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The Science of How We See Color—And Why We Need Spectrophotometers

Four roses in four different colors.

Have you ever disagreed with a friend, family member or colleague about the color of an object? If so, you’ve experienced how subjective color can be. (Remember the infamous dress that went viral in 2015 because no one could agree on the color?)

Three images of the same dress in three different colors.

There’s a complex science behind color perception, and multiple factors that impact how we see. At the very least, these differences can cause friendly disagreements. However, if accurate, consistent product colors are a critical part of your company’s success, not accounting for these differences can be a costly mistake.

How We See Color

We see thanks to photoreceptor cells in the retinas of our eyes that transmit signals to our brains. Highly sensitive rods allow us to see at very low light levels – but in shades of gray. To see color, we need brighter light and cone cells within our eyes that respond to roughly three different wavelengths:

  • Short (S) – blue spectrum (absorption peak ≈ 445 nm)
  • Medium (M) – green spectrum (absorption peak ≈ 535 nm)
  • Long (L) – red spectrum (absorption peak ≈ 565 nm)

Graphic of light wavelength.

Perception of color depends on how an object absorbs and reflects wavelengths. Human beings can only see a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, from about 400 nm to 700 nm, but it’s enough to allow us to see millions of colors.

This is the basis of trichromatic theory, also called Young-Helmholtz after the researchers who developed it. It was only confirmed in the 1960s, which means this level of detail in understanding wavelengths and colors is only 60 years old.

Meanwhile, opponent process theory postulates that how we see color  depends on three receptor complexes with opposite actions: light/dark (or white/black), red/green, and blue/yellow.

Together, the two theories help describe the complexity of human color perception.

Color Perception: A Real-World Example

Children boarding yellow school bus.

Today, seeing a yellow school bus is a common sight. When “school bus yellow” was voted on in 1939 as the standard color to adopt, we didn’t know as much about how we see color as we do now.

In the Smithsonian article, The History of How School Buses Became Yellow, Ivan Schwab, clinical spokesperson at the American Academy of Ophthalmology, explains

“The best way to describe [the color] would be in wavelength.”

School bus yellow is actually found in the middle of the wavelengths that trigger our perception of red and green. Because it’s right in the middle, this particular color hits our cones (or photoreceptors) from both sides, equally. That makes it almost impossible for us to miss a school bus—even when it’s in our peripheral vision.

When light hits an object, some of the spectrum is absorbed and some is reflected. Our eyes perceive colors according to the wavelengths of the reflected light.

Illustration of light spectrum.

We also know that how we see color will be different depending on the time of day, lighting in the room, and many other factors. This isn’t such a problem for the average person, but imagine having people evaluating color samples in different offices across the globe. They may perceive different variations of the color based on a range of factors—including their lighting.

That’s why it’s so important to implement digital tools for color control. These tools—from spectrophotometers, to software to services, ensure color evaluation stays objective no matter what. It’s also important to follow best practices for operating and maintaining your color measurement instruments.

How Our Surroundings Impact Color Perception

Three images of the same couch in different lighting.Most of us can recognize the color of familiar objects, even as lighting circumstances change (such as a yellow school bus). This adaptation of the eye and brain is known as color constancy. It doesn’t apply to subtle color variations, though, or counteract the changes in color due to the intensity or quality of light.

We might also be able to agree with each other on the wavelengths that define basic colors. However, this might have more to do with our brains than our eyes.

For instance, in a 2005 study at the University of Rochester, individuals tended to perceive colors the same way, even though the number of cones in their retinas varied widely. When volunteers were asked to tune a disk into what they’d describe as “pure yellow” light, everyone selected nearly the same wavelength.

But things get much more complicated when individuals or multiple people try to match colors to a product or material samples. Physical or environmental factors and personal differences between viewers can alter our perception of color. These factors include:

  • Physical: light source, background, altitude, noise
  • Personal: age, medications, memory, mood

If your job depends on achieving the right color again and again, relying on human eyesight alone won’t work. That’s because there are factors beyond our control that dictate how we see color.

People comparing fabric colors.

Not only that, when you’re working with people in different offices – whether they’re across the country or around the world – these factors greatly increase the risk of color variances.

To complicate matters further, the phenomenon of impossible colors, chimerical colors and more exist and can wreak havoc on a business that relies heavily on accurate color readings.

Using instruments to accurately detect colors from samples and products is imperative and having inter-instrument agreement is even more so. ThoughtCo does a good job of explaining the impact of these factors.

The Importance of Color in Our Lives

Colors play a vital role in our everyday lives. Like the yellow school bus. Why is it important that we see it, even in our periphery? For safety, of course.

Many colors are used to depict important messages without words. Red stop signs and green traffic lights are universal. These and other regulated colors play an important part in our lives.

We also associate colors with pride. Think about the colors on a country’s flag, or even the colors we wear to support our favorite sports teams.

Multiple flags blowing in the wind.

But colors were around for thousands upon thousands of years before there were school buses and stop signs and spectrophotometers. The history of colors and dyes is quite fascinating and dates further back than 2000 BC. There’s no doubt that they had a strong influence even then.

The Mathematics of Color Perception

Since environmental and personal factors influence color perception, we can’t be assured of accurate matches when we’re visually comparing colors to a standard sample. This can cause real business problems like production delays, material waste, and quality control failures.

As a result, businesses are turning to mathematical equations to specify colors, and non-subjective measuring devices to ensure precise matching.

The CIE color model.

The CIE color model, or CIE XYZ color space (shown above), was created in 1931. It’s essentially a mapping system that plots colors in a 3D space using red, green, and blue values as the axes.

Many other color spaces have been defined. CIE variants include CIELAB, defined in 1976, where L refers to luminance, A the red/green axis, and B the blue/yellow axis. Yet another model, CIE L*C*h, factors in lightness, chroma, and hue.

Measurement depends on colorimeters or spectrophotometers that provide digital descriptions of colors. For instance, the percentages of each of the three primary colors required to match a color sample are referred to as tristimulus values. Tristimulus colorimeters are used in quality control applications.

The First Step to Overcoming Color Perception Differences

Controlling colors despite unavoidable differences in human perception of color starts with awareness and education. It’s true that our eyes can only get us so far. Thankfully, there is a range of tools available to ensure the colors of your products are always accurate.

Datacolor offers a complete line of spectrophotometers, software and other solutions suitable for a variety of industries—including plastics, textiles, coatings and retail paint. We also designed an instrument specifically to measure materials that a traditional spectrophotometer cannot measure.

To learn more about perception of color, color science and how Datacolor plays a role, dive into one of our blogs below!

People working together in a conference room.

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