Seven hacks to see images differently

Seven helpful hacks to see images differently

Seven Simple things you can do to audit your image edits, change your perception, and discover new creative ideas and approaches.

Have you ever felt “too close” to an image? You may be trying to edit an image, but can't land on a direction that feels right. Or, you've spent so much time with an image already — dodging this, burning that, adding one layer and mask after another — that you lose sight of the big picture (literally) and can't tell whether your edits are helping or hurting?

How do we break out of this? How do we refresh our eyes and see our photography from a different angle?

Here are seven tricks and hacks to do just that.

Get away

This one is obvious, but has to be included. An effective way to reset your eyes and see images anew is simply getting away from them. Put some quality time into an edit, then when you feel your creative flow subside, take a break for as long as you can.

After stepping away for an hour, a day, or maybe even weeks, you may return to an edited image and notice problems you couldn't see before. Maybe a bit of undesirable color cast, contrast that's too low, too much vibrance, etc. Problems that only a fresh set of eyes could see.

Upside down

Another way to break out of the familiar is flipping images upside down while editing. When an image is upside down, the image is now seen in the abstract; tricking the eye into seeing the whole image, rather than its individual parts. Then it's easier to evaluate an image's overall balance, rhythm, weight, contrast, and brightness.

Image > Image Rotation > Flip Canvas Vertical (Photoshop)

You may also apply edits to an upside down image. All layers and adjustments will be flipped right-side up when reverting the image back to its original orientation. I find this method most effective when dodging and burning, for then I’m seeing the overall weight and distribution of light across the image without being distracted by my familiarity with a subject.

It may feel strange, but give it a try!

Black and white mode

In digital photography, color saturation decreases when pixels are brightened and increases when pixels are darkened. These color changes occur when exposure, brightness and contrast are adjusted, and may affect your creative judgement when editing the aforementioned.

To remove color and focus only on tonal values, try temporarily editing color images in black and white by enabling the Black & White mode at the top of the Lightroom Develop panel, or add a Black & White adjustment layer to the top of your Photoshop layer panel.

Black and White treatment mode in Lightroom

The objective here is not creating black-and-white images, but rather helping you visually gauge lights and darks without being distracted by color. When finished, flip the Lightroom editing mode back to Color, or remove the adjustment layer in Photoshop, then focus your attention on color.

Use a different display

Viewing an image out of context, on any screen but a primary editing display, is another great way to see an image from a different perspective.

For me, there's something about holding an image in my hand using my iPhone and/or iPad Air that switches my brain from "creator" to "viewer" mode. It helps me visualize what an image is going to look like when seen by others.

To do this quickly, I typically export a JPG to Dropbox on my desktop, which then syncs the file to my laptop, phone and tablet. I can then view the image at a smaller size and with a "consumer" brightness level (which is typically brighter than a color managed display). This is a great opportunity to gauge whether my edit is too dark, bright, flat, or over-baked.

Next time you think you’re “done” with an image, try viewing it on other displays or devices before finalizing your work.

Presets

Lightroom presets are useful for quick color grades, but they're also helpful for exploring different creative ideas and treatments.

Whenever I'm not sure which creative direction I'd like to go with an image, I mouseover all my installed presets while watching the image preview change. The results are hit and miss (mostly the latter), but sometimes I'll see a hue change or tone adjustment I hadn’t thought about.

Experimenting with presets in Lightroom

The goal isn’t finding a suitable preset, but rather twisting and stretching the colors and tones in an image to see how it responds to different treatments. It's analogous to repeatedly pressing random when stylizing an avatar in a video game, just to see what the possibilities are. It may help generate new ideas and creative approaches you might otherwise miss.

Crop tool

The crop tool is obviously useful for changing aspect ratio and removing unwanted subjects, but it also does an amazing job of changing image perception.

Even if you have no intent of actually cropping the finished image, as a creative exercise, try cropping it to 1:1, 5:7, or 8:10. Watch how the rhythm, balance, and flow of the image change as you move the subject within the crop. Also note whether the cropped subject appears stronger, clearer, and more focused, or now feels confined and cramped. Sometimes it's possible to create an entirely new, exciting image this way.

(By the way, if you have the budget for it, this can be a compelling reason for investing in high-megapixel digital cameras, for the more megapixels a camera has, the more flexibility there will be later on cropping and resizing.)

Next time you come across an image that isn't working, and you're not sure what's wrong, try playing around with your photo editor's crop tool to see if there's an image inside the image.

Auto curves adjustment layer

The technique is one of my favorites! For this we use Photoshop to audit image tonality, color, then automatically fix contrast, brightness, and color. To see what the software sees as technically "correct" against your subjective edits.

Here's what you do. Open an image in Photoshop, then add a Curves adjustment layer to the top of the Layers panel. Double-click on the newly added curves layer to edit its properties. Hold down Option (Mac) or Alt (Windows), then click the Auto button. You should now see the Auto Color Correction Options panel shown below.

Auto Color Correction Options in Photoshop

Click on each algorithm, and watch how Photoshop automatically adjusts the image. You can also enable Snap Neutral Midtones to automatically fix white balance and color cast.

I enjoy using this tool as a final finishing step to gut check my edits. I sometimes have a tendency to lift my shadows and blacks too high; resulting in images that are too soft and dim. But by adding this auto curves adjustment layer, I can see what Photoshop sees, and determine whether an image needs further adjustment.

My favorite algorithm is Enhance Monochromatic Contrast. This one stretches the darkest pixel to black and the brightest pixel to white, but without affecting color. I often apply this layer, then lower its opacity to taste.

Extra tip #1: Phone a friend

Everyone sees the world differently, and the same goes with photography. Ask five people to edit an image and you'll likely get five completely different results.

Take advantage of this by asking a friend to do a quick edit of one of your raw images. In return, offer to edit one of theirs! Share the results, and ask why they edited the image the way they did. Why did they skew the colors? Why did they brighten or darken the image? What was their creative goal?

This can also be a great opportunity to edit raw images created by a different camera than the one you own and have grown accustomed to.

Extra tip #2: Print it

Similar to my earlier tip about using different screens, an image can look entirely different when printed on paper. That's because images are painted using ink, not light as they are on screen.

I use a Canon Pro-10 to make prints. Sometimes when I'm working on an image, I'll make a quick test print at a small size (eg, 4x6) using economy paper. Then I'll place that print on a shelf or on my desk so I can see always see the image while doing other things.

It's a great way to live with an image for a while and see whether an edit holds up, or needs to be revisited.

Let's review

I believe that judgement is one of the hardest skills to learn in raw, digital photography. When all the world's your oyster, how do you know when an edit is good or bad? We're the only ones who can make that call, and the longer one looks at an image on screen, ironically, the harder it is to see it.

Next time you feel like you can't see the forest for the trees, and are focusing too much attention on details and small optimizations, try any of the tricks outlined in this article to help break you out of your comfort zone, reset your eyes, and see your image anew.

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