The Dress Color Conundrum

BBi15GTI’m not quite sure what all the fuss is about this dress lately, but it would seem that there are a lot of people who have trouble with color relationships and white balance issues. Here are my observations from the perspective of a photographer. I have done a lot of product photography over the past 20 years, and there are times when proper color rendering is of the utmost importance. So these are things I have dealt with on a daily basis.

At first glance, I can see that this is a photo of a dress that was shot in the shade on a bright, possibly cloudless, day, or possibly in a brightly-lit room. Either way, there is obviously a very wide disparity in the dynamic range within the scene, with a wide range in color cast. Modern digital cameras all have built within them something called “white balance.” Sometimes this feature can be adjusted, sometimes not. If this photo was shot with a smart phone camera, chances are good that there was no manual white balance adjustment available, nor presets, therefore the shooter was left to the mercy of the built-in camera to get it right, or maybe close, to reality. The problem is, the natural color cast in shade on a sunny day leans toward blue. Here’s what my eyes see, immediately: A likely white fabric with a blue cast on it that is caused by improper white balance. Now, let’s pull it into Photoshop and see what we can find out.

To the non-photographers out there, let me explain a few things. In the digital world, colors are expressed with hexadecimal values; pure black is expressed as 000000, and pure white is ffffff. Everything else is somewhere in between. So let’s take our Photoshop eyedropper in the color picker and see what it sees on the dress. Clicking on the brightest area of the lighter-colored fabric, we see that the color is represented as a very pale shade of blue. This is just what I’d suspect, given the assumption that this was shot in the shade and the auto white balance allowed a blue cast. The fact that there is blue detected in the vicinity does not necessarily indicate that the dress is blue.

dress-1Now, just for comparison, let’s try to find some pure white. See that really bright spot in the upper-right corner? Yep, it’s pure white; notice the ffffff indicated in my color palette.

dress-2But do you notice something? Our eyedropper finds that there is also red in the vicinity. This does not mean that our bright sky (or background) is red. Now, let’s go back to the dress… I clicked the eyedropper on a different area of the dress, not really very far from the one with the blue cast, and now I see a purple cast. Does this mean the dress is purple? No, just that the red cast that’s out there in the open area is influencing the fabric, blending with the blue cast, and creating a purple cast. (This is easily accomplished when the palette  you start with is white.)

dress-3My conclusion: the fabric is white. Now, let’s look at the other color, the trim, which is either gold or black, depending on how you see it. No matter where I click my eyedropper, I get a shade of gold. It’s pretty gray in the darker areas, but it’s gold-biased, and not what I’d consider black. (Notice I left pure black on the color picker’s new/current square, for comparison.) Could it be a cast from another source? I don’t think so; I think the fabric itself is gold. If it were a cast from elsewhere, we’d be seeing gold in the main fabric, and we are not.

dress-4dress-5What’s my final conclusion? This dress in this photo is white with gold trim, or at the very least, pale blue with gold trim. If you believe otherwise, you will never, ever edit my photos for me.

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