How to Correctly Use the Channel Mixer When Dodging and Burning

If you’re someone who loves to get your portraits coming out perfectly, you’ve probably spent some time learning how to retouch, especially when in comes to skin quality. Yet there are so many techniques, and not all of them lead to cleaner workflows and an excellent output. In fact, some “tried and true” techniques may not be all they’re cut out to be. According to expert photo retoucher Daniel Hagar, using the channel mixer as a dodge and burn help layer is one such technique. Here’s why:

According to Hagar, the channel mixer was originally intended as a retouching aid. In monochrome mode, it was supposed to make flaws more visible and make it easier to dodge and burn—particularly when trying to create beautiful skin. If you’re one of those folks who use it this way, you were probably taught to set it to monochrome and then increase the blue channel and decrease the red.

Unfortunately, working with the channel mixer this way can introduce new flaws into your portrait; decreasing the red slider causes the red-colored skin tones to become darker than they actually are. This gives the retoucher false information and can create a lot of headaches:

Errors when using the channel mixer adjustment layer

There are, of course, correct ways to use the channel mixer as an adjustment layer to help you dodge and burn. The simplest way is to set the adjustment layer’s blend mode to Color. If you want to get more technical, manually set the sliders to R30, G59, and B11. (This correctly reflects each channel’s brightness contribution to the overall luminosity.)

The correct way to use the channel mixer

But, of course, you don’t have to use the channel mixer at all as a help layer for dodging and burning. Photoshop, being the magical program it is, has a number of different methods available. Hagar suggests using a black and white adjustment layer set to saturation blend mode or a neutral color layer set to color blend mode.

In the end, you’ll want to use whatever method streamlines your workflow and gives you excellent results. As Hagar writes on his blog,

“High end retouching is about consistency and precision. Every little mistake in our workflow adds up into a giant mess, and that’s not what any of us want.”

Do you have a particular way you like to dodge and burn? Something that wasn’t mentioned here? Let us know!

For further training: The Fundamental Photo Editing Guide

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