Day 58: That dress photo explained

Day 58: That dress photo explained

Day 58: That dress photo explained

Friday, 27 February 2015

Why does the pic of that dress look so weird?

The photo is backlit (just as today’s photo is) and the subject is under-exposed – that is, it’s cast in shadow. When you try to brighten the area that’s cast in shadow (a function performed either in-camera or in photoshop), you’re basically accelerating what little data there is and introducing a lot of ‘noise’ that exposes the quality (or lack thereof) of the sensor in your camera.

Rubbish cameras will introduce a lot of weird hues. So does saving a low-quality image for web. So does compression on sites like Facebook.

So it’s a lot of imperfections stacked on top of each other.


So what colour is it?

The short answer is we’ll never know for sure. The photo is composed in a way that we can’t see whether there’s any cloud cover, whether the subject is standing under a roof, or indeed whether there are other light sources operating at different colour temperatures.


That’s really cute, but what does it have to do with your stupid black and white shirt?

It’s actually purple, blue and white.

There’s also natural sunlight coming in from the back right-hand side of the frame.

And to the left of the frame, my daughter is watching her latest Kpop favourite on a projector that’s firing across my body – hence the weird magenta gash across my face.

The point of all this is to say that cameras are great at picking up colour, but they’re not so good at dealing with multiple light sources of different warmth (or temperature, as we call it).

Seriously, try it yourself – a fluorescent light next to an incandescent one. Or maybe do it in sunlight. For most people, the photo won’t resemble what’s seen through the viewfinder.


Okay. I get all that, and I’ve made my peace with the idea that I might never know the colour of that dress. So why does everyone see different colours? 

Cognitive bias. You’re not seeing enough to understand the full context of the picture, so your brain just fills in the blanks.


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