In this article, we’re going to briefly look at the subjectivity of color. This is a colossal subject, but I wanted to share some of my thoughts on how color is perceived by each of us and whether it’s really that important.
Color IS Subjective
First off, color is subjective. I don’t care what else you believe in, but that is an indisputable fact. You perceive the red of an apple differently than I do, and we will never know by how much — ever.
More importantly, though, neither of us are right or wrong, as there is no way on knowing the actual exact color of that apple.
Colour only has any relevance when we try and describe it to somebody else, and the accuracy of that information is rarely crucial. When I ask you for a red apple and not a green one, you aren’t going to ask exactly how red I want my apple to be.
Of course, there are situations in which color is life-threateningly crucial. Pilots, coastguards, electricians, bomb disposal experts, and many other careers need to know the subtle variances of color, but ultimately most of us needn’t worry too much about what colors we’re actually seeing.
But What if You’re Colourblind?
The reason I’m prefacing this article with the subjectivity of color is because I hear photographers being concerned that they can’t accurately determine color casts correctly and that they may be colorblind. Let me be clear, there is a vast difference between being colorblind and not being able to determine subtle variances in color where photography is concerned.
First off, color blindness is genetic (hereditary) and as such you were born with it. You can’t catch it, nor can you ‘fix’ it. Chances are though, even if you are colorblind, you’re managing just fine. I am also almost entirely sure that when you did discover you were colorblind, that it was somebody else who ‘told’ you that you were. Up until that point you were likely, and rightly unaware of it.
Remember, color is subjective and I will only know what one color looks like to me and you will only know what one color looks like to you. It’s nearly always somebody else telling you that you’re seeing colors‘ wrong’.
Note: If you’d like to check if you’re colorblind, I have included a list below of useful online visual tools to determine your abilities to spot variances in color.
How Does Colorblindness Affect Us as Creatives?
So now that we’ve determined that it really doesn’t matter if you’re colorblind or not, let’s look at how our ability to read colors affects us as photographers. As I said, if you’re colorblind it’s not the end of the world for artists — in fact, it’s often quite the opposite.
Look at the work of famous directors like Christopher Nolan and Nicolas Winding Refn. They are both colorblind movie directors working at the top of their game with little to no negative implications of their color blindness.
So whether you’re colorblind or not, don’t let it hold you back but more importantly don’t let anybody else tell you it’s a hindrance or that you can’t be a good photographer or any other artist for that matter.
Not Colorblind but Color Challenged
Okay, so this is really where a lot of us sit. We’re not colorblind, but we struggle with spotting subtle differences in color. These color differences I’m referring to are specifically related to photography and they crop up when we’re trying to correct white balance issues or trying to color grade a shot.
Here’s the good/bad news; color acuity is a skill. It can be learned, but it will take time.
This skill is like any other and 20 years ago, I was terrible at it and now I am a lot better at it. Back then, before digital, we would have to color print using negative enlargers and chemicals. We would have to dial in our color corrections by hand via the magenta, yellow and cyan dials on our enlargers. We would have to also know that we can create any color correction via these three dials because by removing magenta we get green, by removing yellow we get blue and by removing cyan we get red.
This was hard.
I was not great at it and that’s because it takes time to develop the eye skill to determine color casts present in your shot. Anybody can color print correctly if they know what colors to try and balance, the skill isn’t in operating the machine but in knowing what needs to be adjusted.
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples below to try and see what I mean.
The above image may look okay to some of you and in all honesty, this would have looked perfect to me too 20 years ago.
But experience tells me that there are a few concerning color factors present in this shot. The shadows are looking a little sickly with a slight cyan/green tinge and the highlights are a little yellow. Let’s dial in some corrections and see if we can get closer to something the looks more desirable.
With the color adjustments made, I’m feeling a lot happier about the overall shot and the skin tones now visually look more appealing. Some of you may actually prefer the previous version, and that’s totally fine too. More importantly though, at no point did I say I was trying to make this look accurate or perfect. I personally believe that’s a fool errand, as making it look perfectly accurate is technically impossible.
Remember I said at the start that we all see color differently and that color is subjective? Well, how on earth are we supposed to accurately color correct something if we all see something slightly different?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying color correction isn’t important but I am saying that you need to develop a personal eye and taste for it and that will only develop over time. Look at the colors in your images from years ago, are they perfect? Chances are that you’d color them differently now.
Spotting variance in color is a skill like any other. I get asked by my wife all the time to taste-test dinner whilst it’s bubbling on the stove. I taste the food and to me, it either tastes good or it doesn’t. I have absolutely no clue what to add if it doesn’t taste good though, but some of you will likely think I’m mad. Surely you know if it needs more salt, wine, sugar etc?! To you that may be obvious and to me, coloring is the same, it’s obvious but only because I have a lot of experience with it and I’ve trained my eyes to spot very minor differences in color.
So with all this in mind, let’s try to drop the word ‘correction’ from ‘color correction’. There is no ‘correct’ color, so stop worrying your monitor has shifted a degree one way or another, instead start paying attention to color with your own eyes rather than relying on what a machine tells you is right and wrong.
Of course, color blindness is a real thing and it’s very important to a lot of us. Chances are though, if you’re smart enough to be reading this post then you likely already know if you’re colorblind or not.
But if you’d like to double check, here are a few tests to put your eyeballs through their paces.
Ishihara Colour Blindness Test
The Ishihara color blindness test is the most famous and it’s the one with the all the colored dots and numbers. There are plenty online and most are fairly simple for a wide range of color variances in eyes. The link I’m providing here though takes you to a fairly complex version that has a lot more nuance in color. You’ll get a score at the end too.
Remember though, color blindness is far more common than you think. 1 in 255 women and 1 in 12 men have some form of color vision deficiency so don’t be alarmed if you don’t get a perfect score.
Here’s a link for taking this test.
Farnsworth-Munsell Hue Test
So now that you’ve taken the Ishihara color blindness test and you’re confident you know your colors, here’s the far harder Farnsworth-Munsell hue test. This test actually gets you to rearrange hues on a chart from one color to another. This is an excellent tool for us photographers because it forces us to spot very minor and subtle changes in color hues.
Here’s a link for taking this test.
Farnsworth-Munsell 100 Hue Test
It’s now finally time to leave the kiddie slopes and test both your patience and your eyeballs on this last hue test. This time we’ll be rearranging nearly 100 hues across four color strips. Once you’re done, hit the ‘score test’ button to see your results.
Here’s a link for taking this test.
Like I said before, color is subjective and even if you are colorblind, don’t let that stop you from being a phenomenal artist or photographer. And if you’re not colorblind but still struggle with spotting variances in colors, don’t worry, it will get easier with time and experience. For example, I passed all of those three tests with a perfect score, but I guarantee you I wouldn’t have even come close to that 20 years ago.
About the author: Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer based in Reading, UK. He specializes in keeping the skill in the camera and not just on the screen. If you’d like to learn more about his incredibly popular gelled lighting and post-pro techniques, visit this link for more info. You can find more of his work and writing on his website, Facebook, 500px, Instagram, Twitter, and Flickr. This article was also published here.