Yesterday I asked about the strange Internet phenomenon of the dress which people very strongly perceive as either white and gold or blue and black. Here is the original:

the original photo

There are many theories about why people's perception is so divided, but none of the explanations are really satisfying to me — I understand about white balance, but usually most people seeing a daylit photo incorrectly set to tungsten respond with "what's that weird blue tint everywhere? some kinda instagram filter". Here, though, to some people, the perception is so strong that even the idea of a blue tint is sometimes discounted.

This is fascinating to me as a photographer, and it seems like it should be fascinating to a lot of us, especially because we obsess so much about color calibration and getting colors to be accurate — yet here, the same image, seen by people from the same culture in the same conditions on the screen, clearly is perceived differently.

Rather than speculate on more theories, though, what I want to know is: How can I make a photograph of a different subject which exhibits this very strong binary response? Not something where everyone looks and thinks, I don't know, either way depending on the lighting, nor something where just about everyone is fooled by a consistent optical illusion (like the Rubik's cube color illusion), but a photograph where people will instantly be very passionate about two different perceptions.

None of the various explanations I've seen — even those which include diagrams — are meaningfully generalizable to a real solution. The proof is in the pudding — if an explanation is correct, it will be easy to use it to create a different photograph with the same effect. But I haven't seen one yet.

I don't care how complicated a setup is required... with an originally blue/black object or white/gold, or with gelled lights, or whatever — just, reproduce the effect in another scene. It'd be most interesting to see the effect in a high quality image taken with fancy gear, but if a low-quality cellphone is intrinsically required and you can do it with that, that'd be interesting to see too. And I don't want just examples... I want to know how I can reliably recreate the same effect.

By doing that, we should be able to identify what elements are really essential to the effect — and maybe make use of it in other aspects of photography!

  • \$\begingroup\$ Of course there have been a large number of spoof responses, but, as far as I can see, those are always unambiguous — no one is looking at the Lego example and saying "I don't get it; there's two white and gold dresses here." \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Mar 1, 2015 at 19:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ i think this is going to be difficult, because most people experience only one of the possibilities. to recreate the effect, we would need to be able to switch our preception. \$\endgroup\$
    – ths
    Mar 1, 2015 at 20:06
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps one can try to see of there is a "yellow banana" effect here that steers the brain away from the real color because it recognizes a familiar object which usually has some color (in this case a white dress). So, bananas need to be colored more different from their usual color than some yellow board before people start to notice it. To get disagreement, one has to pick an object that some people will think of it usually having one color while others may also be familiar with it having a wider range of colors, just like the white/blue dress. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 1, 2015 at 20:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ A key to reproducing this image is having more than one obvious light source or lighting condition in the frame. For example, by shooting with a combination of flash and fluorescent lighting, it’s very easy to create a normal background with a weird blue/purple foreground, or a normal foreground with a weird green/orange background. Play with people’s expectations of which parts are which and you can cause the eye’s color balancing to misfire. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 4, 2015 at 22:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ For example, in the dress image, there’s a strong blue light source and a strong yellow light source, causing confusion as to which objects are lit by which. If I look only at the top half of the image (with the blue light), I see the dress as white in shadow. If I only look at the bottom half (with the yellow light), I see the dress as overexposed blue in yellow light. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 4, 2015 at 22:18

1 Answer 1


Dancer spinning in two directions

As Count Iblis explained, people likely have a pretty good idea of how that dress should look. The image is ambiguous, but each option cancels the other out - the dress can't be kinda both.
Similar to the picture above, where it is really hard to make the dancer switch direction - but it is possible.

People probably are even less able to switch "direction" when it comes to color perception. I simply can't see a white and gold dress unless you brighten the image. Then, still, I can only imagine what it actually feels like.

Stupid multicolor dress of hell

You probably would need to find something that some people already tend to believe is one way, while others believe the opposite. Then you'd have to make it so ambiguous, that every interpretation is possible.
The tricky part is to "bake in" that ambiguity. Even when brigthening the dress, the color ratio of the dress to the background stays the same, still letting me interpret the image as a blue, black dress.

The only real chance you'd have to recreate this effect on another subject is to choose something already polarising and then testing out and refining its ambiguous presentation.


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