A Simple Question of Color November 26 2013

Color WheelWe recently got an interesting question from a prospective customer. She wanted to know if a certain red tablecloth was more on the “blue” side of red or more on the “orange” side of red. Seems like a simple enough question, and indeed it is. But the real answer is actually very complicated (and hopefully somewhat interesting as well).

In our everyday lives we all tend to think that a certain thing is a certain color – period, full stop, ‘nuff said. But in actual fact, a certain thing is only a certain color in a certain kind of light. What you perceive to be the thing’s color – the particular mix of light frequencies that are reflected from the thing to your eyes – is the result of a complex interaction between the light that is falling upon the thing and the material from which the thing is made.

In practical terms, if we photograph a red tablecloth outside at high noon on a bright, sunny, clear New England day, it will be a different color than if we photograph it indoors, under an incandescent light. This is because the frequency spectrum of sunlight is different from the frequency spectrum of the light emitted by an incandescent light bulb. In photography parlance, incandescent light is much “warmer” – meaning that it has a lot more red, yellow, and orange in it – and sunlight is much “cooler” – meaning that it has a lot more blue in it – and is also more “balanced” – meaning that it has a more even distribution of light frequencies (colors) in it, resulting in what many people think of as “white light”.

To make things even more interesting (or complicated, depending on your point of view), our eyes and brains are so amazing that they automatically detect and compensate for unbalanced lighting.  So when we look at a thing under unbalanced (say very warm) light, we actually perceive the thing to be the color it would be under more balanced light. Digital cameras try to do the same thing (it’s called “automatic white balancing”), but they are nowhere near as good at it as our eyes and brains are.  This is why things sometimes look different in pictures than they do in "real life".

So the point of all this is that the color of an object is heavily influenced by the nature of the light that is hitting it, and that’s even before we take the picture. After we take the picture the colors can be further affected by the process of digitizing the image, compressing it, and displaying it on your computer.

At Occitan Imports we are in the business of selling beautiful, colorful things to people sitting in front of computer screens, and we try very hard to ensure that the colors they see when they open up their USPS Priority Mail box are as close as possible to the colors they saw when they were looking at an image of the product on our web site. We photograph the smaller products outdoors, on bright, clear, sunny days, between the hours of 11:00 and 3:00 (yes, we really do this). We photograph the larger objects, like tablecloths and table runners, using professional, studio quality strobe lights that are designed to simulate natural sunlight, and then process the images with some really sophisticated software that does its best to ensure that the image you see on your screen is as close as possible to what you would see if you were standing right next to the product.

And, just in case you still remember the customer’s original question: the tablecloth was just very, very slightly on the blue side of red.