Burning the Edges of Images in Photoshop

Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow


Photoshop CS or Photoshop CS2 Used in this Tutorial

This article covers a technique that is at once subtle yet, when properly implemented, can significantly improve an image. The technique is called burning the edges and is simple in its concept and application. It simply is a matter of darkening the edges of a print. This serves to help manage the eye of the viewer by keeping the eye directed toward the center of interest and away from the edges.

Ansel Adams used this technique on his landscapes and described the method in his book "The Print". Of course, Ansel Adams had to carry out the method in a dark room. We have the advantage of carrying out the procedure in a much easier fashion on our computers.

The Image

Figure 1: Ladybugs

Figure 1 shows an image of a colony of ladybugs astride a waterfall. The ladybugs, and the weathered stump on which they reside, constitute the center of interest of the image. The waterfall and other assorted detail add character to the image but should not distract from the ladybug colony. Burning the edges of this image would serve to keep a viewer's eye directed toward the ladybugs.

There are many ways of burning the edges. This article will cover just one. This method uses a combination of a filled layer and a blurred mask.

Burning the Edges: In Application

Figure 2: Layers Palette

The work starts off with the Layers palette. Figure 2 shows the Layers palette of the image before any work to burn the edges has been performed.

The first step is to create a selection that will be used to generate the mask. For this, the Lasso tool is used. Select the Lasso tool from the Tools Palette (see Figure 3). This will bring up a submenu. Now, select the Lasso Tool option.

Figure 3: Tools Palette
The Lasso tool is now used to create a selection. This selection determines where the image will be darkened. Everything between this selection and the edges of the image will be darkened. Everything within the selection will be left undarkened. The areas bordering the edges of the selection will be a transition zone that shifts from the undarkened areas to the darkened ones. To create the selection, simply use the Lasso tool to draw the selection on the image. For the Ladybug image, it was desired to select the ladybugs, the stump, and the middle part of the waterfall. These areas will not be darkened. This leaves the background rocks and upper and lower parts of the falls to be darkened. Figure 4 shows the image with the selection.

Figure 4: Image with Selection
Figure 5: Edit in Quick Mask Mode on the Tools palette
To get a better idea of what the selection looks like, the Quick Mask Mode can be used. Choose the Edit in Quick Mask Mode on the Tools palette (see Figure 5). The selection is shown in Figure 6 (the area in red is not selected). There are two issues with this selection. First, the layer that will be created later will darken the selected areas. Currently, the parts of the image that we do not want darkened are selected. Therefore, the selection will need to be inverted. Second, the selection has hard edges. This would be quite visible in the final image, so the edges of the selection will need to be blurred.

Figure 6: Ladybug Selection
Figure 7: Edit in Standard Mode on the Tools palette

Moving out of the Quick Mask Mode will allow the next steps to be performed, so choose the Edit in Standard Mode on the Tools palette (see Figure 7) to move the image out of Quick Mask mode.

Next, the selection is inverted. For this, choose Select/Inverse. Figure 8 shows the selection after inverting (in Quick Mask Mode).

Figure 8: Selection after Inverting

At this point, it is a good idea to save the selection. It is preferable to save the selection before any blurring is done. That way, you can always come back to the original selection if you want to start over again. To save the selection, choose Select/Save Selection. The Save Selection menu will come up (see Figure 9). Under Operation, choose New Channel. In the Name box, enter a name for the selection. Click Okay, and the selection will be saved.

Figure 9: Save Selection Menu

The final step in creating the selection is to blur the selection. For this step, the selection must be moved back into the Quick Mask Mode. Once in the Quick Mask Mode, choose Filter/Blur/Gaussian Blur. The Gaussian Blur menu will appear (see Figure 10).

Figure 10: Gaussian Blur Menu

The goal is to produce a very diffuse edge to the selection. That way, the edge of the mask that will be produced from the selection will not be noticeable. The way to do this is to use a very large radius. A radius of seventy-five or larger is typical. A radius of 150 was chosen for this selection. Figure 11 shows the selection after the application of the Gaussian Blur.

Figure 11: Ladybug Selection after Gaussian Blur

At this point, it is necessary to move out of the Quick Mask Edit Mode.

In the Layers Palette, make sure that the Background layer is selected as shown in Figure 12 (this image only has the one layer; in other images, you will generally select the top layer).

Figure 12: Layers Palette
Figure 13: New Layer Menu
The Edge Burn layer will now be created. Choose Layer/New Fill Layer/Solid Color. The New Layer menu will appear (see Figure 13). Enter a name for the layer in the Name box. For now, set the Color at None, the Mode to Multiply, and the Opacity at 100%. Click the OK button.
Figure 14: Color Picker Menu

The color picker menu will appear. Enter 1 in each of the R, G, and B boxes (see Figure 14). Click OK.

Figure 15: Layers Palette with Burn Edges Layer Added
The new Burn Edges layer has now been added to the Layers palette (see Figure 15).
Figure 16: Image with the Burn Edges Layer with Opacity at 100%
The image will appear as shown in Figure 16. The edges certainly have been darkened. Obviously, far too much. This is easily amended. Select the Burn Edges layer in the Layers palette. Set the Opacity of the layer (see Figure 17) to a value that sets the darkening of the edges to the desired level. Generally, a fairly low value is set for the opacity. For this image, a setting of 12% was used.

Figure 17: Layers Palette with Burn Edges Layer Opacity Adjusted.
Figure 18: Final Layers Palette
The image is now interpolated to the final printing size and sharpened. Figure 18 shows the final Layers palette.
The image with burned edges is shown below. Now, if you were to glance back at the original image, you might think, "The final image doesn't look much different than the original one". However, to see the impact of the burned edges, move your mouse over the image below and the original image will appear. As I flipped back and forth between the original and final images, I realized that, on the original image before burning the edges, the highlights on the rock next to the stump and on the rocks on the other side of the waterfall were distracting the attention from the ladybugs. This weakened the image. The darkened edges on the final image reduced these distracting highlights. This causes the attention to concentrate on the ladybugs. In addition, the ladybugs and the stump they occupy seem to stand out more in the final image.
Figure 19: Final Image

Burning the Edges: In Theory

The reason that burning the edges works has to do with how the eye responds to highlights and contrast. Strong images have strong centers of interest. The rest of an image should serve to support the center of interest. When this occurs, the various parts of an image tend to work in harmony to create an image that garners attention. However, when an image has objects that grab the attention away from the center of interest, the image is weakened. Combine this with the fact that the eye is drawn to areas of highlight and contrast, and a potential problem can occur. The eye can be drawn away from the center of interest by areas of highlight or contrast that lie toward the edges of the image. By burning the edges, these areas of highlight and contrast are dimmed. Thus, the eye is no longer drawn to them; instead, it is drawn back to the center of interest. Thus, the image is strengthened.

So, do all images need to have the edges burned? I do not burn the edges of all my images. I evaluate each image and determine if burning the edges will enhance the image. If it does, I utilize the technique.

Ultimately, it comes down to what a photographer wants to express in his images and the tools he has to express it. This is a nice tool to have in one's tool bag.