Image editing takes a lot of skill in numerous techniques and creative vision to pull off successfully, and even the most talented and experienced photographers and retouchers can occasionally go awry in their work. Anyone, novice or experienced, can improve their image edits with this simple technique.
Image editing is a relatively intensive task in terms of mental engagement. It requires a high degree of sustained, directed attention that uses many different brain functions, often simultaneously, all while rejecting distracting stimuli. No doubt you have felt mentally fatigued after a long editing session, as if your brain felt gooey and useless inside your head. I am sure you have noticed that you often need to disengage for a while to "mentally reset."
This is a well-documented phenomenon in psychology. Psychological test subjects show decreased performance across a range of parameters and increased subjective fatigue over time when engaged in tasks requiring heavy mental engagement, as well as decreased ability to reject distracting stimuli (directed attentional fatigue). Other symptoms included poor judgment and apathy.
Stop Reading and Watch This Short Video, Then Answer the Questions Below
- How many passes did you count?
- Did you notice anything unusual during the course of the video?
A similar concept (for the sake of this discussion), perceptual blindness, occurs when an individual does not register an unusual or unexpected stimuli that is otherwise obvious. There is a famous experiment regarding this, known as "The Invisible Gorilla." In this test, subjects were asked to watch a video of a group of people passing a basketball and count parameters like the total number of bounce passes or something similar. At some point in the video, a person in a gorilla suit walks through the scene. After the test, the subject were asked if they noticed anything unusual. Believe it or not, approximately 50% of people did not notice the gorilla. This is huge, as it underscores that what we perceive versus what is actually in our visual field is heavily moderated by our attention. Which 50% were you in?
What Does This Have to Do With Editing Photos?
Both attentional fatigue and perceptual blindness can have significant detrimental effects on your ability to effectively edit photos.
Until three years later. Turns out there was a random guy in the shot all that time. I never saw him during all that shooting and editing. Why? While I was shooting the photo, I was entranced by what I could do with the long exposure and was focused entirely on the river. When I was editing, I was looking at the tree leaves and the water and did not think about the relatively mundane area the man was standing in. It was not until three years later that I noticed the white blip in the image when I was scrolling through my photos. My intense focus on shooting the long exposure for the water and editing it properly made me miss the distraction entirely, when I could have easily cloned it out in a few seconds.
In aviation, "get-there-itis" is an informal term that refers to the tendency of pilots to try to reach a destination despite possibly significant weather hazards, as waiting it out or diverting can be tedious, expensive, and/or annoying. Sadly, it kills dozens of pilots and passengers every year. Mental fatigue can lead us to make poor decisions that we would never normally make.
Photographers can make a similar mistake. I have certainly been guilty of this when editing large batches of images. You get near the end of editing a big collection, and you can feel your patience dwindling, but instead of taking a break, you just power through, perhaps not being as careful or taking as much time with the last few images, causing them to end up looking rougher than your normal standards of quality dictate.
This is like the fable of the frog who, when thrown into a pot of boiling water, immediately jumps out, but when put in a cool pot of water that is slowly heated, eventually boils to death. If I showed you a tacky, oversaturated, and over-sharpened photo, you would likely notice the issues immediately. On the other hand, have you ever spent an hour editing a photo, only to realize you have completely overcooked the edit once you have finished? We have all done this at least once.
How Do We Avoid These Issues?
The good news is it is not hard to fix these problems.
Stepping away from your computer for just a few minutes can make a huge difference by resetting your mental fatigue and breaking tunnel vision brought on by perceptual blindness. For any important image, I am careful to do this before I export it and send it off. Not only does it help me occasionally uncover things I missed in the edit, it also makes it clear if I have gone too far with the creative side of things.
Editing work frequently involves being zoomed in at extreme levels, and it can be easy to lose sight of the global cumulative effect all those local changes are making. I have gotten in the habit of automatically zooming out every two minutes or so to see how the overall image is coming together.
Ask a Friend
If the first two fail, send the image to a friend and ask their opinion. They can often pick up on things you might be missing because of the aforementioned issues.
No matter how experienced we are, none of us are immune to these psychological effects, but thankfully, if you are aware of their existence, it is not hard to prevent them.