Mastering Colour in Photography

4 glasses of water in front of a colourful LED rainbow screen
Copyright Terry Holdren (iPhotography Student)

Colour. It’s the lifeblood of photography, the element that transforms a flat image into a window onto a vibrant world. But have you ever wondered how your camera captures that dazzling red rose or the cool serenity of a blue sky?

Understanding colour theory is a fundamental skill for any photographer who wants to go beyond snapshots and create images that resonate on a deeper level.

How Cameras See the World in Colour

Unlike our eyes, which perceive colour through a complex biological process, cameras rely on science to capture the colours we see. 

Modern digital cameras use an ingenious technology called a Bayer filter, placed right in front of the camera’s image sensor. This filter is a mosaic of millions of tiny coloured filters, typically red, green, and blue (RGB). Here’s the magic:

As light enters the camera lens, it hits the sensor. The Bayer filter splits the light into its red, green, and blue components, each colour hitting a specific photoreceptor on the sensor.

These photoreceptors record the intensity of each colour component.

The camera’s image processor then takes over, analysing the data from each photoreceptor and using complex algorithms to reconstruct the original colour image we see on the screen.

illustration of two digital camera sensors
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What is a Bayer Filter?

In a digital camera, the Bayer filter is a crucial component responsible for capturing colour information. Imagine it as a microscopic mosaic millions of times smaller than any mosaic you’ve ever seen!

While our eyes have complex colour-sensing cones, camera sensors are inherently black and white. They only record the intensity of light hitting them, not the actual colour.

1. The original scene of a garden with some tulips and narcissus. 2. The response of a 120-pixel × 80-pixel sensor with a Bayer filter in a digital camera. 3. The response colour-coded with the Bayer filter colours. 4. The reconstructed image after interpolating the missing colour information.

How Does a Bayer Filter Work?

This filter sits directly in front of the camera’s sensor, acting as a gatekeeper for incoming light. The filter itself is made up of a tiny grid of millions of coloured microlenses, typically arranged in a repeating pattern of red, green, and blue (RGB).

Each coloured microlens in the Bayer filter only allows light of its specific colour to pass through and reach a corresponding photoreceptor on the sensor behind it. So, a red microlens will only allow red light to hit its designated photoreceptor, a green microlens allows green light, and so on.

Since each photoreceptor only records the intensity of its assigned colour, the camera doesn’t have a complete picture of the colours in the scene. Here’s where the camera’s clever image processor comes in.

It analyses the data from all the photoreceptors, considering the surrounding colours captured by nearby microlenses, and uses complex algorithms to reconstruct a full-colour image.

Bayer Pattern Filtration
Image: Bayer Pattern Filtration

Problems with a Bayer Filter

The Bayer filter, though ingenious, does have limitations. Because each photoreceptor only captures one colour channel, the camera relies on interpolation (educated guessing) to fill in the missing colour information. This can sometimes lead to artifacts like moiré patterns, especially in scenes with fine details or repetitive patterns.

However, the Bayer filter remains the dominant colour filter technology in digital cameras due to its efficiency and ability to capture a vast range of colours despite its limitations.

How Do Cameras Create Colour?

How does a camera with only three colour receptors capture the vast spectrum of colours we perceive?

It’s all about the power of mixing light! Remember those childhood art projects where you mixed primary colours to create new ones? Cameras do something similar.

By combining the intensities of red, green, and blue light captured by the sensor, the camera’s processor can create a vast array of colours.

For instance, a strong red signal combined with a weaker green signal might translate to a beautiful orange in the final image.

Similarly, a combination of all three colours at varying intensities can create anything from a pale yellow to a deep purple.

This ability to mix light allows cameras to capture a surprisingly wide range of colours, from the delicate blush of a flower petal to the fiery intensity of a sunset.

Diagram of how light is converted into a photo

Luminance and Saturation

Now that we understand how colours are captured, let’s delve deeper into the properties that define a specific colour: luminance and saturation.

Luminance: Imagine a grayscale image. Luminance refers to the brightness or darkness of a colour. A bright red has a high luminance value, while a deep, almost black shade of red has a low luminance value. Luminance plays a crucial role in creating depth and dimension in a photograph.

Saturation: Saturation refers to the intensity or purity of a colour. A highly saturated colour appears vibrant and bold, like a freshly cut tomato. Conversely, a colour with low saturation appears dull and muted, like a faded red brick wall. Saturation is key to creating eye-catching images that pop off the screen.

It’s important to understand the interplay between luminance and saturation is vital for photographers. By manipulating these properties, you can control the mood and atmosphere of your photographs.

For example, a high-saturation image with strong colour contrast can evoke a sense of excitement, while a low-saturation image with muted tones can create a more calming and melancholic feel.

Luminance ExampleSaturation Example

What are Colour Spaces, and Which is the Right One?

Imagine a giant map containing every conceivable colour imaginable. That’s essentially what a colour space is in photography. It’s a standardised system for representing colours digitally.

There are various colour spaces used in photography, with the most common ones being sRGB and Adobe RGB.

sRGB

This is the most widely used colour space and is ideal for web and social media images. It offers a good balance between colour accuracy and file size.

Adobe RGB

This colour space offers a wider gamut (range) of colours compared to sRGB. It’s preferred by professional photographers who require the most accurate colour reproduction, particularly for print work.

Choosing the right colour space depends on your intended use for the image. If you’re planning to share your photos online, sRGB is a safe bet. But if you plan on printing your work or require the most accurate colour representation, Adobe RGB is the way to go.

Read more…

diagram of different colour spaces for photography

Why Don't My Photos Look Like Real Life?

Have you ever been disappointed by the colours in your photos, feeling they don’t quite capture the vibrancy of the scene you witnessed? There are a few reasons why this might happen:

Lighting: The type of light can significantly impact colour reproduction. Incandescent lights tend to cast a warm yellow glow. While fluorescent lights can give off a cool, greenish cast. Understanding how different light sources affect colour temperature is crucial for achieving accurate colour reproduction.

White Balance: Your camera’s white balance setting plays a vital role in ensuring colours appear neutral. If the white balance is off, even a well-lit scene can have a colour cast that distorts the true colours.

Camera Calibration: Even the most sophisticated cameras can have slight variations in colour sensitivity. Regularly calibrating your camera ensures it captures colours as accurately as possible.

Monitor Calibration: The colours you see on your camera’s screen might not accurately reflect the final image. Calibrating your computer monitor ensures the colours you edit in post-processing are a true representation of what the camera captured.

Copyright Carol Fourie (iPhotography Student)

How to Get Accurate Colour Photographs

How do you bridge the gap between what your camera captures and the vibrant colours you see with your eyes? Here are some key strategies:

RAW format captures all the data from the camera’s sensor, offering more flexibility for colour correction in post-processing compared to compressed JPEGs.

Learn to use your camera’s white balance settings effectively. Experiment with different presets or use the manual white balance option for ultimate control.

Regularly calibrate your camera and monitor to ensure consistent and accurate colour representation throughout your workflow.

A grey card acts as a neutral colour reference, helping you achieve a consistent white balance across different lighting conditions.

Graphic design artist editing photo on computer

Conclusion

Colour is a powerful storytelling tool in photography. By understanding colour theory, mastering the technical aspects of colour capture, and employing effective post-processing techniques, you can elevate your photography to new heights.

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