Color Perception and How it Might Apply to Photography

Our perceptions of world are unique in two ways. First of all they are unique from the perceptions of others. Although two people might agree that something is “fun” they don’t experience “fun” in the exact same way as each other. The second way it’s unique is that, unlike the physical things and forces that exist outside of our mind, we cannot explain our perceptions to others, at least, not on a level to which they can completely understand exactly what we mean. Take color for instance. You can’t explain color nor can you know that you perceive it the same as someone else. It’s an interesting thought, and Michael Stevens does an excellent job of explaining it:

So how does this apply to photography? Well, you could say that it affects the way we see colors in photographs, but I think it goes much deeper than that. I think it affects all of the various aspects that we see in photography, not just color, but composition, point of view, motion, noise, highlights and shadows, post-processing, etc. How do we know that we are perceiving an image in the same way? How do I know that you see the highlights and shadows or noise or color of a photo in the same way that I see them?

There’s no way of knowing. This subsequently affects how we feel about a photo, and since we can’t tell if or how we perceive things differently, then we can’t separate this from our feelings about a photo. Say you really like an image, but your friend hates it. Is it because he doesn’t like the same things as you or because he’s not perceiving the same things that you are? Perhaps if he saw the photo the same way that you saw it then he would like it.

preceiving color differently

Is your red the same as my red?

This only makes things more difficult when trying to look at photography objectively. In trying to delineate what is good and what is bad in photography, we should take into account the other person’s perception, but we can’t, even though it could make all the difference.

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7 responses to “Color Perception and How it Might Apply to Photography”

  1. Tim says:

    Your Red is the same as my red. We know this because we understand the visible light spectrum, as well as the way our eyes work. When you see a photon with a 650nm wavelength, unless your eyes are built differently than mine or your brain is wired very differently, you see the same thing. It’s very similar to the idea that when someone sings an F# note, you and I would be able to hear and interpret the same thing.

    • Wendy says:

      No, it’s not. People who are colorblind see red as desaturated, possibly indistinguishable from green. People who are tetrachromatic may perceive subtle shades within the red that mere trichromatics can’t. I can tell you from personal experience that eyes don’t see the world the same: if I look east at sunset, my left eye sometimes sees “sky blue and pink” after the sky has faded to merely blue according to my right eye.

  2. mouse says:

    Well of course your red is my red. And your blue is my blue.
    If I’m getting the point, though, I expect we’re not all wired exactly the same way, we’re only wired approximately the same way.
    It seems logical enough. Some people experience pain more than others. Some love blue cheese, some hate it.
    The point is not whether the stimulus is the same, but whether our approximately-the-same wiring interprets stimulus the same way.
    What a relief it would be if the dark van in a hypothetical witness statement wasn’t black in another, brown in another and red in yet another. Or deep purple. Or British racing green.
    Life is an abstract.

  3. Sachin Purohit says:

    This question – as to whether your red is same as mine – has always haunted me. And no Tim, I would like to disagree with your reasoning. Yes, your eye is built the same way as mine and you are viewing the same wavelength as what I am. Our perception is not in the eye. It is in the brain. All human brains have been created the same way and yet we have such a range of behavior and perceptions that we have Gandhi as well as Osama. Interestingly, I recently saw a Discovery channel show in which they showed individuals that could taste music, not just hear them. Wavelengths are not colors. There is no experimental setup that can prove what is your perception of color and how it is different than mine.

  4. Amaya says:

    Dear all, I’m just a person who like photography but do not know to much about techniques and theory but I’m curious about one thing I can’t find a good explanation on, why it is so hatd to take pictures or photos of red flowers, dark “fuchsias”, I never get the right color it always look like to “saturated” or so…. any advice?

    • Wendy says:

      I have that problem with my Fugi Finepix Z70. No matter how I adjust it, it ALWAYS brightened reds, to the point where wine-colored roses looked scarlet. I’m guessing you’re using a point-and-shoot camera, right? They’re programmed to make the “typical” consumer’s photo look good. And the “typical” photo does not have deep, desaturated reds in it. So the camera assumes you’re shooting in strange lighting conditions and “fixes” the white balance to yield the “proper” bright red.

  5. Bruce Coe says:

    I have a friend who is completely color blind. He saw contrast and luminance I used to ask him to look at my pictures just t see if they were balanced. I would adjust the pics in LR until he said they looked good, then convert to BW. The results were always better than what I could do alone, to my eye. What is the emotional value of color, and what is the emotional value of a pure black and white image? Mostly what we deal with as photographers, I think. My friend, he moved to Colorado maybe because BW looks better there than here ;-)

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