Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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Is it possible to be colour-blind (or color-blind, in the US) and still be a good photographer?

Are there any steps one can take to mitigate the effects of colour-blindness? Can you point me to any great photographers who are colour-blind?

The obvious answer which comes to mind is to shoot black and white, but is that really a sensible answer? Does colour-blindness affect one's perception of greyscales?

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Do you mean color vision deficiency (very common) or actual color blindness (quite rare)? –  Karel Sep 29 '10 at 11:24
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I mean either, really. I intended the question to be broad, so as to be useful to as many people as possible. :) –  AJ Finch Sep 29 '10 at 11:47
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Does everyone really see the same colors similarly? –  abel Jan 8 '11 at 13:04
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I am red/green color blind, and it affects me all the time in Photography. I literally have my wife spot check my work before I publish it, every time. –  dpollitt May 7 '11 at 15:15

7 Answers 7

up vote 18 down vote accepted

I'm color blind (or rather have a color vision deficiency). Specifically my eyes are less sensetive to red light than other colors.

I can't really say that I suffer from it. It makes it harder to pick lingonberries, and I have problem reading tiny red text on a black background, but that's about it.

I might perhaps photograph red objects differently, as I don't experience them as brightly as most do. Post processing images and adjusting white balance is not a problem, though. I am used to how red things look like, so when I adjust the image so that they look right, it will look right to others too even if they actually experience the image differently.

(Yes, I know that my avatar image is orange. I don't think that it's a nice grayscale... :)

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Thank you for sharing your own experience. That's really helpful. :) –  AJ Finch Sep 29 '10 at 13:16
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Orange. I don't see any... –  abel Jan 8 '11 at 13:02

There are many different types of color blindness. Which one are you? In my case I have serious issues discriminating small differences in hues in the red, orange, yellow, green region of the spectrum (deuteranomaly, I read). This happens to me pretty often; invited for dinner last weekend, I identified the hostess's new wall color as orange, not yellow. Choosing socks is fun too.

Am I a good photographer? It's not me to say, but to cope with it I do rely on software tools and basic color knowledge. For example, I can't identify a color-cast as good as you guys can, but I experiment with what Lightroom or Photoshop will suggest to fix my White Balance. If the resulting temperature (in Kelvin) is way too low or too high, I know it's probably already too cold/blue (respectively hot/orange) for my regular viewers.

I do like to punch the contrast / vibrancy of my photos, most likely because it helps me see more saturated colors, but I try to keep that in mind so that it's not too "cranked" for non color-blind. As a rule of thumb, whenever I move a slider that affects colors in post-process, by the time the change is noticeable to me I know I need to backtrack a bit so that it's not overdone.

It doesn't hurt to know about color spaces, about the Hue wheel in HSL more specifically, what neighboring colors are, etc. When in doubt, try to use a color picker in Photoshop/LR and compare to hard numbers.

Finally, I use calibrated high-gamut color displays for both my desktop and laptop to avoid compounding the problems. They can both represent about 100% of the AdobeRGB color space. Considering I have problem with changes in hues, I figured that I would at least not blame it on my monitors.

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Thank you for going into some great detail. :) –  AJ Finch Sep 29 '10 at 13:16
    
Very nice answer. :) –  jrista Sep 30 '10 at 1:29

The photographer Evgen Bavcar is not colour-blind: He is blind.

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It's a real shame his website is so ghastly. –  Tom O'Connor Sep 29 '10 at 13:48
    
Interresting, especially that he became a photographer because he is blind. :) –  Guffa Sep 30 '10 at 12:12

There's so much more to photography than just color, and even if one eliminates color (e.g., b/w or tone processing), there are many photographers doing spectacular work in those realms.

What you'd be likely to see is a shift in emphasis, such as more concentration on composition, or depth of field, or macro imaging.

But this does not force you to a monochrome world!

A friend of mine who is severely color blind produces works of art that have very interesting color choices and saturation levels. The effect is actually quite pleasing and gives him a unique visual signature.

I'm inclined to believe that one's perception of tone levels isn't altered. Color-blindness is the inability to distinguish colors, not absence of them. And even so there may be degrees of perception, simply dulling the richness.

In the extreme, though, a relative who's completely red/green color-blind says he can't tell whether a traffic light is red or green from a distance, so he can see something's there -- to compensate he has to get closer to see which bulb is lit as well as taking cues from traffic patterns. But again, that reinforces that attention is refocused to other aspects.

Here's some cool tools: Coblis - Color Blindness Simulator, VisCheck - shows and corrects for color blindness, Color Blind Simulator on the iPhone

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Great answer. I like your comments about "visual signature" and "shift in emphasis". I will mull those over some more. Also, your links to tools are handy. Thank you again! –  AJ Finch Sep 30 '10 at 9:18

Color deficiency doesn't necessarily cause a problem -- obviously enough, especially when/if you produce monochrome output. Even for producing color output, it isn't necessarily a problem (in fact, some degree of color insensitivity is so common that it's less a question of whether you have some shortcomings, than of just how much and in what parts of the spectrum). Those who wish to test themselves might want to try X-Rite's online test.

There are a few different causes of full-blown color blindness, most of which also cause problems with vision in general.

True albinos don't have pigment in their eyes any more than they do anywhere else. This leads to complete color blindness, but in all honesty, that's close to the least of their vision problems. Substantial vision problems are almost a given, and most are considered legally blind, though they typically do have some vision.

There are also people who are color blind because their eyes have only rod, not cone, receptors. Rods are more sensitive to low levels of light, but see only in monochrome. Cones, however, are what most of us use most of the time. The reason cones are less sensitive to low light levels is because they're smaller -- which also means they provide much higher visual acuity. Therefore, people who have only rods have substantially lower visual acuity (i.e., ability to see fine detail is greatly reduced). At one time, nearly all inhabitants of one particular island (see Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks, if you want details) had this type of color blindness. Other than that, it's quite rare.

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That's very informative. Thank you. :) –  AJ Finch Sep 30 '10 at 9:19
    
Thanks for the link to the test! And the Oliver Sacks book looks interesting. And generally an informative answer, thank you! –  lindes Jan 27 '11 at 7:37

I'm colorblind too... I can't know what colors the things are in other than the blacks and whites and the blue sky... It's pretty sad cuz Im an artist, so pretty much of my drawings are black and grey shades though I don't have much experience in photography people tell me I'm pretty good at it though I cannot see anyother colours apart from black and greys...

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I really appreciate your personal insight. thanks :) –  AJ Finch May 9 '11 at 9:44

One of the great things about black and white photography is that a very wide range of interpretations can be happily accepted as "correct" by most viewers, both in terms of how tones are assigned and the relationship between them. Your perception of real-world objects may differ from the typical view, but once you've rendered your work in black and white, that rendering will look the same to everyone — and (unless you want it to) it won't look wrong. In this way, you can give an intentional interpretation of the way you see color in the world, without using color at all.

If you work in color, you have almost the opposite effect — even if you profile your camera, monitor, and printer, and work carefully by number, your aesthetic choices will be informed by your perceptions, and therefore your work will be as you experience the world: different from the way it is experienced by people with a wider range of colors.

It occurs to me that digital color photography, all of its colors made by blending red/green/blue primaries, must be particularly frustrating to those with tetracromatic vision, the very rare opposite case to color blindness.

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A nice turning of the problem on its head. :) –  AJ Finch May 9 '11 at 9:44

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