A Simple Question of Color

Posted by Laurence Bertone on

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. You would be amazed at how different the same picture can look when displayed on two different computers!

At Occitan Imports we are in the business of selling beautiful, colorful things to people sitting in front of computer screens, and we do our best 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. To that end, we photograph our tablecloths in a professional photography studio using strobe lights that are designed to simulate natural sunlight on a slightly overcast day. We then process them with software that tries to offset some of the color distortion that will be introduced by a "typical" computer screen. In theory, if you put one of our tablecloths on a table in a room that's well-lit entirely with "natural light" LED bulbs, it should look very similar to the way it looks on your computer screen. However, if you put it in a room that's, say, dimly lit with "soft white" incandescent bulbs, it will look different, and, unfortunatately, there's nothing we (or anyone) can do about that.

To see some of our photography in action, take a look at our Jacquard or printed tablecloths.


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