My Camera has the Blues

Color is a tricky thing when describing and photographing flowers. Not only do people differ in their understanding of what is meant by color terms, our cameras “see” colors in different ways than we do.

Primula nanobella color variation.
Words used to describe the most common range of Primula flower colors include violet, blue, mauve, lilac, pink, pinky-violet, blue-violet, amethyst, rose, violet-blue, claret-red, red, wine, purple-blue, purple, magenta, crimson, salmon, magenta-crimson, rose-crimson, rose-purple, lilac-mauve, and rosy-purple. It’s hard to figure out these colors unless you can compare them side-by-side.
Ah, but we can take a picture of a Primula flower described as “lilac-mauve” and that will show precisely what is meant! Well, except there are problems with how colors are reproduced in an image.

Light has a color temperature, measured in Kelvin (K). Numbers over 5,000 K represent the cool, blue end of the scale and less than 3,000 K represents the warm, red end of the scale. Often when we speak about color temperature in relation to digital cameras we talk about the white balance.

Most cameras have pre-sets for white balances such as “sunny”, “cloudy”, and “auto” which tells the camera what color temperature to expect in the scene so that the color can be balanced back to neutral. On the “sunny” setting more blue is added to the image, and on “cloudy” more yellow is added. If you have your camera on the wrong setting you will get a strong color cast to your image (which can be used creatively). In the image below, the same Meconopsis has been photographed with different white balance settings. The left image has a slight blue color cast, and the right image has a strong yellow color cast. Without the visual clue of the background to help us see the color cast, we could think the flowers in the images were different colors.
Same plant with different white balances
The camera model used to take images can also cause problems with color. Camera manufacturers add internal infrared blocking filters to their cameras to add clarity to images. This also cuts out some of the visible red in images so Primula flowers can turn from violet to blue depending on the camera used. Fortunately software can be used to correct for this, but this requires some knowledge of the actual flower color or knowledge of the camera and how it represents colors.

Two cameras record the same species differently


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