Color Perception Part 1: The Effect of Light

Posted April 07, 2015 by Shoshana Burgett

Is The Dress white and gold or blue and black?

Is The Dress white and gold or blue and black?

Were you part of the social media storm discussion around the dress? What did you see? Blue and black, or white and gold?

The bigger question is… WHY?

This dress has prompted many of us, especially those in the color industry, to really think about our perception of color. Our eyes can play tricks on us as our brain is managing vast amount of information and processing it the best it can. Men and women see color differently. If you had a glass of marsala wine the night before, it can impact your color vision the next day. Lighting and the technology we use to view things is also a major factor in color perception.

Without getting too technical, here’s an explanation of why the dress confused so many, and an introduction to the way light affects our color perception.

RGB Color Circle

RGB Color Circle

The temperature of light

The visible color spectrum, what we know as the rainbow (RGBIV), encompasses light wavelengths from approximately 380 to 720 nanometers and breaks down into three primary colors: red, green, and blue.

When mixed in various combinations, red, green and blue can create millions of beautiful colors. When mixed in equal quantities, we perceive the color as white. This is the foundation of the additive, or RGB, color model, and the basis for human color vision.

White is not a lack of color

As strange as it sounds, objects themselves don’t have color. They have properties that determine which wavelengths of light are absorbed, and which are reflected. It is the mixture of the reflected light that enters our eyes and gives us the perception of color.

Think about a red car sitting under a streetlight. All of the colors from the halogen light are shining on it, yet we only see red. That’s because the car’s paint is absorbing the green and blue rays of the white light and reflecting the red. When you look at the car, your retina receives the reflected red light and sends a message to the brain: This car is red.

However the shade will change as the color temperature of the sunlight changes. This quick video demonstrates it well.

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The car definitely looks red under noon daylight, but appears bluer under the night sky, and more yellow under fluorescent and horizon sunlight; but without a point of reference, they all just look red.

Color Temperatures in Kelvin

Color Temperatures in Kelvin

Back to the dress …

Color memory can actually make you feel like you’re losing your mind!

While lighting explains part of the dress color mystery, there’s something else at play. Our brains have “learned” how objects should look, and we apply this knowledge to everything we see.

Take white, for example. Magazine pages, newspapers, and printer paper are all white, but if you lay them together, you’ll see that the each white is actually quite different. The newsprint will appear more yellow, and next to the newspaper the printer paper will probably look even brighter than you originally thought. That’s because our eyes tend to capture the brightest part of the scene, call it white, and judge all other colors relative to this “bright-level.”

Here’s a cool optical illusion from Beau Lotto that illustrates how our color memory can completely change the appearance of a color.

Beau Lotto Cube Illusion color perception

Optical Illusion images courtesy of R. Beau Lotto


The center squares on the top and front side of the cube look pretty different – orange on the front, brown on the top, right? But when you mask the rest of the squares, you can see the two are actually identical. That’s because our brain subconsciously factors in the light source and mentally corrects the color on the front of the cube as shadowed. Amazing isn’t it?

So what does this have to do with The Dress?

Without a point of reference, we each perceive color in our own way. If you believe the dress picture was taken in bright sunlight, your brain will apply darker colors and you’ll think it’s blue. But if you think the dress is hidden in a shadow, you’ll imagine the colors to be white and gold.

The photo of the dress was not taken under ideal lighting conditions, and it is that lack of information that confused everyone’s brain.

Different people pick up on different visual cues, which changes how we interpret and perceive colors. This is really important to understand in industries where color, and color perception, are crucial.

Up next…

That covers the basics of the role of light in our perception of color. Watch this space for more detail about the science and technology of color perception, and the impact (positive and negative) it can have on manufacturing and photography.

Color Perception Blog Series

Part 1: The Effect of Light
Part 2: The Impact on Manufacturing
Part 3: The Tricks the Environment Plays on Our Eyes
Part 4: Human Traits

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