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Why #thedress is not what you see

I’m a professional lighting designer; I have worked with light and the perception of color for over over 25 years. Here is – explained in a clear way – why #thedress sometimes seems to be white and gold even though it is black and blue.

This does not happen when we take the photo. It does not happen when the image is rendered on your display. It happens in your brain. Thank God our eyes + brain combo is a system that can only measure” light and color relatively. We don’t interpret absolute color values or anything like that. We only compare. And our brain adds what seems to be missing.

You want to have a proof? Take a look for some time at this flag. It’s not having the right colors. After you have stared at it for some time, look at a white wall. What do you see? Exactly, the colors that complementary to the ones of the flag. We call this chromatic adaptation. Your brain makes up for what’s missing.

thumbnail So, which color you see, depends on your own visual context. Your environment, that is, the light sources that radiate their light into your eye. In very simple words: you see the image of #thedress relative to that.

Every light source has a “color temperature”; a number that describes how blueish or how warmish the light of that lamp is. When you have been watching blueish light – light with a high color temperature that is – then your brain adjusts for that and will “add” amber to the image of the world around you. That way, you see things naturally. And when you have been in an environment lit with warmish light – light with a low color temperature that is – then your brain adds some blue to render everything naturally. You start to understand what happened when people who were looking at a blue light source, watched the image of #thedress, right?
thumbnailTheir brain added amber, to see everything naturally. And their brain thought it had to do so with the picture of the dress as well. So the blue in #thedress became white, and the black became golden. This happened of course to people who had been looking at their computer screen or phone for some time because the displays radiate light with a high color temperature, and it did not happen to those who were looking at their environment in light from a lamp with a low color temperature.

Thanks to the fact that we only see things relatively and that our eyes are not an absolute measuring instrument such as a photo camera, we can see the world around us as beautiful as it appears to us, with all its shades, hues, colors and brightnesses… And that we sometimes see a dress different than what it really is… It’s well worth it!

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4 Responses

  1. Adolf Reyes says:

    Very well explained! Amazing!

  2. John says:

    I’m seeing a black and blue dress now when it was white and gold the first time I laid eyes on it. And I have been staring at my screen for some time now too.

    So what does that mean? That the colors I see on my computer are manipulated to appear as they would in a more natural environment/ visual context?

    • admin says:

      Hi John thanks for your comment. We adjust our vision (or better said: the interpretation of it) to the circumstances, in this case color temperature. On top of that, our brain assumes that colors are what they typically are. A blue dress in the shadow looks blue, and in bright light it looks white. When our brain’s assessment of the image suggests that the dress is in full light, its white-ish appearance will be interpreted as blue, because that’s how things typically work out according to our brain.

      When you saw the image of the dress for the second time, your brains assessment of the colors and the context in which they are presented to you was different from the first time.

      The range of brightnesses and colors that we deal with thorughout the day is very large. Our eyes can detect illuminance as low as 0.1 footcandle and as high as 15,000 footcandle. Thanks to the fact that our eyes and the vision part of our brain can only make relative assessments and do not work in an absolute way, we can see the world around us so beautifully!

  3. Stanislav says:

    Good day, Rogier,

    I was almost waiting when you would speak about this phenomena 🙂

    Thank you for a clear and professional explanation!

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