal to the eye. Hard edges of tonal differences or illogical tonal relationships between adjacent print areas are dead giveaways to burning and dodging. When you are burning dodging, here are a few points worth remembering to keep the transition of print tones smooth.

Tips for Burning and Dodging for Darkroom Printing

  1. Use a continuous, gentle, oscillating, movement

    Move your burning dodging tool backwards and forwards during print exposure

  2. Use your penumbra!

    Move the burning dodging tool closer to the enlarger lens for a softer transition edge, or closer to the photographic paper for a harder edge. Think of the penumbra as feathering in photoshop

  3. Avoid short duration dodging and burning-in times.

    Short times increase your percentage for error and reduce your repeatability

  4. Apply multiple passes over broad areas

    Break your burning and dodging of larger areas into smaller, graduated steps where exposure differences exceed one f-stop

  5. Record your burning and dodging notes.

    Document all your steps, tools used, the print region, and exposures, so you can repeat the process consistently

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Since 1989, Alex Bond has published cards, calendars, books, and posters under his imprint Stormlight Publishing. His images showcase the West Australian environment. Bond's handcrafted, silver-gelatin, fibre-based prints are personally made by the author in his darkroom.

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