What Is Color?

This is a fascinating question to me. Most of us do not stop to even ask the question, but it strongly influences much of what we do as photographers. So what is color? Is it the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation? Is it just a property of the way surfaces reflect light? Or is it simply the response of our eyes to the impinging radiation? Or is it something more subjective?

Technical Details

Let me hurry through the technical details. Apparently few people care about actual technology.

Electromagnetic radiation is the way signals propagate through space. It is the mechanism of everything from radio through X-rays and gamma rays, including what we know of as the visible spectrum. For the really hard core, what we consider “light” is radiation in the range of 380 nm through 760 nm. This chart does a good job of visualizing this.

The rods and cones in our eyes are sensitive to these wavelengths of radiation that we call light. This provides the sensation of light and color that we perceive. Our window on the world is based on these hidden gems.

I go into this detail to make the point that light is not a “thing”. It is simply our response to a small range of electromagnetic waves. This is significant because much of what you will read about light in art is very “fluffy”. It supposedly has hidden meanings and deep psychological responses. Maybe it does. But don’t forget that it is basically a simple sensory perception. We each respond to color mostly the same, but a little differently. We are human, not a calibrated scientific instrument.

Perception

These rods and cones give us incredible perception of color and light. The very best digital sensors made cannot see the range of lightness values the human eye can resolve. The very best digital sensor cannot distinguish the range of colors the human eye can sense.

Digital images are represented as a grid of pixels. Each pixel contains 3 pieces of data, values for red, green, and blue. A very good sensor, mapped into a wide color space like ProPhotoRGB, can use 16 bits for each of these values. That gives 65535 steps for each color. This is only an approximation to what our eyes can do.

Because our eyes are so much better then the sensors, we sometimes have to exaggerate the image data we are working with in order to simulate what we remember seeing. Basically, we often have to trick the eye into believing there is more data there. That is because the eye can perceive more than what we can capture. It is also because the sensor is completely objective. It does not know what we feel when we see the image.

Objective or Subjective?

Color has to be objective. It also has to be subjective. Confusing? Yes, but most of the talk about color is.

I’m a professional print maker. As such, my work has to be reproducible. My computer is well corrected to ensure that the colors I see when I am editing are reasonably close to the “actual” colors of the original subject. Through a little more magic, my prints use color profiles for my printer/ink/paper type to make sure that what I print is as close as possible to what I saw on my computer.

This is objective use of color. It has known, fixed values and it can be reproduced over and over again. It may suck some of the life and spontaneity out of the process, but it is necessary to produce professional results.

Subjectively, though, things get interesting. Who says that color has to stay just like the “real” world it was taken from. As an artist, I am free to do anything I want to create a result I want. If I want a world of purple bananas and red oceans that is a valid choice for me. No one can say that is not right because the real world did not look like that. So to an artist, color is a choice, not a limitation or a fixed property.

Our incredible post-production tools allow amazing enhancement of – or damage to – our images.

Interpretation

Now, to get real, my world does not usually include purple bananas. But there is a big overlay between the objective and subjective worlds. Images that come out of the camera as RAW files are flat and dull and lifeless. They contain all of the data the sensor recorded, but not what I remember. I work many of my images to create the impression of color that struck me at the time I took the picture.

I would call this interpretation. I am selectively enhancing or changing the colors to recreate the impression I saw (or wanted to see). A color purist might see this as wrong, since I am changing the tonal structure of the image to reduce or exaggerate colors or contrasts. I am not a purist.

There is an irony here that is not lost on me – my systems are set up to deal with color very accurately, but then I sometimes alter the color drastically. What can I say? It’s art, not engineering.

Symbolism

The discussion would not be complete without touching on the mystical area of color symbolism. People can get worked up over this: no, that can’t be red because that would mean anger; no that can’t be white because that means death, etc. Some of these considerations are reasonable for some applications. If you’re an advertiser, you want to avoid chasing customers away.

But is color symbolism a real thing? Yes… but. A lot of it is cultural. And opinion. Colors seem to have different significance in different parts of the world. One representation of this is the L├╝scher color test. It attemped to codify the symbolism of colors, at least to the western eye. Given that it varies for different people, it does not seem that the symbolism is a significant tool to use when creating art.

A small example of cultural differences: in the western world that I’m familiar with, financial reports mark upward trends in green and downward ones in red. In China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan they are reversed. That is, red marks an uptrend and green marks a downtrend. A very simple thing but it can lead to a lot of confusion if you go “out of culture”. I am trained, in this context, to perceive green as positive and red as negative.

Emotion

Color does touch us on an emotional level. Not everyone reacts the same, but there are patterns and generalities.

It is known that certain colors produce rather similar reactions in people. Blues tend to be calming. Reds tend to increase energy. Yellow tends to cheer people up. So if I was creating an image where I wanted to create a calming mood, I would use a palate of blue and green. If I wanted to be bold and attention getting I would selects strong red and orange hues. This is not relying on the symbolism of colors, as far as meaning, but on general reactions across populations.

Like smell, color invokes a response in people. It is another tool that artists need to be familiar with and be able to use to their advantage. It can require a lifetime of study and practice.

What is color?

Coming back to the original question. Can we say what color is?

Not satisfactorily in a short blog. Color is electromagnetic radiation in a certain range. It is definite ranges of data represented by red, green, and blue values (in photography). Color is a property that invokes an emotional and/or a cultural response. It is so subtle and well measured by the human eye that we cannot yet capture it precisely in imaging or print all the eye can see.

In short, color is part of the magic we live with all the time and that we artists work with in various ways to create our art. Understanding the technology does not really help us understand “color”. Neither does treating it as a mystical spell. It is this wonderful stuff we perceive because we are human.

Even if I spend hours agonizing over mapping color tones and micro-adjustments of hue or saturation, that does not mean you have to know that in order to appreciate the image.

Enjoy! Don’t over-think it!

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