I was teaching a class yesterday and someone showed me a photo on a phone and said, "What color is this dress?" Of course everyone disagreed, but I saw a "blue tinted white and gold". So I decided that since today is a snow day here in Albuquerque, NM where I reside, I would sit down and do some analysis and then chime in on the argument. And for those of you that are scared you may be color blind or have dysfunctional cones… skip to the end, despite what Business Insider may say, YOU ARE NOT BROKEN and your cones aren’t “higher or lower” functioning! You can see both dresses for yourself!
TANGENT LESSON #1
Do not use a phone or camera to take a photo and judge color without a known reference! Sure if you’re in the dressing room and need a friend’s opinion it might be helpful, but definitely not a trustworthy form of color conveyance! If color is important, leave it to the professionals who spend hours using tools to color correct images and calibrate the entire color pipeline from camera to monitor to printer to show the most accurate color possible!
WHAT IS THE QUESTION?
We need to first determine which question we are asking ourselves about this image! Is the question, “What color is this pixel?”, “What color is this dress as depicted in this image?”, or a question about that specific image? If so, we can easily measure it.
HOW DO YOU MEASURE COLOR?
Color can be measured on several different coordinate systems and naming schemes. There’s La*b*, RGB, CMYK, color frequency (vibration of color waves), Pantone™ color, Kelvin Temperature, and even Crayola™ Crayon colors to name a few. Colorimetry is a large field of science all in its own right and is very important in the printing and online or catalog retailing industries.
Since this infamous dress photo is shared via Facebook, BuzzFeed, and other digital means, let’s look at RGB values which is how the color of light is measured on displays such as on phones, laptops, and computer monitors.
The RGB scale measures the relative lightness or darkness of Red, Green, and Blue as they are added together in the form of light (Additive color – see Wikipedia link for further explanation). The RGB scale is in 8 bit format, meaning that each color is identified by the computer as 8 places of zeros or ones. There are 28 = 256 different possible values for each of the 3 colors. However, instead of starting the counting at 1, RGB starts counting at 0, so the values are inclusively between 0 and 255. The RGB value of 0, 0, 0 means there is 0% red light, 0% green light, and 0% Blue light, or total darkness (i.e. Black). The RGB value of 255, 255, 255 is 100% of each color, the presence of all light (i.e. white). There are 16,777,216 uniquely identifiable colors in the RGB coordinate system. Not all monitors and printers are capable of producing every single one of those colors (again another lesson on color space – see Wikipedia for more details), but there are that many potential colors.
I opened the image in Adobe Camera Raw. First I recovered the highlights (which I know is not a great technique when starting with a jpeg image), and set the darkest pixel to absolute black, just to center the histogram so the whites and blacks just kiss the edges. I used a color picker to get the RGB values of 5 different samples. I chose three samples on the "gold/black" part and 2 samples on the "white/blue" part and plotted them on a color wheel using Adobe’s Kuler software.
The "gold/black" samples fall in the yellow/orange realm, which I think could be characterized as "gold” toned and the "white/blue" samples fall in the blue/purple realm which I would characterize as “periwinkle” blue.
AND THE ANSWER IS… (drumroll please!)…
With that information, if the question is, “What color is this pixel?” or, “What color is this dress as depicted in this image?”, then the answer is GOLD AND PERIWINKLE! What an odd colored dress! They don’t NOT go together, but I think I would prefer to wear white with gold lace or periwinkle with black lace!
Now if we ask the question as posed, “What color is this dress?” then until this dress is photographed next to a Macbeth chart (a calibrated tool of known color values used for color correction for commercial photography – see below) or I see it in person… it’s up for interpretation!
Image by Rags-Int-Inc.com for educational illustrative purposes
With the only information given as this image, you really don’t know where the origin (the zero point for absolute white and absolute black) lies. Until we also know what color space we are talking about (such as Adobe RGB, sRGB, etc), which is a lesson for another article, we can’t name the exact specific color. However, with an origin, we could at least tell the difference between white and blue and gold and black.
WHAT IS WHITE? WHAT IS BLACK?
Our brains are trying to interpret the pixel data into meaning by making an assumption, but our collective brains can't agree which assumption is correct. As painters know, “white” is a relative term when in reference to time of day and what’s around it. It can also vary by how much the surface reflects light compared to surfaces near it (think of our “white moon” - black moon rock that reflects white compared to the black sky, absent of light). The color of twilight in early morning, just before the sun is up or just after the sun goes down casts a blue hue to everything, yet your brain adjusts for the blue hue and can still identify colors. Conversely, think of the warm tones and bright light when you are driving into the sunset with the sun in your eyes. Everything appears to have a yellow orange tint to it, but your brain adjusts and you can still identify a red stop sign or green grass.
TEAM WHITE AND GOLD
People that see white and gold recognize the Blue as white and shift their coordinate system based on that origin. They are assuming that the image is taken with a blue color shift and UNDER exposed (darker than it should be once your eyes adjust in person) and assume that the "white/blue" in the dress is the absolute white on the color balance origin. Their brains translate the periwinkle color as “white” similar to how you would see a picket fence in the early morning blue twilight (image of a white object shifted too cool on the Kelvin scale). Their brains just think it was taken in bad lighting and make a judgment to identify a bad photo of a white and gold dress.
Here is an image with the white balance color picker placed on the periwinkle part of the dress. Now Team Blue and Black can see what Team White and Gold sees if it were in “good light” as they judge it to be so.
TEAM BLUE AND BLACK
People that see black and blue recognize the gold as black and shift their coordinate system in the opposite direction. They assume that the image is taken with a warm color shift and OVER exposed (brighter than it should be once your eyes adjust in person) and the "gold/black" is the absolute black point on the color origin. This would be like seeing someone in a black shirt at sunset with the light blaring on them and tinted yellow/orange (image of a black object shifted too warm on the Kelvin scale). Their brains also think it is terrible lighting, but make a judgment to identify that it is a bad photo of a blue and black dress.
WHO IS CLOSER TO BEING "RIGHT"?
With all the information given, let’s look at two of the color picker samples – the darkest of the gold samples and lightest of the periwinkle samples.
Now granted, identifying colors on a relative scale is tricky to judge. However, when looking at the empirical data shown above, take a gander at the bottom slider. That slider shows how light or dark that combination of colors in in the same ratio. If all RGB colors are the same number (e.g. 18, 18, 18), then the color is neutral and not tinted one way or the other. If it has a tint, that bottom bar show that tint all the way to the high side and low side. All the way to the left would be the closest to black, and all the way to the high side would be closest to white.
From the two sample points above, The Periwinkle is closer to white than Gold is closer to black. I would have to side with Team White and Gold, however, I’m sure you could pull two other points to prove the other direction and recognition of relative color is also not always linear.
BUT… as of this writing, 72% of BuzzFeed readers (1,400,000 million people) agree!
Poll image taken from http://www.buzzfeed.com/ryanhatesthis/dress-doxed#.phKVJvO4x
NOW HERE IS WHERE IT GETS WEIRD!
As I was about to finish writing this article I unplugged my laptop and went and sat in an unlit room on the couch to get cozy (it is a snow day for me after all) and I pulled up the buzzfeed link again and… the dress APPEARED BLUE AND BLACK to me after I had been seeing a bluish-white and gold all along! I was thinking, “WTF, mate!?! Did someone switch this image out on me or is it one of those images that fades from one to the other to trick you? Did by unplugging my computer I switch into some other color space of rendering on my laptop? No that can’t be because last night my whole class was gathered around a phone and people very clearly saw two different things! Ok, what the schmekel is going on!?!” (For those of you that don’t know, schmekel is a word I made up and insert randomly in phrases of amazement… also a nickname for my cat, but that’s beside the point).
Ok, remember all those optical illusions when you were a kid? I think just by being in a “bluer” light when I changed locations my brain took the opposite assumption and I saw blue and black for a while, then I looked at something really blue and when I went back it was blue-ish white and gold again!
I created these graphics to try to make you see both dresses! Blow this photo up as big as you can so it fills your screen. I know these images are wider than my website blog, but it's important to see them big :)
TEAM WHITE AND GOLD – TRY THIS TO SEE BLUE AND BLACK
Put your face close to the screen to it fills your vision and stare at the white and gold for 45 seconds, then immediately view the photo again. You will see blue and black. If the white starts to turn more blue, but the gold isn’t black yet, keep staring at the white and gold, then switch back.
TEAM BLUE AND BLACK – TRY THIS TO SEE WHITE AND GOLD
Put your face close to the screen to it fills your vision and stare at the circle for 45 seconds, then immediately view the photo again. You will see white and gold. If the white starts still looks blue, but the gold isn’t black anymore, keep staring, then switch back.
So for those people who are claiming one is absolutely right or, “folks i do colors for a living and that dress is blue and black,” [sic], you can actually make your eyes change to view both. Give it a try!!!! Kapow! Mind blown!
THE REAL DRESS
Here is a link to the real mother of the bride that wore her blue and black dress to the wedding (or so they claim). To be honest from a photographer’s viewpoint, blue and black is much more slimming and more mature than a white and gold dress. So congrats Mom! You dressed very elegantly for your daughter’s very viral wedding! It looks better on you in blue and black anyway!
HERE IS THE DRESS (or maybe just one very similar)
If you want to buy this dress, you can buy a very similar one here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Roman-Womens-Detail-Bodycon-Dress/dp/B00SJEUCWU
I can only imagine the memes and fashion trends that will follow this incident!
Enjoy everyone! And I will return to making snowballs and sipping tea with my kitty cat on this very snowy day. Peace out internet - back to real work!