Neither Your Eyes Nor Your Camera Can Actually See Color. They See White Light!

Don’t tune me out just yet. It’s actually true.

What few people realize about capturing color images is that each capture starts in black and white. There is no such thing as capturing color! Let me try that from a slightly different approach. All color perception (eyes) and color images (cameras, monitors, and print) is generated from shades of white light.

There is an important fact beneath this strange statement. One that will make a MAJOR difference in the way you view, capture, and edit digital images. When you understand the visual choreography stated here, your understanding of color photography might just get bigger. Read on.

Your Eyes See White Light. Absolute white light appears colorless though it is composed of equal amounts of red, green, and blue lightwaves. Your eyes absorb these lightwaves as visual energy and the lenses in your eyes focus this energy onto a dense cluster of light receptors located fovea area on the backside of the retina in your eyes.

white visiblt light

You actually have two kinds of receptors in each eye; rods and cones. And the cones are divided into three types, each receiving information about three colors; red, green, and blue. RodsCones2The three types of light receptors send this information to your brain’s visual cortex, which sorts out the values of light and composes them into color values. Only then does this blast of light get interpreted as perceptible colors.

So what I’m saying is actually true. You don’t actually see color, you only see light.

Your camera captures levels of white light. What does all this physiology have to do with photography? The very same principle is at work inside your digital camera. Until the (CMOS or CCD) sensors located on your camera’s image sensor parse the light into specific values of red, green, and blue colors, the camera actually only sees various levels of white light. These levels are specified as luminance, or light-shaping contrast. When the red, green, and blue levels of luminance are combined into a geometric matrix of pixels and projected onto a display screen, then your eyes see evidence of what the camera has captured.

Image Travel-Camera

Your camera doesn’t actually see color, it too only sees light! Which harkens back to a prior blog rant… photography is a grand illusion, but one that we all buy into and love.

Bonus print techno-point. Color separations in the printing trade are generated by capturing four different black and white exposures filtered through three primary filters; red, green, and blue. Each of these black and white images eventually produces a single color of the four colors necessary to produce full color pictures. The red filter captures cyan information, the green filter produces magenta, and the blue filter delvers yellow. The fourth “color” is black, which is a toned-down combination of all the other three images. and is used simply to provide tonality to the other colors.

When you understand how light behaves and how it is captured and processed by both your eyes and your digital devices, you’ll shoot better pictures. When you learn how to push those tones and colors around in Photoshop and Lightroom, and edit your pictures with confidence and accuracy, you’ll see remarkable results from your efforts. It all has to start with understanding the fundamentals of light.

If you are involved with preparing images for the printed page, you really need to see you images through the eyes of the printing press. This ain’t no giant inkjet printer, it’s a thunder-beast that has a totally different appetite. Start preparing images that the press can actually digest and you’ll see an amazing difference. You can learn more about that at banner

If you really want to understand what makes color work, you need to understand how light behaves. And here’s where I can help you. I’ve created a very entertaining and easy-to-understand video series that will teach you these fundamentals and get you on track to capture and produce amazing color.

About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook "Digital Color Photography: A Deeper Look" from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color Fundamentals video series at
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