Confessions of a Colorblind Photographer

I don’t usually tell people that I’m colorblind. Not because I’m ashamed of it but rather the fact that I would just assume not go through the whole “What color is this?” game. Anyone who is colorblind (that would be about 1 out of every 10 to 12 males out there) can probably relate to having a friend start pointing to colorful objects and asking you what color they are. It’s not to be cruel, it’s just that most normal-visioned people can’t grasp the concept of what it is that we can or can not see and they are curious.

A typical colorblind test

The truth is that being colorblind doesn’t mean you only see in greyscale, at least for the majority of us (true monochromatic vision is extremely rare). The fact is that there are multiple forms of color vision deficiencies and some folks go through their entire lives not knowing that they suffer from any at all. Myself, I suffer from protanopia with a little bit of deutéranomaly thrown in for good measure. What that means is that I primarily have issues with reds and greens. So if you looking back at those colored circles above, I only see numbers in two of them. The others are just filled with colorful dots that don’t seem to create any numeric patterns.

“Don’t let him fool you, some of those don’t have any numbers on them.”

I still remember the first time I took that test. I was just a young lad and my Mom had taken me and my little brother to the eye doctor. He sat me down and handed me this book with a large circle made of dots on each page. He told me to tell him what I saw for each one. Well, I flipped through each and every one and told him what I saw and then it was my brother’s turn. I can still remember telling him before he started, “Don’t let him fool you, some of those don’t have any numbers on them.” It still makes me laugh.

My colorblindness was never much of a hinderance during my life, save the periodically embarrassing moments where I would put on a purple shirt and think it was blue. I never even gave it much thought, even after I started taking photography classes in high school. Probably because we worked with black and white film. I loved black and white, the magic of it, the fact that it didn’t discriminate against my color deficiencies. Then we did a little color printing. I learned all the theory and new my color wheel and color opposites (red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, yellow). But when it came time to adjust those cc filters to get the right colors, I was sunk.

Flash forward a couple of years and I got the opportunity to work in a photographic processing lab. I still loved photography and I was always learning new things and now I had the chance to work in the industry as well. I was doing a lot of black and white printing, making big 30×40 and 40x 60 prints and loading them onto the 55″ Hope processors. I now had fixer in my blood and was loving ever minute of it. Then one day I was rotated to color printing. They new about my color problems and I was worried that it would be an issue but my supervisor told me not to worry because I wouldn’t have to make too many decisions on my own.

He was right, too. Back in those days, we used something called a Professional Video Analyzing Computer (PVAC), which was a video color analyzer that was timed in using something we called a “Shirley” neg. The Shirley neg was a series of negatives produced by Kodak that had a picture of a girl in a colorful outfit with a standard grey circle on it. I think the first girl who posed for one of these negs was named Shirley and the name just stuck.

An early Shirley Vericolor II standard

We also used this negative to time in the color of our enlargers and roll printers. If everything was timed in correctly, the person operating the PVAC would look at a negative to be printed and turn the color dials until the image looked color-correct on his screen. He would then hit a button that would print off the corrections, which I would then plug into my enlarger. The result was a color print that was pretty darned close to perfect.

Kodak PVAC

Working in the photo lab was a great experience and I knew from my time there that I would, just as the Beatles said, “get by with a little help from my friends.” These days, I am getting by without the help of friends but with technology, and I can’t begin to tell you how exciting it is for me.

Instead of having to rely on someone else to color-correct my stuff, I can use pre-set white balances in my camera. If I place a white balance card in my scene, I can get even more accurate results by simply clicking on the image with an eye-dropper. My monitor is perfectly balanced thanks to my little friend, the ColorMunki. It also makes sure that my prints come out looking just as good and correct as they did on screen (read my review here). And just the other day I was checking out the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport with Lightroom integration and I was blown away by what it could do. Not only can you get accurate white balance, but the software integrates with Lightroom and creates a camera profile that produces unbelievable color accuracy in the image, all with one click. It’s a colorblind photographer’s dream. Check out the video from Seth Resnick to get a better feel for how it works.

The Color Checker in Adobe Lightroom

These days, I am never afraid that I won’t be able to reproduce great color images on my own thanks to the technology and innovative breakthroughs from companies like X-Rite, Nikon, and Canon. Sometimes I hear photographers lamenting for the good-old days of film and I can’t help but think how fortunate I am to be a photographer living in the digital age. It has given me the tools to create images on my own that I could never have hoped to do with film. At least not without a lot of help from my friends.

If you would like to check out your color vision try the Color Blind Test. You can also try the Hue Test from X-Rite (see image below), which doesn’t tell you what type of colorblindness you have but it gives a nice visual result of where your deficiencies are (if you have any at all) [via Photography Bay].

By the way, if you happen to find out that someone you know is colorblind, please resist the urge to ask them what color your shirt is. :-)

 

  • http://flipultravideocamerareviews.co.cc Dee

    I think you are awesome. Thanks for sharing this with us. I am sure it will be be helpful to many people.

    D. Perry
    Flip Ultra Video Camera Reviews

  • http://chrisdscottphotography.com Chris Scott

    Jeff, thanks so much for putting this post up. I, too, am a colorblind photographer (to green), so I always have to keep that in the back of my mind and stay aware of WB. However, I don’t think I would work nearly as hard if I didn’t have that handicap. It’s the “thorn in my side” that has pushed my craft and made me keenly aware of color.

  • http://www.kniselyknows.com M Knisely

    Great article, thanks for sharing. Yes, the “what color is my shirt” thing gets old. I’ve taken to saying: “We see everyone as nude.”

  • Pingback: CS Bloggers

  • http://www.kimberlycherphotography.com kimberly

    I took the test and I got a 35 (on the X-Rite site) ironically, i JUST got my Xrite Passport Color Checker TODAY when your post was posted… Must be fate.

  • Charles Whitham

    Jeff, thanks for the article. As one who is color blind, I can relate. As a youngster, I took art lessons at Corcoran Art Gallery. I was pretty good with charcoal and was the first in my class who was told to purchase his oils. It was downhill after that, but no one understood why. My first color dot test was a single one of those circles which had two numbers superimposed, one for normal vision and one for the most common type of color blindness. I saw the two numbers superimposed but was told that was impossible. Later, in a physical for a Navy scholarship, I missed five of twenty of those color dot circles — four was passing. I had hoped to drive airplanes off of boats, but in later life I realized that activity could have gotten me killed. I’m in my 70s now and, like you, I am really enjoying digital photography. In addition to the tools you mention, I have found onOne plugins to be a great help.

  • http://petersonimagery.com Michele P

    Jeff, You’re being honest!
    When I work at Xerox technicians trained on the new Docucolor copiers had to have a color vision test done. What they found out is nearly 1/3rd of the brown eyed male population has some sort of color deficiency.

  • http://teknoise.com Googler

    nice article with inspiring photography information.. Keep posting good info like this.. All the best!

  • http://mandjadventures.blogspot.com Michele

    Wow – the PVAC took me back to the days of running a Prolab for Kodak in New Zealand. We had 2 of them from Bremson called CVIS – and they were a lot older than the model in your photo, Jeff! They would analyse negs for our S-Printers and Lucht V7.

    We used to shoot our own Shirleys, (and you’re correct about how the name came to be), because the film stock that we received was manufactured in a different factory to the stock that Kodak would make their Shirleys on. This was in the days when Kodak had multiple film manufacturing plants around the world.

    VPS film was the bane of our lives! Portra was a great replacement – much more consistent across batches.

  • Pingback: Jan Anne

  • Pingback: Aloha Lavina

  • Pingback: Jo Hawke

  • Pingback: Christina Wright

  • http://brianmatiash.com/blog Brian Matiash

    As a fellow Red/Green colorblind photographer, reading your post was very cathartic. In a sense, I certainly can empathize – especially with the “well, what color is this” game that inevitably ensues.

    I’m very, very close friends with the Product Manager who designed the ColorChecker Passport at X-Rite and was part of their early alpha and beta teams for this product. What I can say is that this device is worth its weight in gold in helping me feel confident that my color fidelity is intact regardless of the scene.

    Thanks again for sharing, Jeff.

    • http://www.revellphotography.com jeff

      Thanks Brian. It’s time for those of us who live spectrally challenged lives to stand up and be counted. How about some different colors for those traffic lights to start with. What’s wrong with Blue instead of green? Who came up with that? If your friends at X-Rite ever need any help testing, you just let me know.

      -Jeff

  • Pingback: Andrew Macpherson

  • http://petecollins.com pete collins

    Jeff,
    Great article…

    I must confess… I see two numbers…and I am not really sure about the second one.
    I have been to art school, was a visual merchandiser for a major retail chain, photographer and graphic designer… you would think I would chose things that didn’t require me to see color so much… I never said I was smart!

    ps. Nice work on Convoy last night :D
    pps. Don’t tell Scott… I may get fired :D

  • Pingback: Avinash Meetoo

  • http://www.squidoo.com/inspirations-to-write-a-novel Gregory A. Reich

    Jeff, I saw the 25! That was it. Some possible colors, but nothing to much. I love telling people I drive with that when all the traffic lights are WHITE, I speed up! GREEN is not in those lights. I memorize colors, not see them. As a boy I heard the color questions, and played dumb. Now as an adult, the family still thinks I’m kidding when I get to a flashing single traffic light. “Is it red, or yellow? I see about TEN COLORS. Somehow Blue always looks like purple. I made a great part of my life freelancing as an artist, and teach art classes as well. After all as a teacher, I only have to tell them what color is , not prove it. The COLOR WHEEL part of college was a nightmare, and I took a “B” instead of an “A” to get it over with. My wife is great at picking out my clothes, and then I memorize the combinations, and only wear WHITE, or BLACK socks. Black and white photography was great, but once color classes rolled around, I opted out. Finding your site is refreshing since I just began a new career as a novelist, and soon will be illustrating a GRAPHIC NOVEL. The nice thing is, that most of my friends will be happy to provide the color for it once I’ve drawn it. By the way, one great asset to being colorblind is, I can spot camouflage a mile away, and I always see the animals hiding in the forest. I can’t imagine the world everyone else sees, since I’m happy with the world I’m in.

  • Pingback: 柚樹@牧田下半身ウェイトに目覚めろ

  • Harpreet

    From someone who is color blind I can relate to everything you said. And as an aspiring photographer thanks for the advice.

  • danielmee

    Great post. I was fired from my colour processing job at the local shopping centre photo lab – I knew I had colour blindness but didn’t realise it would cause such a problem – needless to say I didn’t have any help from colleagues. I didn’t really pursue photography after that except at an elective course in uni doing B+W. Thanks for the tips you’ve outlined – I may be able to now let software compensate which is good.

    • http://www.revellphotography.com jeff

      Sorry to hear about your unfortunate job termination. I was very lucky to have lots of options and help in my job and now I can help myself with all of my color calibration goodies.

  • jlpeifer

    Wow… I stumbled upon this post almost by accident and am glad I did. I too am a professional photographer. Like you, when I was a child I was presented with those (pardon) damned colored dot patterns containing numbers/letters/shapes. Because I couldn’t recognize all the patterns in the circles I was pronounced colorblind. That’s a stigma I’ve carried with me all my life. Still, it didn’t make sense. I was convinced that I had a full range of color acuity and started to question the method of testing, not my eyes. My theory was that it was my brain, not my eyes, that was unable to process the information in those dotted circles (Ishihara color test plates). I had never really pursued any other testing until I found this post. Thanks for posting the link to the Color Blind Test above. I was relieved to see that the patterns presented didn’t include any Ishihara color test plates, but instead used other patterns and test methodologies. The result was, “Estimate of color vision deficiency’s probability:0%”. I’m sure there are other tests I should take to make certain, but this helps to confirm my suspicion that the testing method itself can skew the diagnosis. Thanks!

Switch to our mobile site