Seeing in Color

Thomas Lock Hobbs writes in response to my post on making book proofs:

Hi Brian,

I’ve been following your blog for 4 or 5 years now and though you only post infrequently now I always look forward to reading one of your posts. Congratulations on the book! I can’t wait to order it.

Reading your last post got me thinking again about seeing in color, specifically having a really sharp eye for color casts and hues. In showing my work to other photographers I feel like I’m color blind sometimes. Its as if they are able to access a whole layer of perception that is closed off to me. For instance, the picture of the blue shopping cart is too cyan? I just see a blue shopping cart.

I think part of the trick may be in turning off those parts of the brain that deal with subject cognition. It’s almost like you have to look at something a little stupidly. How do you learn how to do this? Are there techniques for it? You said you have students. Does this ever come up as a topic? Is this something you can explicitly teach and practice?


These are great questions so I thought I would elaborate on the blog. Learning (and teaching) to see those subtle shades of color is tricky business. The tough part is our eyes are much more complex than these silly machines. Since our eyes are connected to our brains, we have a fantastic ability to process color as well as see very subtle shades rather quickly. For instance when in a dark room for some time, our eyes adjust and we eventually can begin to see shapes. For a camera to do this, it would simply need a long enough exposure to render image and in most cases the image would not replicate that incredibly nuance of light. A proper term for this is gamut. Gamut refers to the amount of color rendered by a specific instrument, a camera, printer, monitors, etc… can only render so many shades of a color. We try and cheat this by various methods and thus lies the great challenge and difference between great prints/images and mediocre ones.

When I first began to learn to print color in a traditional darkroom, I took a class from the wonderful Bill Frederking. Bill is a gifted teacher and photographer who has a knack for translating ideas in a way that makes them simple and achievable. He said one crucial thing to me then which was in order to see a specific color cast, you had to see the opposite cast against it. So for instance; make a print, if that print looks too yellow, make a blue print to see how yellow. This not only helps to see these hues but also establishes a threshold of warm and cool, neutral is somewhere in between.

I could on for days and do in classes. But after some time one really does begin to notice the reflected blue in a shadow on the wall, or the green cast over skin in bad indoor florescent lighting. After some time it can drive one batty! But the results are far worthwhile in that you’ll never look at color the same.


  1. Posted June 22, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Or, slightly easier, just play with the Color Balance sliders in Photoshop, moving them back and forth until you find what works. Don’t forget to get up from the computer and look at the real world from time to time in between. I often can’t decide, walk away for 2 min and come back and get it right.

  2. Posted July 7, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Brian, Thanks for responding to my question. I’m honored that you felt it worthy of its own blog post, although a little embarrassed to now be publicly tagged as being ignorant of color 🙂

    Your suggestion of comparing opposite changes is an interesting one although there is the more fundamental question of knowing that something is “too yellow” in the first place.

    I wonder if perhaps I’ve come up against the limits of auto-didaction. Close, accurate color perception is best [perhaps only?] learned in close contact with an expert, like learning an instrument; practicing a lot and getting frequent, corrective feedback.

    Per Wesley’s point, I can and do play with the color sliders but I lack the vocabulary to articulate what I’m seeing. I can see that the colors shift but can’t say why or how.

  3. Posted August 25, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    It’s true. Once you look carefully at color correction of you photos you become super analytical of color in the real world. I’ve become very picky about what type of light bulbs I have in the apartment. I’ll go outside and think ‘the light is so cool today’ now.

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