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Where Does Color Come From?

Color is all around us. We look at a tree and see green, or we look at a stop sign and see red. The sky looks blue and flowers come in all sorts of different colors. As photographers, most of us shoot in color, but have you ever stopped to consider just what the heck color actually is and where it comes from?

Most objects get their color from light shining on them. They absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others. Different wavelengths are absorbed to various degrees such that what gets reflected is a mixture of what does not get absorbed at each wavelength. Other objects (such as the sun) actually emit light as a spectrum of various wavelengths.

Either way, light is a necessary ingredient. In order for us to see anything at all, we need light. In the absence of light, it's, well... dark. To see an object at all, you have to shine a light on it, or it must produce light itself. An object that absorbs all wavelengths will appear black since no light gets reflected. That's why black objects get warm to the touch on a sunny day in fact. All that absorbed light gets converted to heat.

But the real magic of color happens within us. We perceive different wavelengths of light as corresponding to different colors, and when you add together all the colors that an object reflects in the correct proportions you get the color we see for that object. It is within us that that green tree appears lush, or that red stop sign draws our immediate attention. Without us as observers, those reflected wavelengths remain no more than that. A great deal of color perception is actually psychological. We see those wavelengths and add our own interpretations to them, reacting both instinctually and culturally.

It is this aspect that is of most interest to us as photographers. Getting in touch with how color makes you feel can help give your photographs more impact.

Just something to think about.

Date posted: September 16, 2007


Copyright © 2007 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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