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Light and its color


The aurora borealis offers a spectacular colored light display in this hauntingly-beautiful image by Robert Dall.
The aurora borealis offers a spectacular colored light display in this hauntingly-beautiful image by Robert Dall.

THE PRIMARY COLORS OF LIGHT - RED, GREEN, BLUE

Most of us think of mixing the primary colors that we all learned in elementary school - red, blue and yellow - to make white, and this is the case when mixing paint pigments, for example. But light’s three primary wavelengths that produce white are red, blue and green in equal proportions.

Any color, indeed every hue in the entire world, can be simulated by mixing light waves of red, green and blue in different proportions. For example, overlapping equal portions of red light with green light will produce yellow, but red light with a smaller amount of green light will result in orange light.

SECONDARY COLORS OF LIGHT - MAGENTA, CYAN, YELLOW

By combining any two of the three primary colors of light, we create the secondary colors - magenta, cyan and yellow.

In the same manner that overlapping red and green results in yellow light, equal amounts of blue and green produce cyan light. Equal amounts of blue and red make magenta.


COMPLEMENTARY COLORS

A complementary color is one of a pair of primary or secondary colors that are in opposition to each other on a color wheel.

  • For the colors of light, complementary colors include: blue opposed to yellow, green opposed to magenta, and red opposed to cyan.
  • For pigmented colors, like paint, complementary color pairs include: orange opposed to blue, green opposed to red, and violet opposed to yellow.
  • Knowledge of how light colors combine to make other colors is a big help in photography. You will see this more clearly, perhaps, when you get to our section on filters. Since filters absorb different wavelengths of light, knowing where light gets its different colors aids in choosing the appropriate filter for your images. It is also helpful if you plan on combining colored gels over light sources, as is commonly done in a studio, to create different colors. And it is very important in selecting the appropriate film or color temperature setting in your digital camera's white balance menu for the color of the light illuminating your subjects. A digital camera's white balance setting can be adjusted for variations in the light's color or to deliberately introduce a "warm" or "cold" color cast into a picture.


    The magenta light reflected by the fog behind this belly-dancer was created by combining red and blue light.
    The magenta light reflected by the fog behind this belly-dancer was created by combining red and blue light.

    THE EFFECT ON COLOR OF DIFFERENT LIGHT SOURCES

    Although we seldom encounter pure white light (nearly all light is colored to one degree or another), we set white light as the norm because the human eye perceives this combination as colorless. In other words, objects seen in white light (normal daylight) appear to us as naturally-colored.

    Modern cameras are wonders of technology but they do not yet have brains. If a person moves from a beach in brilliant sun to a dimly-lit bayside bistro, his or her eyes quickly adjust to both the lower intensity and also to the change in the color of the light. The light's color has changed because its source is artificial illumination, probably from incandescent bulbs, which produce proportionately different wavelengths than those found in normal daylight. We are not unaware of the color difference, but our brain corrects for it and we soon see "normally." It seems we are willing to see just about any mixture of red, blue and green light as "white."

    Setting a digital camera's white balance takes care of the problem quite nicely, however a traditional camera loaded with outdoor or daylight-type film does not automatically compensate for lighting changes as we do, and “sees” incandescent light, for example, as somewhat red (which it actually is), and the scene when photographed is recorded on film (or on your digital camera's sensor if you don't adjust white balance for the interior lighting) as being warmer-looking than objects photographed in daylight. What you see is not what you get. In other words, film records the light as it is, not always as we humans see it.


    COLOR TEMPERATURE

    The colors from different light sources can be accurately measured, enabling photographers to choose the right film or digital camera's white balance setting to match a given light source, or the right filter to balance the wrong film with a light source.

    Color "temperature" is measured in degrees Kelvin (K). (See Kelvin scale). In degrees Kelvin, blue is hotter than red, even though blue is generally described as a "cool" color. Thus, 10,000K light has a lot of blue in it while 2,000K light leans towards red and yellow.

    Photographers use three standard light color temperatures: 5500K for daylight, and two artificial light color temperature standards, 3200K and 3400K. Films are color balanced for one of these standards.

    Night photography can involve many different light color temperatures, making it difficult to select the perfect film. You usually have to compromise.
    Night photography can involve many different light color temperatures, making it difficult to select the perfect film. You usually have to compromise.

    BLACK & WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY
    The color of the light is an important consideration, even when photographing in black and white.
    Remember that digital camera's sensors and nearly all black and white films will record colors our eyes do not, and many are especially sensitive to certain colors.


    Further information...

    Kelvin scale
    Related topics...

    Film's sensitivity to color