PFB: Smudge It, Blur It, Dodge It, Burn It

Hello! Welcome back to Photoshop for Beginners. This will be one of the last on the series on tools for all us beginners. If you have been following along so far you should already be able to make or manipulate some pretty cool photos by now.

Feature ImageSML

Today: The Smudge, Sharpen, Blur, Sponge, Burn, and Dodge tools.

  • If you don’t get the reference in the title picture my heart is sad for you.

The Task Tools

Smudge, Sharpen, Blur

These three tools are used for specific tasks in photo editing. I will get into each one’s functions below but they all have to do with manipulating pixels, either through moving color around, creating variance, or reducing variance in color transitions.


The Smudge Tool

The smudge tool does pretty much what its name implies, it is used to smudge pixels creating a variance in color between two different colors. I will show you in an example below.

Menu1But first where to find it. As with all tools it is found in the tool panel or by going Window>Tools. This tool is also grouped with the Blur and Sharpen tool and unlike most others doesn’t have an assigned hotkey.


SmudgeUnlike the Color Mixer Tool that I mentioned in Brushes, one of my first tutorials, the smudge tool does not use a base color and mix it with whatever happens to be underneath it. The smudge tool blends the colors of all the pixels it passes over and kind of smears them around; much like when you were a kid painting with finger paints. As you can see in the picture on the left it can be used to make some funky textural elements. With this tool you can set the overall brush size as well as the strength. If the strength value is set low then the effect the tool has is little, if set high the initial color that is being dragged will continue on picking up little bits of other color as is goes.

Sharpen Tool

The sharpen tool is also fairly self-explanatory, if you know what it means to sharpen an image. If you don’t know let me explain it. When dealing with pixels in digital images it is important not to forget that there are thousands, maybe even millions of tiny color blocks that make up your image. Having a smooth transition of color from one to another can create a pleasing experience for the eye. Sometimes however there can be too much of a transition. This could have happened due to movement or the camera not being focused correctly, this transition is known as blur and can have the opposite reaction creating a distracting and just plain lousy image, there are of course times where blurring is intended. Sharpening is trying to combat that overage in the transition of colors to make photos or parts of photos appear more clearly.

I know the example picture below is grainy but it actually works quite well for this demonstration of how useful the sharpen tool can be. Below on the left is the original picture, the lights appear blurry due to the exposure from the bright light within the candle holders. On the right I used the sharpen tool with it’s strength set at 50% and only went over the lights. As you can see I pulled more detail from each of the votive candle holders. The sharpen tool took away some of the blurred light that was obscuring the details on the lights. This can be overdone and it is important to know when to stop. Keep in mind that the more you sharpen an image the grainier it will become.


The Blur Tool

Quite literally you can think of the as the opposite of the sharpen tool because that is exactly what it is. Instead of getting rid of the excess color transitions you will be adding it in to give a blurred look. As I said before there are times when this is intentional, it depends on the final look you are trying to achieve. Blurring the background around a subject can help bring focus to that subject. An example of using blur to draw attention to a focal point or subject is found below. Notice how much more your realize the time in the right hand photo as opposed to the left?


The Color Tools

Dodge, Burn, and Sponge

This next set of tools is a really cool set to play around with. They can edit the colors within an image without having to enter into the color picker to choose a lighter or darker shade or a more saturated or desaturated color. Each one has it’s own function and when used in conjunction with layers can be used in a nondestructive way to edit your photos.

Menu2As you can see from the photo on the left these tool are again found in the tools panel or by going to Window>Tool. The hotkey for these tool is the letter “O”

The Dodge Tool

The Dodge Tool works with the lightness or white value of a color. A quick exercise you can do would be to take a dark color, like navy blue, and click in the same spot with the dodge tool until that spot turns white. After going through various lighter hues of your base color the spot turns white because with the dodge tool you are adding white value to your base color. This has a real practical application to photo retouching and editing, say you wanted to cast better light on a subject to make them stand out more. The areas you wish to lighten could be done with the dodge tool which would lighten all the variations in color at once by adding white value in the same measure to all of them. Take a look at the example below. This poor chap got himself stuck in a cage at Disney Land, but he looks rather shady anyways. Until we lighten him up a bit, now he looks like a fine upstanding soul that just arrived in the wrong place at the wrong time.


The BUrn Tool

The Burn Tool work in the opposite direction of the dodge tool. That means that the burn tool adds blacks to a color until it reaches black. Much the same as the dodge tool the burn tool can work on multiple color variations at one time adding a measured amount of black to each color resulting in a darker hue. This can be used to create a vignette like effect on photos like in the example below, the real difference being that you are in complete control of where the vignette is.


Pro-Tip: and I say this only because I learned it from a Pro. When using the dodge and burn tools always try to work non-destructively, actually that is just a good tip on its own. To accomplish this with the dodge and burn tools however there is a real simple trick.

  • Create a new layer above the image you wish to edit.
  • Fill that layer with a 50% grey. In the color picker, explained here, set your H:50, S:0%, and B:50%
  • Set the grey layer to Overlay in your Layers Panel, doing so will allow you to see the photo underneath.
  • Use the dodge and burn tools on the grey layer where you would like to dodge and burn things
  • This is now the layer that controls your ‘highlights’ and ‘shadows’ that you can manipulate all you want without wrecking the colors on the original photo.


 The Sponge Tool

The Sponge Tool is fascinating in that it can actually be used two ways. You can set it to either saturate or desaturate the color of an image. You could almost think of it like a volume knob on a TV. (Remember when TV’s had knobs?) You can either crank up the color to a super loud, in your face color, or dial it back to a subdued, barely there, hint of color. Of course those are both extremes you can also fine tune colors to make a subject pop amongst a diluted back ground.

This technique however does not work with the pro-tip above; the sponge tool can’t work with the 50% grey layer as it needs color in order to work properly. You could however use a similar non-destructive technique and replace the 50% grey with a color and set it to either: Multiply, Lighten, Screen, or Overlay. Each of the settings with produce a different effect and each is a more stylized variation of the original photo as you are adding a color wash over top of the image. There is an example of each below with different color overlays to give you an idea.


As always thank you for joining me at the end of another tutorial, sorry this one took so long to post, I hope you found it informative and helped you build your Photoshop skills.


  • Awesome Daft Punk Wallpaper used to make the title graphic found here
  • Thank you to the makers of the fonts featured throughout this tutorial. Each of the fonts can be found by typing there names into a search engine: 1873 Winchester, Caribbean Tool, Diamond Dust, and Friday13.

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