Black and white or sepia-toned photographs can be used to represent the past — or faded color-shifts for prints from the 1970s or 1980s. Which color or color combination can we use for the future?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This question got a number of downvotes, but I'm not sure why. I would prefer 1000 questions like this to one more comparing BrandX's new Model IV's high ISO performance to that of BrandY's Model Q. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Oct 13, 2016 at 11:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ No, greyscale does not 'represent the past.' Lots of photogs shoot in greyscale so accent structure over color in the scene. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 13, 2016 at 11:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @CarlWitthoft Edited — is that better? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Oct 13, 2016 at 12:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Agree @mattdm, this question is goooooooooood. More questions like this to keep the chipmunk running please! \$\endgroup\$
    – Rafael
    Oct 13, 2016 at 13:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Probably shifted color is not from 70-80s but 50-70s. I have pretty neat color photos of the 80s. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rafael
    Oct 13, 2016 at 13:19

5 Answers 5


I have no idea.

But let us chew the idea a bit.

What were some of the technical limitations on the "past"


  • Black and white not from an artistic point of view.

  • Sepia because it was a method to make the prints more durable.

  • Yellowish whites due oxidation of the paper.

  • Leaked light on the roll.

  • Faded colors, shifting palettes.

  • Contrasted images, due the reduced dynamic range.

  • Contrasted do not mean we have a pure black. Some vintage look is due the use of a grayish black point.


  • Blury images due limitations on the lens.

  • Chromatic aberrations.

  • Flares


  • Harsh direct light due the lower sensitivity of the mediums.

  • Overexposed images, due human error or lack of options on the camera.


  • Probably there was an overall use of wider angles. It was cheaper to shoot an entirely family group than a lot of detailed close ups.


So, what happen if we reverse this a bit

Sharper, more colorfull images, more dynamic range, softer light, sharper images, close ups.

Let us give some context to the "future"

What is the context of your future?

  • Is it a technological one? (Star Trek, a lot of white... do not overuse the flares like J.J. Abrams)

  • Or an apocalyptical one (Mad max, warm colors)

  • Or an apocalyptical technological one (Matrix, Terminator, dark bluish colors)

  • Is is a psychological one? Probably blurry images, and some specific color grading.

  • Or a nostalgic, romantic one? Golden hour light.

  • Some motives need some contrast to shine, like a light beam, you need a dark background.

At the end... Who knows?

Experiment and propose!


In cinematography the key is to create a different mood color for different times. Then be consistent throughout the story because the audience will adapt. However enough movies have been done representing future and past so that there are certain conventions which will usually work in still photographs. The black and white in still really does not represent the past unless you can capture the dramatic lighting, poses, and compositions that evoke film noir or a dreamy high key image with a blur vignette to represent a dream or memory. Reddish images, caused by the fading of blue, represent the past because of the older populations experience with photographs pre 1980. Because of this a lot of movies used the opposite of these warm tones, i.e. cool tones, often blue, to represent the future. This has become a convention. So much so that most images that are supposed to represent hi-tech, i.e. the future has arrived, tend toward cool blue. Just do an image search for 'hi-tech' and 'future'.

  • \$\begingroup\$ ...or bad-fluorescent-tubes-green if it's a dystopian future. ;) \$\endgroup\$ Oct 18, 2016 at 0:11

It sort of depends on how far into the future you want to go. If you are looking for the next hot color combination that is a must-have for wedding photos, it will boil down to what gets hot first.

But the far-off future is more interesting. I am surprised that I didn't see 3D mentioned. Most views of the future have 3D images replacing 2D versions, and many have moving images versus static ones. (e.g. iPhone live photos). But that doesn't address your question about color. Unless humankind evolves to upgrade our visual system, we will be limited to seeing the current spectral range. I suppose we could get our brains wired directly to sensors (bypassing our eyes) to see more of the spectrum, but we would also have to rewire our brain to recognize something other than the current set of colors. (Replacing the current sensor with a more powerful sensor and not changing the code that processes the data will not change the outcome.)

Our other limitation is simultaneously seeing across a wide dynamic range of brightness. This might be overcome by technology if we viewed a photo displayed on a screen while a camera (or our headset) tracked our eye movement and lightened or darkened pixels in the portion of scene that we were looking at to get the most detail in that area. This is kind of how our brain works in nature, so there may be some way to mimic this with enough software and electronics.

However, viewer-centric dynamically adjustable displays (and current 3D viewing) is limited to a single user perspective - it would be hard to show a 3D dynamic digital image that looks good to a crowd. This means that in the future, the art on a gallery wall may be only an RFID chip, and the patrons see the art as they walk into the room in their VR headsets. Having an actual room allows everyone to hear each other's "oohs" and "aahs", check out who is who and enjoy the refreshments - something still lacking in a total VR room. But we could go there too.

So the most likely answer to the question "what color combinations indicate the future" will be RGB or something like it. CYMK will definitely be history!


First, we cannot take photos of future. Second, as for your answer, I think overexposed vintage forms may be an adequate expression of future... It gives an unforeseen vibe and innocence. Just an opinion.. Or on contrast to black&white representation for past, you can use saturated colours to represent future. That'll work too...

overexposed photographs gives sort of an innocence

My suggestion on representation of future

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Obviously we can't take photos of the actual future — but we can't take photos of the past, either. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Oct 13, 2016 at 11:49
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm That's true, but we already have millions of photos of the past. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zenit
    Oct 13, 2016 at 13:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ Now I'm reminded of the classic Calvin and Hobbes strip about color photography \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Oct 13, 2016 at 13:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ A photo is the past, a moment of time captured on film ( or sensor )! A photo is only the present at the moment it was captured even if the subject mater, tint, tone or composition is contrived to represent the future. It is not a moment in the future, it is a moment in the past that is guessing what the future might be. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alaska Man
    Oct 13, 2016 at 18:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm astronomers are always taking photos of the past. \$\endgroup\$
    – robert
    Oct 14, 2016 at 0:22

Maybe grey and white? I.e., lots of science fiction artifacts usually are white/grey? And very clean, which a bit of overexposing can help create.

I think one of the problems is that the past will always be sepia and B&W, but our ideas for the future will change.

  • \$\begingroup\$ but some people refers me purple \$\endgroup\$ Oct 13, 2016 at 14:36

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