In the process of answering a question on Reddit, I got curious about why the Dodge and Burn tools are named as they are. I understand now the terms relate to photography, and "Burn" makes sense to me, since it's about over-exposing parts of the photograph to make them lighter, but where does "Dodge" come from? Is it because the photograph is "dodging" the light by being covered up during exposure?

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    Are you asking about the meaning of the word and how it came to be attributed to the photographic technique? Perhaps one of the English language stack exchanges would be better for this - it's not really a graphic design question. If you look up a dictionary you will see the word "dodge" has several meanings, moving to and fro, up and down, shifting one's position so as to avoid or evade someone or something, to stealthily avoid/evade something/someone by continually hiding behind objects, etc.
    – Billy Kerr
    Mar 24, 2020 at 9:14
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    @BillyKerr i would say photography
    – joojaa
    Mar 24, 2020 at 9:44
  • I understood that it came from photography. I just didn't know whether there was a particular meaning to "dodge" that was meant. My experience with etymology is that words often start as something completely different and settle to something familiar due to people "fixing" it over time to the word they know. I didn't know if that would be the case here. Mar 24, 2020 at 11:09
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    @BillyKerr: Ah, in this case, I mean specifically the etymology as it relates to photography and now the general design technique. Sometimes the etymology is different for a particular meaning, such as how the opposite meanings of "cleave" come from two different words. Mar 24, 2020 at 12:07
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    @BillyKerr: Maybe it's a subtle distinction, but if I asked you for the etymology of "deserts" as it relates to the phrase "just deserts", would you introduce the Latin desertare from which we get the word for a sandy expanse, the Latin deservire from which we get "deserve" and "just deserts", or both? In this case, the context is photography/graphic design and my research didn't indicate why they chose that word and if it was indeed the same origin as that of avoiding something. Mar 24, 2020 at 14:03

3 Answers 3


Darkroom manipulation

The term originates in the photographers dark-room, and sadly I am old enough to have literally "dodged and burned" photos under the enlarger!

An "enlarger" is simply understood as a projector. It beams light through a negative and onto photographic paper. In much the same the way the lens of the camera "printed" the light onto the negative in the first place.

While this process is happening (and it takes a few minutes depending on exposure), you have an opportunity to vary the amount of light hitting the paper in different parts of the photograph. These techniques are called "dodging" (blocking light from an area) and "burning" making more light hit only a certain area (or blocking light from everywhere else if you will!)

The icons in Photoshop are amazingly accurate. A "pinched" hand to let more light through whilst covering the rest of the image (if supplemented by cardboard), and cotton wool on a stick will hold back light from a desired area - it simply "casts a shadow" and stops the light from hitting the paper.

enter image description here

Dodging Dodging can be used performed using the hand or specific tools such as black cardboard. Dodging is best when used in a circular motion on the image to get the desired result. Dodging over an area has the effect of lightening that area. Specifically then - to answer the question - "Dodging" refers to the paper dodging the light (by way of a blocking mechanism)

The technique I was taught involved moving cotton wool on a stick randomly (difficult) over the area where I want to hold back light

Burning Burning is when the image receives more light (exposure) so the image can darken. Just like dodging, burning can be done by hand or by using objects that control the size and shape of the area. To avoid visible steps between the burned-in area and the rest of the image, the device should stay in motion.

enter image description here

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    Does this answer the etymology?
    – joojaa
    Mar 24, 2020 at 10:19
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    dodging = decreasing exposure = avoiding light. It sounds good to me.
    – Luciano
    Mar 24, 2020 at 10:34
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    @joojaa: It does provide some background on what the actual process is, and therefore why the word applies. Mar 24, 2020 at 11:10
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    @SeanDuggan Well still its just a copy paste from Wikipedia and the answer is hidden from plain view. But yes this is most likely the reason but this isnt actually answering your question its guessing an answer. The comment by Billy Kerr is much more informative as to how the question was asked. This would be fine if you had asked what is dodging actually, but you did asked for the etymology which means this would need some sources.
    – joojaa
    Mar 24, 2020 at 11:14
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    Actually I simply misread the question, excited about remembering I'd done the actual process haha, but once I'd typed it up I thought it was a useful resource, and figure it covers the answer. Happy for someone to do a deep-dive into the etymology and I'd vote that answer correct, if there is any deeper-diving to be done :) Mar 24, 2020 at 16:08

Just to round out the answers so far, Billy Kerr found two early references to "dodge" in a photographic capacity in 1883 and 1889.

A manual of photographic chemistry : theoretical and practical by Hardwich, T. Frederick (1883):

An important advantage in this process is the following : That although it is one entailing the operation of a so-called “ development” — in truth, a substitution process — yet the undeveloped image is visible, and this to such an extent that not only is the proper time of exposure estimated by its appearance, but the important operations of “dodging” and “printing-in” are also easily carried out.

"Lantern Slides" by Fred. H. Evans in the International annual of Anthony's photographic bulletin and American process yearbook., v.2 (1889)

... If working on the back of the negative is resorted to, I would suggest covering the front of the printing frame with tracing paper; this will soften the outlines of the "dodging," and by diffusing the light before reaching the negative, will go far to make such working on the back a success. I always work with my printing frame so covered (using tracing linen to stand wear better), as I find another advantage from its use: it will often have been noticed when printing from a negative in which there exists very great contrast in some one part (say a tree in the foreground with very little detail), that in the positive, will be seen a white line, suggesting the criticism that "dodging" had been resorted to to make the tree print well, but so badly as to show its outline very plainly.

Both references use the term in quotes, and refer to it in passing with little explanation, indicating that it seems to have already been standard terminology. At this time, the most reasonable explanation seems to be that the term indeed originates from the idea of either the photograph "dodging" the light by being obscured behind cover, or by the movement of the blocking material in an effort to create soft edges.

  • Great summary, and great question. How did you conclude, in your last sentence, "dodging the light ... by the movement of the blocking material"? The quoted text reads: "tracing paper ... will soften the outlines of the dodging".
    – P2000
    Mar 26, 2020 at 18:27
  • @P2000 according to the OED, the verb "to dodge" is first attested in the 16th century. Although the original sense and etymology of the word is unclear, some senses from that era include to haggle (now obsolete in this sense), to baffle or parry by shifts and pretexts, to elude (a pursuer, etc.) by shifts or sideward movements.
    – Billy Kerr
    Mar 28, 2020 at 12:08
  • @P2000 Also if you watch someone doing dodging in a darkroom, you will see that they move the tool around during the exposure, to soften the effect.
    – Billy Kerr
    Mar 28, 2020 at 12:14
  • @BillyKerr, yes I am aware of what you wrote in both your comments. See my earlier answer, below. As for my question to Sean, this question is about etymology, and so I wanted to know how/whether he concluded that from the 19th century references he quotes from (what a deep dive!). I don't think the references lead us to conclude that the word "dodge" (in this context) comes from movement, as there is no mentioning of movement. Just a comment; nothing big.
    – P2000
    Apr 1, 2020 at 5:04
  • @P2000 I don't think he is saying that those references do lead to that conclusion - he specifically uses the word "or" when mentioning the possible meanings/origins. The actual origin for the term as used in photography seems to be unclear, and the references themselves really lead nowhere, but it surely must be one or other of the pre-existing senses of the word. It's not as if they plucked the word out of thin air. It had been in use for several centuries before it was applied to photography.
    – Billy Kerr
    Apr 1, 2020 at 10:34

According to dictionary.com:

ORIGIN OF DODGE First recorded in 1560–70; of obscure origin

It means to evade or avoid, as in "to dodge/evade the ball in a game of dodge-ball" or avoid as in "to dodge/avoid a difficult question"

In our darkroom we used to call it "blocking" the light, so the term "dodge" in Photoshop was quite foreign to me until I figured out what the feature does.

As an aside, we used all sorts of burn/dodge cutouts. Sometimes we would make a quick print, cut out the areas that needed to be dodged/burned and use the cutout as a perfect template during photo print exposure. The cutout template would be placed flat on the photo paper, and held with a tweezer or a piece of tape. Since it was not held somewhere in the air between the enlarger's light and the paper, perhaps "blocking" seemed a more natural word choice than "dodging".

"Feathering" was accomplished by shaking the template a bit during exposure. The amount of additional or withheld exposure was set by counting the seconds during which to apply the template. How much burn or dodge time was needed? That was determined by a separate "test strip" (a strip of photo paper), which we would expose in the dodge/burn area of interest, and we exposed sections of the strip by 1/4x 1/2x x2 x4 times the exposure. After developing the test strip we'd evaluate which amount of burn/dodge would yield the desired exposure.

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