Colors: a tale of preference and perception

Started May 31, 2011 | Discussions thread
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Colors: a tale of preference and perception

{{Brought out from the "Help me with skin tones" discussion}}

MadManAce wrote:

Here in SoCal, we get plenty of skin tone variety and I have never had a customer complain about skin tone color. In fact, I shot an Indian wedding and they asked me to boost the warm colors. That was a first for me. Luckily, my cameras kind of did it for me.

Interestingly, I just spotted this thread from a D700 (that's right, double-zero) owner who's so unhappy with skin tones, he's going to Canon. He's so upset, he can't even write the Canon model numbers right:

Your experience with the Indian wedding (a very colorful event, if anyone hasn't seen one) hints at how much of this "the color isn't right" conversation hinges on personal preference and what we've grown accustomed to. I had to face this very thing when to my D80 kit I added a D90. At first I hated -- really hated! -- the D90 colors. Then, after taking a deep breath came to admit the D90's colors were closer (not identical) to what I actually saw through the viewfinder, and that with some PP TLC, I could make the D80 color match/resemble the D90's.

Then there's the whole matter of lens choice. People don't realize it, but if you were shooting with a D70 and 18-70 back in the day, and now have a D7000 with 18-105 kit lens, don't assume all the color differences you see necessarily come from the camera's sensor or AA filter, or the white balance, or the picture control, or the amount of saturation, etc . I have a 17-35 f2.8 that when coupled with my D700 (the only camera on which I use it) produces very different results than the cult favorite AIS 50-135 f3.5 on my D300. Very different . Shooting landscapes with these can yield remarkable differences in sky color, even when matching WB and Picture control. These two samples aren't exactly side-by-side, but were shot within an hour of each other under roughly the same (high noon sun) conditions, first one with 17-35:

Trust me when I tell you I have since checked that most of this is not due to the camera, and no, the 17-35 was not wearing a CPL on that first picture. Believe me also when I say I tried everything and anything I knew how to do to get the same color in the blue sky in the second shot (not because the first is more realistic, but because I like it), and failed miserably, not even close. And it's not just the blues, but the tans and greens, too. Across the board, the 17-35 gives a wild and yet very appealing color rendition. I am pretty sure which most "regular" viewers would prefer -- and it has nothing to do with realism or "actuality," but rather with perception of what's beautiful and compelling.

With skin tones, it's more complicated than that. People have a reasonable expectation of "actuality" or at least, that when they look across the full set of photos from a single event and subject, they won't get a wide range of variations from one shot to the next. Yet, even then, look at wedding albums or even magazine photos, and you will notice that often the client prefers a different look that conforms with aesthetic preference rather than "what it actually looked like."

And now to the trickiest bit, that whole issue of how each of us perceive the world we've been glancing at as we ponder this whole thing. It comes down to more than just preference. Each of us (there are tests out there) perceive color differently. Some can appreciate finer gradations of color, while others are almost in pure R-G-B mode. Some of us are even color blind. Yes, the light spectrum is a scientifically quantifiable and well-defined thing, and all colors along that spectrum are mathematically bound. Still, can we say that we perceive these colors with complete accuracy? Maybe our camera sensors aren't nearly as bad as we are at capturing color!

Back when I focused completely on landscape photography, I obsessed about color for two months before I decided that it was a rather meaningless endeavor. I even went through a Black & White period to avoid color considerations altogether (yes, I understand that B&W tonality comes from color, but don't miss the point). Which of these is more real or actual, I wondered?

In the end, I have no definitive answers. Yes, we can't treat skin tones as interpretively as colors in a landscape. Capturing accurate colors from artwork may be another application where color accuracy is important. Yet we can (should?) also relax a bit and aim for colors that are compelling and flattering rather than perfectly matched to how we [think we] saw them and put in some work to match color for output from two or more different cameras for the sake of consistency. Having done all that, though, we shouldn't castigate ourselves or our equipment when perfection is not part of the end result.
Seeking the heart and spirit in each image

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