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The Science Behind Color Perception

Color is a sensory perception rather than a physical property that can be given a unit, and no two people experience color quite the same. What we call “color” is the result of an interaction between three elements: a light source, an object, and an observer. This triplet is the foundation of colorimetry – the science and technology that allow us to quantify and describe our human perception of color in an objective way.

The Role of Light in Color Perception

The journey of color perception begins with a light source. Light is the stimulus that makes it possible for us to see colors. When light strikes an object, it doesn’t behave uniformly, instead, some of its wavelengths are absorbed by the object while others are reflected. This interaction between light and matter is what creates the color we (the observer) perceive. For instance, a red apple appears red because it reflects more of the long wavelengths (red) than middle (green) or short (blue) wavelengths. This reflection sends signals to the photoreceptors in our retinas, which communicate to our brain to interpret these signals as the color red.

Reflected Light

Photoreceptors Enable Color Vision

In our eyes, we have 2 types of photoreceptors within our retina called rod and cones. Rods are responsible for our vision in low light settings and do not contribute to color vision whereas cones help us detect color in well-lit settings and come in three varieties: red, green and blue. They are what enable the average person to see and differentiate about 10 million different hues!

In the prefrontal cortex of our brains, our memories and emotions blend with various stimuli from our senses (like sight), and ultimately inform our perception of a given color. This process is part of what allows “color constancy”, or our ability to perceive color relatively the same, no matter the light source. Color constancy tells us that an apple is red, even if it’s in a dimly lit room and our cones aren’t activated to fully inform that perception.

Rods And Cones Color Vision


The Importance of Light Source in Color Perception

One intriguing aspect of color perception lies in the nature of the light source itself. For us to perceive an object as being a certain color, the light illuminating it must contain the corresponding wavelengths. Continuing with the apple example, the apple appears red because the light source shining on it contains red wavelengths. Without those wavelengths, the apple would not look red to us. This principal is critical in color management, particularly in industries where accurate color prediction is vital to overall product quality.

Business Implications of Color Perception

While the science of color perception is rooted in the interaction of light, an object and an observer, the variability in human perception presents a challenge in business. For manufacturers across a wide variety of industries, understanding color perception is more than a scientific curiosity; it has direct implications for the success of their products.

Being able to accurately and objectively communicate color, despite our subjective color vision, ensures that products meet quality standards – and customer expectations. In industries such as cosmetics, textiles, paint, plastic, and automotive, where color consistency is paramount, understanding and accounting for the science of color perception can lead to improved product development, enhanced customer satisfaction, and a stronger brand image.

Accurate, consistent color in manufacturing is extremely difficult to achieve without devices such as spectrophotometers that measure color. When paired with formulation software, manufacturers are well on their way to controlling color!

Want to learn more about color science? Get a copy of our Fundamentals of Colorimetry eBook!

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