Color Vision. In the past 15 months or so I have spent a lot of time, both in thought and in working with color, on this topic Considering that I have lived with severely red deficient vision people all my life, 15 months – so far – devoted to the topic isn’t very long. But, it did take a lifetime of learning to even be able to frame the question, “what do ‘colorblind’ people see?”
The question began as, “what does my son see? How does he see the world?” In working with him to answer that question, I learned a lot about my father, who also saw the world the same way. The results of that initial work with severe red deficient vision are available at Amazon in “Seeing Color Colorblind,” in both Kindle and paperback formats.
Ten percent of the US population is thought to have color deficient vision of some type and degree. Only about 1 in 200 women is colorblind. That is a lot of people who see the world differently from those of us with “normal” color vision, or fully functioning L cones (roughly red), M cones (roughly green), and S cones (roughly blue). The three major (although not the only) types of color deficient vision are Red Deficiency, Green Deficiency, and Blue Deficiency. People sometimes refer to Red-Green Colorblindness, but, in reality, someone with a red deficiency sees the world quite differently from someone with a green deficiency. I am now addressing the three major types in my current work.
The work is intriguing. Just as in the red deficiency work, I am bothered by the appearance of people. The red deficiency, in which skin tones are a cyan, bother me the most. I think this is because I am a physician, and a cyanotic appearance in a patient is never good news for anyone. But, the skin tones with the other deficiencies also bother me a little. The yellow skin tones through blue deficiency make me think “liver disease.” I cannot help that initial response. So, I limit the amount of time in a day that I will work on skin tones.
When I start to work on an image now, I have a pretty good idea how it will look to people with different color vision. But, every now and then, I am surprised how beautiful something seems to me, regardless of color. This image from the 2015 Corrales Garden Tour is one that really surprised me. I find it beautiful in all of the versions.
I think my father would feel more honored on this Father’s Day by images that show people with normal color vision how the world might appear to people with different types of color vision deficiencies than by the posting of an image of him. I thought this image was so pretty in all of its colors that I decided to use it for a Father’s Day greeting.
Color and light. The beauty of New Mexico is all about light. Sunrise and sunset are all about light. Rainbows are all about light. Photography is all about light. Color is all about light.
People see light differently. Those of us with “normal” color vision see one thing. But now I ask myself about almost everything, “How would that look to this other person or that other person?”
Albuquerque is known for the rather frequent occurrence of double rainbows after early evening storms, and last night timing produced a real beauty, a full arc double rainbow, one of the most magnificent I’ve seen in several years. I could not help wondering how it would look to people with some of the color vision deficiencies.
The upper left hand corner is how it appeared to me; upper right corner how it would appear to someone with a mild-to-moderate red deficiency; lower right a mild-to-moderate blue deficiency; lower left a mild-to-moderate green deficiency. They are all remarkably beautiful to me.
Again, the color deficiencies in this quadtych are mild-to-moderate, which is actually more common than near-complete absence of a color. Note that the objects on the ground, such as the trees and houses, are a little different in color to people with the different types of deficiencies that are only mild to moderate. But look at the difference in the sky!!!! The sky is all about light, and even mild color deficiencies make a huge difference!
Some of you who are my readers know that my view of the sky and events in it can be very different from the view of friends living only a few miles to the west, on the other side of the Rio Grande. Take a look at my friend Tim Price’s images of the same storm.
Black and white in color? How could that be? That is a question that has intrigued me for almost forty years, and for most of those years I did not believe it was possible. To a person with “normal” color vision, black, white, and all shades of gray are pretty much devoid of what such a person may commonly think of as “color.”
Regular readers or those who have begun to follow my color vision posts may recall that both my father and my son have severe red deficient color vision. It is only recently that I have come to realize how much that shared view of the world was valued by both of them. And, until I began working on this project, I had no clue how little I understood about their world. Many of you have heard the story that when my son was around three or four years old, he and my father were watching a football game on our black and white television. Every now and then, one would say something about the blue team or the yellow team. The whole time I was thinking, “Come on, guys, give me a break. You think I’m going to believe two colorblind guys are seeing color on a black and white television?” Well, they were, and I wish I could tell my father I understand that now.
The primary colors of projected light, the way we see computer monitors, cell phones, televisions, are red, green, and blue – the RGB color space of projected or additive light. Red, green, and blue are the colors that make up what we see on these devices, whether or not we think we are seeing lack of color in blacks, grays, and whites.
My digital photography program was about equally divided between using the camera and using the computer. Additionally, I took extra classes in web design. Somewhere along the way I had fun playing with color on various online sites. One you might enjoy is HTML Color Picker. The initial color is set to white, R at 255, G at 255, B at 255. Play with those number and see what colors you get. If you have normal color vision, you will note that you see some color other than white, black, or gray if the numbers for Red, Green, and Blue are not the same.
Not until I began working with my son on the diptychs comparing normal color vision to severe red deficiency did I understand that not only did he and my father indeed see color on a black and white television, but also why and how that worked.
I am now beginning to work with other color deficiencies, and degrees of color deficiencies. The following quadtych of the rose ‘Leonidas’ in black and white shows normal vision in the upper left; then going clockwise, moderate red deficiency, moderate blue deficiency (rare), and moderate green deficiency.
Note that the color seen in the image is the complement of the deficient color: red>cyan; green>magenta; blue>yellow.
Seeing color colorblind to black and white in color – color vision is complex and beautiful.
Examples of degrees of red deficient vision – or any color deficient vision, for that matter – are important for understanding the wide range of possibilities in the perception of color. Some people can have only very mild impairment, while others lack the ability to see one of the primary colors of the RGB system of light.
This red lacewing butterfly from the Tucson Botanic Garden was one of the subjects in the original set of diptychs for the book, “Seeing Color Colorblind.” It makes a very good subject for color studies, because the contrast in color is vivid for people with normal color vision, and the lack of contrast for people with red deficient vision is equally striking in a different way. The following images are arranged from normal color vision to severe red deficient vision.
Note that the color of the leaf changes also. That is because the leaf was not pure green, but contains other colors as well. If red is not seen, the leaf color will appear more pure green. This example perhaps shows the leaf changes better:
In a future post, I’ll demonstrate degrees of green deficient vision. But here is a quick view, using the same butterfly.
My initial attempt to create diptychs that covered a large range of colors, including skin tones, to show the normal-visioned world how someone with a specific type of color deficient vision sees the world, was with my son, who is a red dichromat.
We had a fairly easy time working in the RGB color space of projected light on our monitors, working at a distance. We were pleased with that result, which became the Kindle edition of the book.
We both wanted a physical edition, especially so that it could be shared in schools, physicians’ offices, and a whole variety of places where it would be helpful for people to understand the world of color deficient vision. Producing a printed volume presented some very real difficulties for two very different pairs of eyes! Photo books, using ICC profiles for the different print companies I tried, did not work at all with my son’s vision. That surprised me a lot. In the end, the process that worked the best was simple four color printing (CMYK – cyan, magenta, yellow, black, which forms the basis of the reflected light color wheels) in paperback rather than photo book form. The overall number of colors he sees is so limited compared to people with normal vision, the more complex printing simply was not good for this purpose. In the long run, a benefit of this is that the paperback book cost much less to produce and thus is potentially available to a much wider audience.
We both had a sense of accomplishment when the series of diptychs matched to my son’s eyes. But, there remained one issue. The diptych on the cover, which was the exact image included in the interior, did not look at all right to him. That cover was glossy, and it just added more complexity to the visual input. So, we tried the matte cover. That was exactly what his eyes needed! Much to my surprise, I actually like the effect artistically. We finally had achieved a physical edition!
This was my red dichromat’s response when we had the final version:
Great! I hope that the book interests people, as well as maybe teachers, schools, pediatricians and anyone else who’s around or deals with colorblind young people! I remember getting sent to the principal’s office by a teacher who didn’t know any better who sent me to the principal multiple times for coloring things incorrectly – she alleged I was being disobedient, when really I was coloring the best I could based on how I saw things.
The book is great – all the respective pairs of images look the same to me (thanks for the many, many revisions to the Kindle as well as the print versions based on my feedback).
This book will help people (who care) interact with colorblind people who are young, old, and somewhere in between.
While there are several types or kinds of colorblindness, this addresses the most common type, red-green, at its extreme form, which is how I see things!
At minimum, people who read this will hopefully finally realize that color blind people DO see color, they merely see it differently from people with “normal” color vision. It would be an amazing accomplishment if the general public would realize this!
The only thing I can think of to add to the written portions of the book would be to add something to describe how colorblind people have been used for decades for military applications such as locating enemy positions because of the ability to see camouflage amidst nature, and how other governmental agencies use colorblind people for special applications, such as the FAA, etc.
Thanks again, Ma, for taking on this project, doing such a great job with it, and having the patience to make all of the many, many adjustments to the image pairs to get them just right, so that those who might be interested in what colorblindness is and what it really looks like can better understand it and will at least understand that colorblind people DO NOT see things in black and white, like the long out-dated televisions commonly referred to in conversations regarding colorblindness.
I was pleased with my red dichromat’s response. Thank you, Brandt!
Seeing color is something that those of us with normal color vision take for granted. But many people do not see the range of colors seen by most people. “Colorblind” has been applied to such people, people with a color deficiency. As my son has said,
“‘colorblind’ as a term is sort of a misnomer in that even extremely colorblind people see colors – they just see them differently than people who are not colorblind. Unfortunately, many people are ignorant regarding this.”
Different kinds and degrees of color deficiencies have been lumped under “colorblindness.” Seeing color is a complex topic because of so many shades of difference.
Most color deficiencies are inherited genetically, as an X-linked recessive trait. The genes that produce the photo pigments in the cones of the retina, required for color vision, are located on the X chromosome. A female has two X chromosomes. If one is defective but the other normal, in most cases she will have normal color vision. Males, on the other hand, have one X chromosome. The Y chromosome has no matching parts that produce photo pigments, so a male who inherits a X chromosome with the defect will be colorblind. Males inherit the X chromosome from their mother, the Y from their father. Females inherit one X chromosome from their mother, and one X chromosome from their father. If a woman’s father is colorblind, she will inherit a color deficient X chromosome from him. If we assume for the moment that the X chromosome she inherits from her mother is normal, the probability that the abnormal X will be passed on to her children is 50%, and the probability that the normal one will be passed on is 50%. Any of her sons have a 50% chance of inheriting their maternal grandfather’s color deficiency through their normal color sighted mother.
That was the situation in my family. My father was colorblind, and I knew early on that any sons of mine had a 50% probability of being colorblind. So, it was no surprise when he was colorblind. I’ve always been glad that they had a close relationship, because they saw the world in the same way and could talk about it. My father laughed about being colorblind. He was a child of the Great Depression, and his father had died when he was three, so I guess there were a lot worse things in his childhood than being colorblind.
Although I knew they both had the same “red-green” colorblindness, until quite recently I really had no idea exactly how they saw the world. It just was, and nothing could be done about it. All of that changed in March of 2015, when EnChroma posted a video on YouTube:
I must have watched that video 20 times in a row the first time I saw it. I had such hope my son could see the world as I saw it. In short order, his grandmother had ordered a pair of Enchroma glasses for him. Here is a description of how these glasses work to help colorblind people see color. My son did not get the “wow” effect from his glasses, but he likes them. He wears them as sunglasses on his daily commutes and other trips. On one trip, he commented that he saw pink in a sunset for the first time ever. So, they do make some difference, but it took a little while for that to come out.
After hoping so much that he could see color the way I do, I had to accept that was not likely to happen in the near future. And for the first time ever, I began to wonder if there were any way that maybe I could see his world. Now it seems odd to me that it took me a lifetime to ask that question, but there it was.
I thought about it for several months, and gradually some possibilities occurred to me. In my digital photography program I had become acquainted with the RGB (red-green-blue) color system. I was also aware of some beautiful old Russian images done in color by shooting three black and white images in rapid succession, using red, green, and blue filters, and then combining the images into one. Those still amaze me. By Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky – from the Library of Congress’ website, Public Domain:
The more I thought about some of those different things, I began to play with RGB channels. In the spring/summer of 2015 I made three sets of images, each set containing an image as I saw it, and another image as I thought my son might possibly see it, based on what I knew about his color deficiency by that point in time. I knew that in theory the two images in each set should appear the same to him. But, I was very, very surprised when they actually did!! I was happy that I finally had a glimpse into his world, and sad that I did not have the technology to show him mine.
Then, I got very busy with many things, and did not work on more sets until early this year (2016). I’ve done a fair number of these diptychs now, with my son giving me a lot of time to go over them. My father had and my son has a red color deficiency, rather severe. People with a different color deficiency, or a different degree, would not see these images in the same way at all.
Before I show some of the diptychs, I want to show this image of the color wheel for the RGB system of additive light. As you look at it, try to imagine what you might see if red were missing or almost missing. You might want to refer back to it if some of the sets puzzle you.
The following images of the RGB color wheel show how moderate red deficiency and severe red deficiency would affect seeing of the RGB colors:
A few sample diptychs:
The Orange Reds
Some other color classes addressed as we worked on diptychs include:
Things We See Not Too Differently: Yellows
Big Surprise: Skin Tones
In retrospect I should have anticipated skin tones, but it took me a little while to accept how I look to my son.
Another Big Surprise: Monotones and Black and White
A Final Video and Thought:
“Sometimes I wish people could see what I saw…” Andrew from this Enchroma video:
I have never heard my son say, “I wish people could see what I saw.” But he has certainly given me a lot of time and help as I have worked on this project, something I felt compelled to try once the idea popped into my head and I realized I had learned tools in photography that might allow me to see the world through his eyes.
This project is far from finished, even in working with the one specific type and degree of color deficiency. Over time I hope to work with other types of color deficiency as well. But should I never get any farther with this, I am happy that at this stage of my life I have learned to see the world through the eyes of my son (and thus, also, my father). Although the technology does not currently exist for him to see the world through my eyes, I have hopes that will happen some time in his lifetime.
That’s what you get from a mother, a daughter, a PhD anthropologist, a board-certified Ob/Gyn, and photographer, interested in seeing color through the eyes of her family. 🙂
ETA: The Kindle edition of “Seeing Color Colorblind” was published at Amazon on April 2, 2016, and is available for $2.99. It can be read on any device with the free Kindle app that can be downloaded at Amazon. The paperback edition was published on May 8, 2016, and is available for $19.99. (People who purchase the paperback may purchase the Kindle version for $0.99 rather than $2.99, thus saving $2.00 on the combination.)