How lighting affects color

We perceive reflected light

Because the colors we see are the result of absorbed, reflected, and transmitted light on an object, the quality and type of lighting has a large effect.

An object that is dimly lit will reflect darker shade while brightly lit objects reflect a more saturated color.

Similarly, a yellowish light source will reflect warmer color tones like shades of red and orange while a blueish light source will reflect cooler tones like blues and greens.

Because color is just a perception, each of our brains interprets color slightly differently based on our experiences, physiological factors, or what we expect to see. If we believe we are seeing an object in the shadows, we adjust our perception accordingly to perceive a darker shade.

Color perception

How lighting affects color


Both colors are actually the same.

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The impact of lighting on perception

The brightness of a room, the light source and the time of day can all affect how we perceive colors (among other factors).

A and B are the same color, but because we perceive a shadow, our brain tells us these are different colors.

Different Light Sources Play Tricks on Our Eyes

Colors don't always look the same under different light sources

To add another fly to the color perception ointment, a phenomenon called "metamerism" can also affect the way we perceive color.

Metamerism occurs when you compare two objects that appear to be the same color under one light source, but when the light source changes, it is revealed that the colors are actually different.

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Different light sources play
tricks on our eyes

Two-spheres-illuminated-by-lights-to-show-metamerism Two-spheres-illuminated-by-lights-to-show-metamerism

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Metamerism in action

Metamerism can be a big headache for designers, retailers, manufacturers and consumers alike.

For example, you take a throw pillow to your local paint store so you can match color samples to the fabric. You find the "perfect" match, buy the paint, brush it onto your walls at home and then suddenly...the color is all wrong!

What happened? The light in the paint store was probably different than the light you have in your home and the sample no longer matches your pillow in the new light conditions.

How contrast affects colors

Contrast affects our perception of color

A color can appear different based on its immediate surroundings and the difference between two colors can either be enhanced or diminished.

Some colors are complimentary based on underlying similarities while others are contrasting and do not work well together. Contrasting levels of color saturation can also affect color perception, where the dominant color may be seen as a reference to which other colors are compared.

Color perception

How contrast affects colors

Red-stars-appear-different-colors-behind-alternating-colored-stripes Red-stars-appear-different-colors-behind-alternating-colored-stripes

Both of these stars are the same color.

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Contrast affects hue, brightness, and saturation

The color around an object can make the object appear to be a different color.

A picture is worth a thousand words

What color is a word?

When we have to describe a color, we are using words to convey something that is a visual stimulus. Our individual experiences with color affect what we think of when hearing or reading color descriptions. Because of this, conveying colors through words will always be an error-prone task.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the same is true for color.

Communicating in Color

Speaking in color

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How blue is your sky?

See how our ability to describe a color can vary widely.

Which of these do you feel is "Sky Blue"?


Baby Blue

17% said this was baby blue but 83% disagree.

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Sky Blue

38% said this was sky blue but 62% disagree.

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12% said this was cyan but 88% disagree.

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33% said this was turquoise but 66% disagree

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See the difference

Can people see the same color differently?

One of many physiological factors that affect our color perception is the way our eyes filter colors as a normal part of the aging process.

Inside of our eyes, behind our iris, we have the crystaline lens. This structure helps focus images onto our retina. At birth, the lens is completely clear but as time goes by the lens gradually becomes cloudy and yellow/brown in color. This change in the color and clarity of our lens affects how we perceive colors.

All Eyes are not the Same

Do our eyes deceive us?

Colorful-paint-can-stacked-side-by-side Colorful-paint-can-stacked-side-by-side
Younger Eyes
Older Eyes

Drag the slider to see the effect age has on color perception.

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How cataracts shift our color perception over time

The age-related change to our lens is one form of cataract. See how cataracts can affect our color perception.

Genetics and Color Vision

See how two different sets of eyes can perceive

Some of us are born with different combinations of photoreceptors. This can prevent us from seeing parts of the color spectrum.

As described on the last page, humans have four kinds of photoreceptor (1 rod to detect light and 3 cones to detect color) that work together so we have the ability to perceive color. A genetic lack of one or more of these photoreceptors results in an incomplete signal sent to the brain.

These genetic differences are classified as color spectrum deficiencies. Depending on which photoreceptors is missing, the deficiency will manifest differently.

Color vision disorders

Genetics and
color vision

Deuteranopia-versus-achromaopsia-versus-tritanopia-versus-normal-vision Deuteranopia-versus-achromaopsia-versus-tritanopia-versus-normal-vision Deuteranopia-versus-achromaopsia-versus-tritanopia-versus-normal-vision

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Types of Color Vision disorders

Lack of certain photoreceptors leads to specific color vision deficiencies:

Deuteranomaly: reduced sensitivity to green light

Protanomaly: reduced sensitivity to red light

Tritanomaly: reduced sensitivity to blue light

Monochromacy: can only see shades of black, white and gray

See how leading brands get color right

When it really counts, wavelengths matter.
Measuring wavelength directly can tell us the true nature of colors.

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