Burn your photo's edges

Use your image editor to simulate a traditional darkroom effect that emphasises your subject.

Back in the days when photographers used film and darkrooms, you could control the look of your prints with techniques called dodging and burning. As you exposed a print, for example, you could cover part of the photographic paper on which you were exposing the image. This effect (dodging) would make the obscured section lighter than the rest of the image. Alternately, you could expose another section of the photo longer (burning), and this would make it darker. Burn part of the photo long enough, and it would turn black.


This week, let's try applying the burn effect to add some subtle vigetting to a photo. You can work with any image you like, but it helps to start with one that is already predominately dark overall, like this shot of my son's marching band, taken at a nighttime football game.

Let's say that we want to focus on the middle of the image by gradually darkening both sides, until the extreme left and right edges are pure black. There are any number of ways to do that, but I'll show you an easy method that relies on the Levels tool.

Open the photo in your favorite photo editing program. As usual, I'll demonstrate with Adobe Photoshop Elements, but you can apply the steps using almost any program.

Get Your Vignette Set

Begin by creating a duplicate layer: Choose Layer, Duplicate Layer, and then click OK. Working in a layer allows you to easily vary the overall effect, and even to revert back to the original photo with minimal fuss.

At this point, we should automatically be working in the top layer, but you can verify that by checking the Layers palette on the right side of the screen. Make sure the top layer is the one that's selected.

The next step is to select the region that we want to preserve in the photo. Select the Rectangular Marquee Tool (it lives in the fifth cubby from the top in the toolbar on the left side of the screen). In the Options toolbar at the top of the screen, set the feathering to a fairly large value. The more pixels in your image, the bigger your feather value should be. For my sample photo--which is 800 pixels wide--I'm using a feather of 50 pixels.


Now draw a rectangle that contains the part of the photo you want to keep. You will end up with something like the image linked here (note the rounded corners, caused by the feathering).

In order to burn the sides, we'll need to employ a favorite trick of mine: Choose Select, Inverse to swap the selected and unselected parts of the photo.

Get Out Your Blowtorch (Just Kidding)


Now, the only thing left to do is to actually burn the image. Choose Enhance, Adjust Lighting, Levels. Drag the black point marker all the way to the right, so it is in line with the white point marker.


To get rid of the distracting selection marks, choose Select, Deselect. Finally, you can put the finishing touches on your photo by cropping it to size. You might end up with something like my final version.

And remember--you can try for a similar effect by dodging the edges of your photos. Look for images with light backgrounds and dodge the edges into pure white

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