The internet phenomenon of “The Dress” photo seems to have superceded any other news this morning. Everything from magic to the science of the eye/brain connection has been bandied about to explain it. But it’s really very simple: Smart phone cameras (or any cameras) aren’t as smart as you think, and certainly not as smart as your own eyes.
First, some basic color theory: when looking at an object in sunlight, or under most artificial light, things bathed in light look warm, meaning that the color tends toward yellow/orange. The color on the shadow side of the same object look cool, or leaning toward the blue side of the spectrum. But we accept these color shifts as real and correct when we are looking at an object. You probably don’t even notice it unless you’ve trained your eye to assess colors.
Add to this some basics about how cameras on automatic setting work: They try their best for a pleasing picture according to how their little computer brains are programed, and the usually get close, but sometimes they can’t figure out what’s important. They have a range of both light and colors that they can interpret, called a gamut. Compared to the human eye, it’s a very limited range.
Enter….. The Dress. The photo was taken half in the light and half in the shadow. The camera was confused, and underexposed the photo. The colors were VERY cold, very blue, because that’s what underexposed parts of a picture look like.
Below is an example of drastic changes in color balancing a photo. This photo is of a nearly white gray horse, and the handler is wearing a white shirt. In the first photo, you can clearly see how blue the shadow is … and yet your eye accepts it as correct. In the second picture, I’ve manipulated the color balance so that the shadowed part of the shirt is a neutral gray – the reality of the shadow, in other words. And yet by doing this, the color of the sunlit parts are so completely wrong that they defy reason. Color is not absolute. Color is relative.
When my photos of you are downloaded from my camera, sometimes they are in the sunlight, sometimes they are in the shadows, and sometimes they are in indoor arenas, which have their very own bizarre color environments. To counter the color shifts that happen even with the most excellent cameras in the world, I go over every single image so that by the time you see your photos, no one can argue about whether your white horse is gold or blue!