October 16, 2007
The impact of color on the art of photography famously is enormously enormous. We live in a color filled world, so we shoot in color. It’s got to look real – right? So we think. Color can accentuate a mood. So we romantically believe. Colors are pretty. Of course they are. Eventually we realize things aren’t that simple. Colors are not real.
For starters, take Picasso’s blue, rose and monochrome periods or van Gogh’s wildly yellow sunflowers. Nothing real about them but masterpieces nevertheless. Or what about something as mundane as food photography with its color distortions making us hungry. Then, shooting in black&white is another extreme form of color manipulation. What about gray granite sculptures or the white marble ones? Many of Rembrandt’s works are relatively dark toned compared to the vivid colors of Paul Klee or the light water colors of Carl Larsson.
Colors have nicknames. The 2008 Toyota Solara comes in Blizzard Pearl, Ivory, Dark Stone, Dark Charcoal, Classic Silver, Magnetic Gray, Absolutely Red, Cosmic Blue and Blue Streak. Does that stand for Blue, Red, Gray and White? Are Yellow, Green and Black no longer in fashion? On the other hand, the specs of Honda’s HR Series HRS216ODA lawn mower leave colors alone – apparently still following the Model T marketing strategy. John Deere’s 770D Motor Grader specs do not mention colors either but seem to come with tinted windows. But your bed sheets may be Ecru, Cameo Pink or Cinnabar colored.
Speaking of fashion, how about this: “Layers of haze, clouds, water and air create delicate variations of non colours next to white. Those tints are diffuse and innocent, with an iridescent shale tint contrasting the fragility of those diaphanous and bleached pastels.” Or: “In a season moving away from the bling, cheerful brights work as accents invigorating the season’s harmonious and subdued colour mood. Midtone lilacs, greens and blues compliment zesty red, orange, yellow and cyclamen”. Huh?
Some of us like pink cars, Pink Floyd and Pink Gins. Australia, Oregon and Jamaica have Blue Mountains, Bavarian forests are Black. In the 1950s, some men preferred blondes. The Irish favor green. Some US states are blue and others are red. There are Red Necks, White Trash and Blue Blooded Aristocrats. We used to have the Red Menace and the Yellow Peril. Today, we have Green Parties, Greenpeace and Glitzy Copper lipsticks. Scarlett O’Hara did history as did Jerry Brown, Red Skelton, Rosie McDonald, Karen Black and Goldie Hawn. Let’s not forget Rosie the Riveter, the Red Baron and The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Colors are just energy things that vibrate. Lots of other things vibrate without us paying attention. What’s so special about colors? There are vibrating beds but we rarely name our kids after them. In fact, the world around us is filled with vibrations of various kinds. Some of those vibrations have been vibrating for billions of years. Do we care? Still, we have an endless curiosity about colors.
There were Black Panthers, Black September and Red Armies. White means marriage to some, funeral to others and Racial Supremacy to a few. Color Racism remains alive. There were the Dark Ages, the Age of Enlightenment, the Bronze Age, Black Death and Yellow Fever. Khmer Rouge murdered millions. How about Grey Eminencies, Dark Princes, White Princes, Kingdoms of Light, Red Cardinals, White Knights, Old Blue Eye, Red Communists and Hitler Brown and Black Shirts.
Some like blue movies or head for Red Light districts or Moulin Rouge. Others prefer Yellow Submarines. We have the Redskins, pink panthers, the Whitesocks, not to mention the pink and white elephants we occasionally chase. Off Color Jokes are frowned upon. It was a dark and stormy night. We are afraid of the darkness and of white sharks. Some worship the Sun and its light. Some days we are blue. Others, we are black, pink or maybe red. We eat Brownies, White, Red or Yellow Potatoes , Green, Red or White Onions, Red Beans, Red , White, or Dark Meats and Red Hot Chili. Some wear White Shoes in the Summer, Black after Labor Day – perhaps they dress in Black for Dinner.
It’s all fantasy. We let colors symbolize ideas and feelings where we largely make up the connections. Then we can’t agree on what those connections are. Asian connections and perceptions differ from those of the Western Word. In America and elsewhere, the perception of color vary significantly depending on you skin color.
We watch Men in Black, A Clockwork Orange, Blue Lagoon, Black Orpheus, White Christmas, The Color Purple, Red Shoes, A Red Violin, The Hunt for Red October and GoldenEye. We listen to Paint it Black, Brown Eyed Girl, I’m Blue, Purple Haze, Blue Monday, Black and White, Little Pink Houses and Pale Blue Eyes. We read Devil In A Blue Dress, Blue Light, Blinking Red Light, The Red Moon and Wearing Purple. Gershwin had his Rhapsody in Blue, Miles Davis was Kind of Blue, Ellington composed A Black and Tan Fantasy, Mood Indigo and the Black, Brown and Beige Concerts, not to mention Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.
It’s all in our minds and nothing is what it seems. Contrary to reality and reason, colors have powerful connections to our minds. The thing is colors aren’t real. Artistically we distort them for, well, artistic reasons. Photoshop rules. We invert, bend, mix, translate, multiply, XOR and erase colors, having great fun. Why not? Perhaps we don’t understand that all we do is fool around with light beams and particles vibrating at various frequencies and amplitudes. Then we might even see that colors aren’t real. We just think they are.
Consider the simple color wheel above. Those colors aren’t real. They are the result of preparing the surface of paper, or in our case, manipulating a computer monitor. In the case of paper, you coat the surface with stuff that reflects electromagnetic waves at different wave lengths and amplitudes. In the case of a monitor, all you do is watch transistors going off and on, or seeing light guns fire away at a metal screen with little holes in it. Either way, it’s just frequencies and amplitudes.
Mother Nature is the most powerful manipulator of us all. Light and color is under constant attack. Dark colors dominate at night, while mysteriously it is light during the day. How so? Consider colors during a thunder storm versus colors on the beach or in Shanghai on a bad day. Climb to the top of Earth or dive deep into the oceans. How come the colors are so different?
Then we have ourselves and our poorly understood human perceptions of color. Our brains play a real trick on us. They make us believe that colors are real. They have found ways to generate brain waves in response to mere vibrations. They try to fool us into believing that things have colors. Things do not have colors. It’s just energy trying to be something more.
This post is largely an extract from my big essay on photography “On Reality 6: Mysteries of Photography“. Parts of the discussions update and expand the content of other previous posts, notably On Reality – Part 1 – Elements of Light and On Reality – Part 5 – How Perceptions and Illusions destroy Reality. Other posts include On Photography – Trick and Treat of Light and On Reality 6 Rev. – Jeff Wall Magic Revisited.
A Bit of Theory
Light is characterized by three components: amplitude (intensity or brightness), frequency or wave length which relates to color and polarization (angle, vibration, reflection). Light may come in the form of a beam emitted from a light source. If the beam is aimed straight at you, it is visible as a point of bright light. From the side, that beam is not visible till it is scattered into a spectrum of different wave lengths. Our retinas and brains map the spectrum of wave lengths to perceived colors.
I’m sure you have seen the standard graphs of wave length and associated colors. It goes like this: the lowest wave lengths are associated with sound as heard by humans. AM radio, TV and FM waves are next up in frequency (lower in wave length), followed by kitchen, radar and signal transmitting micro waves.
Then comes infrared light which is associated with heat – the burning logs in your fireplace emit infrared “heat”. The TV remote uses infrared waves. So far nothing is visible to us. A very narrow band of visible light, split into colors, follows. This spectrum goes from red, yellow, green, blue and magenta to violet.
After the band of colors, we return to invisibility: ultraviolet light causes sunburn. It can’t be seen by humans but is visible to bumblebees. UV light is real important in astronomy – distant galaxies and stars often only emit UV light so the Hubble telescope and some satellites are very sensitive to such light. Then X-rays follow. Finally, gamma radiation can kill, very important both to space travel and astrology.
Have you noticed I sometimes talk about frequencies and wave lengths as in an analog beam (scattered or not) and sometimes about light consisting of particles bouncing around in some pattern? Both ways to look at light are correct but how light consists of both waves and particles is a bit mysterious. An issue of quantum physics, debated by many from Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein, this unresolved subject is a bit beyond this essay.
But think about it: why would an electromagnetic pulse (light beam) be split or scattered by an atmospheric particle unless it too is a particle? On the other hand, are our eyes really letting in all these dirty particles that have traveled space and bounced off all kinds of pollution? I’d hope not. How do light particles penetrate a camera lens? This mystery will remain unsolved in this essay (as it is in science).
Colors from Happiness to Madness
So much for theory – electromagnetic waves, infrared this and gamma that, particles, amplitudes…. Let’s switch tack a bit. Visions are emotionally driven, inner convictions. Colors, in psychology, not to mention advertising and web design, associate freely with emotions. I’m blue today. He was red hot. She was green with envy. Here is one opinion (of many) on how colors associate with emotions:
- Red is the color of fire and blood, so it is associated with energy, war, danger, strength, power, determination as well as passion, desire, and love. Red is a very emotionally intense color. It enhances human metabolism, increases respiration rate, and raises blood pressure. It has very high visibility, which is why stop signs, stoplights, and fire equipment are usually painted red. In heraldry, red is used to indicate courage. It is a color found in many national flags.
- Orange combines the energy of red and the happiness of yellow. It is associated with joy, sunshine, and the tropics. Orange represents enthusiasm, fascination, happiness, creativity, determination, attraction, success, encouragement, and stimulation. To the human eye, orange is a very hot color, so it gives the sensation of heat. Nevertheless, orange is not as aggressive as red.
- Yellow is the color of sunshine. It’s associated with joy, happiness, intellect, and energy. Yellow produces a warming effect, arouses cheerfulness, stimulates mental activity, and generates muscle energy. Yellow is often associated with food. Bright, pure yellow is an attention getter, which is the reason taxicabs are painted this color.
- Green is the color of nature. It symbolizes growth, harmony, freshness, and fertility. Green has strong emotional correspondence with safety. Dark green is also commonly associated with money. Green has great healing power. It is the most restful color for the human eye; it can improve vision. Green suggests stability and endurance.
- Blue is the color of the sky and sea. It is often associated with depth and stability. It symbolizes trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, intelligence, faith, truth, and heaven. Blue is considered beneficial to the mind and body. It slows human metabolism and produces a calming effect. Blue is strongly associated with tranquility and calmness. In heraldry, blue is used to symbolize piety and sincerity.
- Purple combines the stability of blue and the energy of red. Purple is associated with royalty. It symbolizes power, nobility, luxury, and ambition. It conveys wealth and extravagance. Purple is associated with wisdom, dignity, independence, creativity, mystery, and magic. According to surveys, almost 75 percent of pre-adolescent children prefer purple to all other colors. Purple is a very rare color in nature; some people consider it to be artificial.
- White is associated with light, goodness, innocence, purity, and virginity. It is considered to be the color of perfection. White means safety, purity, and cleanliness. As opposed to black, white usually has a positive connotation. White can represent a successful beginning. In heraldry, white depicts faith and purity.
- Black is associated with power, elegance, formality, death, evil, and mystery. Black is a mysterious color associated with fear and the unknown (black holes). It usually has a negative connotation (blacklist, black humor, ‘black death’). Black denotes strength and authority; it is considered to be a very formal, elegant, and prestigious color (black tie, black Mercedes). In heraldry, black is the symbol of grief.
Some claim colors guide our lives in a sublime mix of emotions and realities. Personally, I’m not so sure. I believe we all are more complex than that. Form, harmony and discord, for instance, seem important as well. Probably context, such as being fired, getting married, suffering from depression or winning the lottery, emotionally overrides any color setting. Colors as emotional impacts are nevertheless legitimate parts of the magical toolbox but not at the exclusion of other factors.
Unreal World Color
AA Gills of the London Times recently visited Tasmania and filed the following observation (italics mine). Rarely have I seen so many unusual wave lengths covered in so few sentences:
- The rocky shore is tortured into a macabre and dramatic beauty. The waves stand up on their hind legs and lunge at the land, to be flayed into bone-white shreds by the black rocks. In the late afternoon, the sky is glowing pale gold, dark mauve clouds are filigreed pink, thousand of mutton birds (sheerwaters) fly low over the silver water, and we hurry back in the teeth of the wind to our hut.
Now, that is the drama of colors, if somewhat tortured. I’m sure Conrad had not been able to put it better. AA Gills actually is a restaurant critic and feature writer for the Times but seems to have his hands in plenty of pots. Good for him.
Take that sun beam traveling through space towards you. At high noon, that beam will hit the atmosphere straight on. Since the atmospheric particles are much larger than those associated with the beam, the beam is scattered into predominately short wave lengths – blue. Thus the sky is blue during the day. As the sun sets, the angle of the sun beam is to close to 90 degrees. Now we see more of the longer wave lengths – red.
Colors depend on altitude – the higher you are the bluer the scene and the sharper the shadows. A higher altitude means, mostly, less pollution and more unhealthy radiation from space ranging from UV to gamma energy. Sun beams are less scattered, hence the scene is lighter. There are fewer clouds if you go high enough. Perhaps you are high enough to encounter snow which reflects enormous amounts of light. Or, returning to zero altitude – sea level – you better consider a similar high reflection of light from the sea surface. In this case, polarization becomes yet another tool. Keep this in mind next time you climb Mount Everest.
As a side line consider Global Warming. Color, together with light in general, plays a powerful part. As temperatures go up due to CO2 content in the atmosphere trapping the Sun’s energy – some in the form of ordinary light – ice packs melt, the ground becomes darker, reflecting less energy back into space, making temperatures increase even faster in an evil circle that may be unstoppable at some point. Simple color properties may extinct mankind. Perhaps.
The color spectrum varies tremendously from one location to the next. You have monochrome environments such as deserts, ski slopes, some beaches, polar ice areas, tundra, oceans, mines and tunnels. Next, there are monochromes with occasional color items, such as many parts of an inner city or fireworks. Low light photography is usually close to monochrome, wherever you are. Intensive colors are found in many tropical locations. Specific places such as the Dutch tulip fields in the right season or Brazilian Samba festivals are colorful. You choose your film or white balance (or other settings) with that in mind.
Colors Ain’t Colors
Colors aren’t real. They simply are associated by your brain with light particles vibrating at certain frequencies. As humans, color processing follows a complex path through the eyes, to the retina with its three basic sensors (blue, bluish-green and yellow-green of all odd compositions) and on to the brain, where it is all sorted out according to a set of rules. A given wave length is translated into a “color”.
Put an 80A blue filter on your lens (or simply look through it) and colors change. This particular filter changes light emitted from reddish tungsten sources back to “normal” daylight color spectra, given daylight film or white balance. Here is what actually happens: the filter is manufactured so it absorbs vibrations in the 1800-2500K range (perceived as red) while letting the shorter wave lengths through. The result of applying the filter is that the scene appears to emit relatively more short wave length rays, correcting for the excess emission of light in the 2800K range typical of tungsten light. It’s all a matter of wave lengths, not “colors”.
Walk into a color darkroom and twist the color correction dials a bit and the color print comes out quite differently. Play with color settings in Photoshop and the image changes accordingly. Put on your sunglasses and colors shift. Color blindness changes how wave lengths are mapped in your brain due to some part of the system being damaged. Several other deficiencies change our perceptions of color. Colors are what you make them to be.
Next, we need to represent color in print. Now we deal with a totally new set of representations. CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) is the traditional print representation which has absolutely nothing to do with how we humans perceive or process color. Pantone’s system of six colors for increased precision adds orange and green to the CMYK system. So we invent these systems of classifying colors. All that actually happens is that various materials with different light energy scattering properties are applied to a piece of paper.
Do Computers See Colors?
Computers use their own concepts of color representation. Colors are associated with an RGB (Red, Green and Blue) model. This model assigns trios of numbers from 0 to 255 to the “colors”. Red, for instance is coded as (255,0,0) and blue is (0,0,255). (0,0,0) means black, (255,255,255) stands for white. These numbers are used not only to describe colors internally but also to control the electron gun of an analog monitor or the transistors in flat screen monitors.
The RGB model does not actually represent real colors but are simply some numbers that could represent anything or nothing. The numbers do not automatically result in accurate colors. The computer and the monitor need to be told what an “accurate” color is. This information is held in one or more arrays that say “apply this correction when sending info to the monitor or printer”. You are responsible for keeping those arrays up to date, using available tools. Many of us don’t do that and hence get used to strange colors and fail to understand why others complain.
Monitor color guns or color sensitive “dots” must also be carefully calibrated to some standard color space. Such calibration uses elaborate color management tools. The standard monitor color spaces come in many flavors of RGB (red, green, blue): sRGB, Apple RGB, Adobe RGB and ColorMatch RGB. On the printing side (CMYK), we have a set of US standards together with corresponding (different) European and Japanese variations.
A simple but crucial monitor setting is the brightness, referred to as the “gamma” setting. Just for fun, Apple uses a different gamma standard than PCs. A Mac calibrated image looks darker on a calibrated PC and vice versa. Great, isn’t it?
It’s not over yet. Next is the coordination of color spaces and calibration across devices. The digital camera, the scanner, the monitor and printing using external labs or the onsite photo printer must be calibrated accurately to compatible color spaces. This is not a trivial undertaking although special software may reduce the pain a bit.
Computers have no understanding of colors – to them it is just a numbers game. Perhaps by now you wonder in what way all these classifications, standards, rules, adjustments and measurements are relevant. Nature itself makes far greater adjustments without blushing or asking for permission.
Colors, Oh Those Damn Colors
Maybe you conclude things were simpler in the old days of taking your color film to some lab or retailer, accepting the result – perhaps grudgingly but with little chance of being heard. Heck no. In the “old days”, a good print meant endless darkroom exercises tinkering with enlarger settings, which doesn’t even start dealing with the external viewing or printing issues. Color management was not easier but merely overlooked in many cases, or more accurately, achieved in a different way.
Colors and photography are a true mess. Technology makes it all harder instead of easier. Truly managing colors in photography is a massive undertaking that many photographers avoid or ignore. The bright side is that if you make the effort to master color and its management, you are far ahead of much of the competition. The bleak side is the hours you spend on tinkering with calibrations, devices and standards. Many of us end up with a compromise. One compromise is to let specialists deal with the whole issue. That is expensive. Another option is to wing it. You learn what makes a nice print on a trial and error basis. You learn that a bluish tint on the monitor results in a great print on your Canon printer. And you get on with life.
Let’s jump into yet another issue. Different films as well as different digital chips have unique sensitivities to the wave lengths of color. A particular film (or sensor), black&white or color, may be more sensitive to blue than red. Another film or sensor may behave in the opposite manner. Each film is associated with a sensitivity profile ranging over the wave length spectrum. This spectrum sets the film apart from other films. The same is true for sensor chips in a digital camera. The difference is that the chip is permanently in place while, in the film case, you can simply change films to match the shooting situation and your vision. The back end (film or chip) may be sensitive to waves beyond the visible spectrum. In the case of film, that may be X-ray waves.
The latest Leica M camera, the first digital version, suffered (suffers?) from an abnormal sensitivity to infrared light. This resulted in strange distortions that were visible in the images under some circumstances. Given a price of around $4,500 for just the camera body, that is a bit embarrassing. Is it a unique case? I think not.
Now you know one major reason I love black&white photography. Not that any of the color issues magically disappear (they surely don’t since you have to manage the color to gray scale transition) but dealing with a gray scale is a lot more natural to me than tinkering endlessly with scores of color standards. And in my mind, b&w has an artistic impact unmatched in any medium. That, of course, is just my view.
Using Color: The Magical Toolbox
Color work splits into two events: Before Exposure and After Exposure. Colors are only a form of light or, precisely, they come from light beams split into color waves. Everything in the previous section about light applies to color waves as well. This section expands on the special form of light referred to as colors.
The Before Exposure considerations include:
You have an artistic vision. You developed a photographic style. You are on assignment. Let’s say you’ll shoot color. The first consideration is that your vision most likely favors certain color combinations, mood and overall light. It may be in-your-face harsh light and strong, exaggerated colors. Or perhaps it is calm muted colors with a minimum of shadows. It might be a mix of the two. Next, mesh that vision with the requirements for the shoot (if any). The vision rules, the requirements are the handcuffs.
Then, find the location that matches the vision and requirements. You are, of course, familiar with all the ways in which colors and light vary depending on a great many, but often predictable factors (excluding weather in the case of outdoors shoots – if you need sunshine and it’s raining hard, you’re out of luck).
Now you have advanced to the chosen location. It is a matter of setting up the actual shoot. The dominating consideration still is color and light. Even with the most informed choice of location, there will be color and light issues to deal with. Things are always just a bit out of sync. Sometimes they are way out of sync. The exception, of course, is if you maintain your own control over light and color by supplying you own lighting setup. Jeff Wall can spend weeks or months waiting for light and colors to be just right.
Your vision, of course, favors certain compositional elements, including color preferences and associated moods and balances. Now faced with the real world, perhaps the scene does not match the vision perfectly or, maybe, not at all. It is time to reconsider and improvise. Or walk away which might be costly.
So a particular dance starts up, similar to the “As Time Goes By Can Can” already mentioned for exposure and composition. Let’s call this dance “The High Noon Two Step”. You run around the location, checking out shadows, highlights, midtones, light ratios and color shifts, perhaps wishing you were free to move around the country instead. You’re adjusting this and moving that. You tinker with the camera, fitting filters, changing film, moving the white balance this way, then that way. You’re pre visualizing like a mad man. You snapping test shots left, right, up, down and possibly upside down.
Eventually, you have to admit you used all the tools and excuses, the scene is OK and it’s time to actually start shooting. The madness actually followed a path (although no one else may believe it). So the “As Time Goes By Can Can” compositional dance is about to start. The color work is temporarily on hold. Actual pictures are about to happen.
After Exposure, there are more opportunities to screw up or to enhance the images:
Development strategy or initial Photoshop corrections: You did, of course, pre visualize the image which should define the steps to take in development and printing. But sometimes the initial result isn’t quite what you expected. Maybe your white balance setting was a bit off. Perhaps the color film wasn’t quite to specs or the development chemicals a bit too old. So don’t be too surprised you have to apply some initial corrections to get the colors back on the intended track.
Alter the color balance and related features: Your pre visualization may well include corrections to the original image. Perhaps you shoot digitally but the plan is for a black&white image. Maybe you planned to enhance the original image to fit into your vision or work spec: apply more vivid or muted colors, shift the colors to some off beat point, add some special effect or combine several images. There are literally infinite possibilities to make your vision come true, whatever it is.
End use adjustments: Most likely the image has to be adjusted fit the particular color (and other) requirements of the intended end market, be it a photo album, web site, print advertisement, gallery show, museum purchase or a shoe box. Each end-use has different requirements, usually radically different: the color capabilities of the web are very different from an offset printer as an example. Typically, your image must be adjusted into several versions: perhaps one to show to clients in your carry-around portfolio, one for your web site portfolio, one for your long term hard drive storage, one containing your printing instructions, another for off-site printing, low resolution versions for Flickr, MySpace and the hundreds of other promotional web sites.
The final image and follow ups: You’ll produce the actual high resolution image in all its glorious colors to be used, published, shown or exhibited. Hopefully you’ll reap the well deserved rewards. Then you’ll consider documenting and protecting all the color (and other) work you have put into not just this image but the perhaps thousands of other images in your portfolio. This is a real management issue – how do you keep track of all these versions of a single image and all its unique settings for different purposes? Especially considering you own thousands of images? How do you keep them safe over long periods of time? How do you record color (and other) settings so you can repeat them? There are many solutions available – I’ll have to leave that part to you.
That’s it for the discussion of colors. Together with the light discussion, you have a pretty good foundation for dealing with these two critical elements. The idea was to alert you to some of the intricate details of these basic components of your magical toolbox. Next, we’ll examine the two other fundamental components. That is the camera with its lenses and backends followed by the human system of eyes, retinas and the brain in processing the images.