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Color Constancy and a Modified Theory of Color Vision

Color Constancy and a Modified Theory of Color Vision

The eye-brain color-sensing system can, by comparing various objects in its view, perceive the true color of an object under varying lighting conditions—an ability that is called color constancy. We can sense that a white tablecloth, for example, is white whether it is illuminated by sunlight, fluorescent light, or candlelight. The wavelengths entering the eye are quite different in each case, as the graphs in this figure imply, but our color vision can detect the true color by comparing the tablecloth with its surroundings.

Theories that take color constancy into account are based on a large body of anatomical evidence as well as perceptual studies. There are nerve connections among the light receptors on the retina, and there are far fewer nerve connections to the brain than there are rods and cones. This means that there is signal processing in the eye before information is sent to the brain. For example, the eye makes comparisons between adjacent light receptors and is very sensitive to edges as seen in this figure. Rather than responding simply to the light entering the eye, which is uniform in the various rectangles in this figure, the eye responds to the edges and senses false darkness variations.

One theory that takes various factors into account was advanced by Edwin Land (1909 – 1991), the creative founder of the Polaroid Corporation. Land proposed, based partly on his many elegant experiments, that the three types of cones are organized into systems called retinexes. Each retinex forms an image that is compared with the others, and the eye-brain system thus can compare a candle-illuminated white table cloth with its generally reddish surroundings and determine that it is actually white. This retinex theory of color vision is an example of modified theories of color vision that attempt to account for its subtleties.

One striking experiment performed by Land demonstrates that some type of image comparison may produce color vision. Two pictures are taken of a scene on black-and-white film, one using a red filter, the other a blue filter. Resulting black-and-white slides are then projected and superimposed on a screen, producing a black-and-white image, as expected. Then a red filter is placed in front of the slide taken with a red filter, and the images are again superimposed on a screen. You would expect an image in various shades of pink, but instead, the image appears to humans in full color with all the hues of the original scene. This implies that color vision can be induced by comparison of the black-and-white and red images. Color vision is not completely understood or explained, and the retinex theory is not totally accepted. It is apparent that color vision is much subtler than what a first look might imply.

PhET Explorations: Color Vision

Make a whole rainbow by mixing red, green, and blue light. Change the wavelength of a monochromatic beam or filter white light. View the light as a solid beam, or see the individual photons.

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