How Perceptual Learning Can Improve Your Photo Editing

Upload from June 29, 2012

Learning to edit your photos is a very visual process! In order to produce better quality editing you need to be able to look at a variety of different photographic characteristics (like exposure, white balance, and contrast) and distinguish teeny tiny differences. At first it might seem impossible to figure out what looks good, and determine when you’ve done enough processing.

You may find yourself crying “Does it need a +0.10 bump in exposure, or is +0.25 better?!?” Well, don’t fear. There’s a little thing called perceptual learning, and we’re going to talk all about how it works, and how, with practice and patience, you will get better at editing!

Perceptual learning is defined by Wikipedia as:

The process of learning improved skills of perception.

Studies have been done involving learning things as straightforward as distinguishing pitch in music, to more complicated subjects like language, wine tasting, and even identification of tumours on X-rays! But we’re here to talk about photo editing, so let’s take a look at some aspects of perceptual learning, and how they relate to your images!

Discovery Effects

When learning something new people tend to focus on specific important information, while at the same time suppressing unimportant details. For example, if you’re learning how to white balance your photos you might be looking specifically at the color of the neutral tones in an image. These tones are the easiest to use to correct white balance! You’ll also probably focus a lot of attention on the warmth or coolness (yellow or blue color casts) of the image as opposed to other non important information (like the crop of the photo for instance).

Fluency Effects

Tasks involving perception become easier with practice. At first you might find the task of white balancing images difficult. It will take a lot of attention and time for you to make corrections. But, with practice, it will eventually take you less time and less attention. Awesome, right??

Just like you’ve become fluent at the English language (you probably aren’t sounding out every word in this sentence!), you can become fluent at viewing a photograph and identifying necessary corrections. Returning to the white balance example, eventually you’ll find you don’t need to focus specifically on the neutral tones of an image. Instead, you can just look at the image as a whole and know if the white balance is off and what sort of correction might be necessary.

The biggest point to take away here is that when learning something new involving perception (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) it may be difficult at first to make fine distinctions. But with experience you’ll be able to make more precise adjustments with less effort!

Now that we’ve looked a bit at what perceptual learning is all about, here are some tips that have been known to make the process of perceptual learning easier.


Sleep is a magical thing. It gives your brain a chance to strengthen the connections that you’ve made during your learning. And it does this while you’ll resting in bed!! A lack of sleep or fatigue also reduces performance. So if you’re feeling tired, save photo editing for the morning! And if you’ve learned a ton of new stuff, make sure to sleep on it, and let your brain solidify all those wonderful new neural connections.

Comparison, contrast & feedback

Being able to identify important information and see relevant feedback is an important part of the perceptual learning process. And luckily Lightroom has a handy feature that can help with this! If you use the before/after view when you’re editing your photos (keyboard shortcut Y or , see below), it can really help you dial in different adjustments, and see if you’re improving the image!

Upload from July 02, 2012

In Lightroom’s Develop module you can activate and select from a few different before / after views (first red box). You can also update the before view (second red box). It can be difficult to see how small adjustments are effecting the image when you’re comparing with the original unedited version so updating the before view can really help you dial in your processing.

Task Difficulty

If you start off learning easy examples, it makes it easier for you to take the experience, and apply it to handling harder examples. That just makes sense! No one starts off reading Shakespeare. You cut your teeth with Hop On Pop, and work your way up! The same idea goes for editing your photos. Start off editing the easier shots first. If you come across an image that’s difficult to process, try saving it until later. The easy shots will get you warmed up, and you’ll get more experience editing that particular session, and then, after you’ve finished all those, the tough shots won’t seem so tough!

Active classification and attention

Perceptual learning takes effort and attention. You have to put in practice to see results! You can’t expect to improve your photo editing skills just by looking at photos. Nope, you’re going to have to fire up your editing program, and process thousands of photos if you want to get better!

When it comes to perceptual learning the big areas to focus on for photo editing are:

  • White balance
  • Brightness / Exposure
  • Contrast
  • Vibrance / Saturation
  • Crop

With practice, you’ll be able to identify the details in these different aspects of your images, and learn what needs to be done to each one to make improvements! So as you go through each photo in your editing, take a moment to consider each of those characteristics, and make a judgement call on whether they need adjusting.

We’ve just talked about photo editing, but many aspects of photography involve perceptual learning, like identifying the quality and direction of light, choosing strong compositions and perspectives, and capturing genuine expressions. These are critical photography skills that take tons of practice, and a healthy dose of perceptual learning. But now that you know the deal with perceptual learning, and some tips to make it easier, it doesn’t seem too hard, does it??

Have you heard about perceptual learning before? How will you approach your photography learning now to make things easier? 


Rob Lim

Hi there, I’m Rob! I’m a photography ninja here at Photography Concentrate. I love all things photography: shooting, teaching and always learning more! If I’m not reading up on the latest photography news, or studying a technique, I’m probably reading a book or planning our next adventure!

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8 Comments // Leave a comment

  1. Interesting article. It relates to a current book I’m reading called “Moonwalking With Einstein”. It’s in regards to the World Memory Championships and how to remember everything. They talk about becoming an expert and specifically touch on chess grand masters and why they are so much better than everyone else. The fact of the matter is that it simply takes experience. The masters have seen every possible board layout before and are able to revisit those boards in their mind while playing. So, practically without thinking, they know exactly what move to make in any given situation. If you’ve edited enough photos, you’ll know exactly what needs to be done in any situation. Not sure I’ve ever heard a photographer refer to themselves as an editing grand master though.

  2. This is great! I get a little overwhelmed with al the information I want to learn and absorb. This makes it all seem possible.

  3. You guys are awesome! Thank you for sharing over and over again!

  4. Thank you very much that was what I needed

  5. Mark DeNio says:

    I’ve been practicing this more (without knowing what it’s called), especially with white balance and saturation. I have started adjusting the camera’s white balance before taking a shot and adjusting saturation slightly. Several years ago I photographed a baseball game with the camera’s Vivid setting and the saturation has proved impossible for me to remove or dial back.

    I also need to make more use of the camera’s ability to measure the white balance of an area instead of me relying on the presets. Not sure I’d get to the point of carrying around a grey card set but I could see it happening because I’m picky.

    • Mark DeNio says:

      I meant to say I try not to do much extra saturation on the camera because I haven’t proven adept at removing it in Lightroom.

  6. It is encouraging to ready articles like this. I just purchased my first DSLR (no I don’t have to borrow one!) to go on a family trip. I am really happy with the pictures, but still couldn’t think quickly enough on my feet to change up camera settings. Reading this makes me want to keep learning and building on my new foundations…so I am off to do get a tutorial, and then sleep on it. Thanks so much, this is such a wonderful resource!

  7. Very true! Very interesting perspective Rob. Maybe next time you could help readers by posting your photo editing process and step by step guide, something like this maybe would be very useful for practice and trying to see how other people like you do it. :)

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