On Photographic Blindness

In chess there is a well-known phenomenon called ‘Chess blindness’ (or Amaurosis scacchistica if you fancy being fancy). It happens to the best, including great masters and world champions, and essentially revolves around an experienced player not being able to spot the most obvious good move, or the most obvious danger, often resulting in a blunder. I recently ran into a similar problem when sharing a couple of images from Namibia on a photography forum online.

A cheetah in Etosha National Park, Namibia.

One of the first reactions towards my image of the cheetah under the tree was of one user who noticed that it had a blue tint, and recommended checking my white balance. I had a look at the image and decided that it was fine and I liked the colours, especially those cool tones in the vegetation. Soon after a second user mentioned the white balance, so I actually went back into Lightroom and, as recommended by the user, set the white balance on the white fur on the cheetah’s chest. And indeed, what a massive difference that made. The white balance changed by about 800 Kelvin, removing the blue tint from the cheetah and rendering him much more realistically. On the flip side the surrounding vegetation turned awfully yellow, and I had quite liked it the way it was. So I backed up on the white balance so that the image only got a bit warmer overall compared to the earlier version, then masked the cheetah and warmed him up selectively. Thus the blue tint disappeared from his coat while the cool tones in the surrounding vegetation were preserved to some extent.

A cheetah resting under a tree in Etosha, Namibia.

Further inspection revealed that quite a few images I had taken in Etosha National Park had a rather coolish white balance, albeit not as strong as the cheetah image. But what really surprised me is that I had shared and looked at this image several dozen times, and I had not noticed the obvious tint at all.

Something similar happened to me back in October after a trip to Glencoe – as the day drew to an end I quickly took two images of Buachaille Etive Beag, then stitched them together in Lightroom later. After uploading the result to flickr a kind commenter drew my attention to the fact that the left side of the image appeared noticeably less sharp and contrasty than the right one. As I took a closer look I realised that he was right, and quickly noticed that the right image had been taken with a shutter speed of 1/25th sec., the left one with 1/15th sec. Motion blur! Argh. I had spent so much time editing the image to achieve the dramatic mood in the clouds, and all for nothing.

GlencoeCompResized

These to examples lead me to conclude that there appears to be a photographic equivalent of chess blindness, something that occasionally keeps you (or at least me) from spotting the most obvious flaws in your own images, even after (or maybe because) you have seen them dozens of times. Personally I have learnt from these examples to always check my white balance and have a close look at the sharpness of my images, not because I am a pixel peeper, but because apparently I am prone to missing the most obvious things otherwise.

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