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Why does Color look different on Screen and in Real Life?

Consider the following scenario. You see a wonderful product online, shot in perfect lighting in a photography studio. You happily place the order and wait for it. When the product arrives, you open it up in your room and the color looks different. You start wondering, why does this product look different?

The answer to your question is both complicated and simple. There are a few main reasons color looks the way it does, let us break them down for easy understanding.

1. Light Source Color Temperature

As time has passed and technology has advanced more and more different types and sources of lights have become available for use. Color temperature (expressed in degrees Kelvin, e.g. 6500K) is a convenient way to group lighting into similar color families. The lower the color temperature of the light source, the warmer or redder the source will be. The higher the color temperature, the cooler or bluer it will be.

Light sources can be broadly categorized into the following types based on their color temperatures:

a. Incandescent or Tungsten Filament

This used to be the most popular kind of light source available. A filament would grow brightly to produce light when electricity would be passed through it. These emit a yellowish-red hue and have a color temperature of about 2700K. Incandescent light sources add a yellow tone to colors when viewed in this type of light.

b. Fluorescent

Fluorescent light sources produce light when electrical energy is applied to a glass tube containing mercury together with fluorescent compounds called “phosphors”. These can be found in varying color temperatures due to a lack of standards in the manufacturing process. Even two lights from the same manufacturer can have different color temperatures.

c. LED

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have been used in electronics for over 50 years, but it wasn’t until the relatively recent introduction of white LEDs that they have become increasingly important in retail and consumer lighting. However, there are not a lot of standards in LED manufacturing processes either and this leads to varying color temperatures. The need for cheap LED lighting has further reduced the need for color accuracy.

Hence unless the original lighting conditions are exactly reproduced or your room lighting is carefully calibrated with a spectrophotometer to match the original color temperature, the color of the product will look different. Let’s not even delve into the more complex topics like metamerism, Light Reflectance Value of the Product, Luminosity and Chroma.

We at use 6500K lights with a CRI (Color Rendering Index) of 95 to photograph all our products. It is then further calibrated to the sRGB color space with the Datacolor Colorimeter and Spectrophotometer Systems.

2. Color of Screens

We usually assume that all electronics exhibit the same colors, especially devices of the same make and model. This is often not the case. Chances are when you put the same image on two monitors or screens side-by-side, you have at least a 95% of chance that the images will not look the same. There are two main reasons why colors reproduced on different devices look very different. The first reason is that the color mixing theory behind each kind of device is different, and the second is mainly due to mass production variation. Let’s look at each of these reasons a little more deeply.

a. Color Mixing Theory

Color is mixed mainly in one of two ways. One is using colored light, and the other one is using colorants. Colored light uses an Additive Color System, based on RGB or Red Blue Green. This is used for lights and monitors. In the Additive Color System Red, Blue, and Green light combine to form white light. The intensity of the light controls the luminance or darkness of the color.

Colorants on the other hand use the Subtractive Color System based on Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow as primary shades. This is used in pigments and dyes, which are used to dye fabrics and print images. In the Subtractive Color System, Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow combine to form Black. The amount of pigment used controls the luminance of the color.

Representing a Subtractive Color System based color on an Additive Color System based sevice usually causes variations in the colors.

b. Mass Production Variation

A screen or panel usually consists of 10 layers of components. The variation in mass production is usually at around 5% per component in order for it to be produced quickly and priced reasonably. Even if the variation is tightened to 2%, with 10 layers of components, the variation of the screen or panel could easily go up to 15% ~ 20%. Therefore, when the factory uses the panels right away without any adjustment or calibration, the colors will definitely be very different from unit to unit. This is the typical case for phones, monitors, projectors, TV, and even printers.

3. Personal Influences on Color

Have you ever wondered why you think a tennis ball is yellow and your friend thinks it is green? When it comes to the color of a product, it is often hard to get a consensus. We all remember the heated debates we had on that white and gold or blue and black dress. Here are some factors that can influence the color that you see.

a. Background

Apart from the brightness and light source of the viewing area, context also plays an important part in establishing color for the human eye. The relationship between the foreground or background and the product changes how our eye perceives the color. Optical illusion uses this exact relationship.

b. Geography

Even the color temperature of Sunlight changes depending on the time of day and our location on the earth along with factors like environmental pollution.

c. Age

Color perception in human beings definitely varies with age. Cells in the retinas of older people also lose sensitivity, which affects color contrast. Blues are especially likely to appear more faded in older adults, possibly because the lens of the eye yellows with age and cataract formation.

d. Subjective Color Vision

Color blindness (color vision deficiency, or CVD) affects approximately 1 in 12 men (8%) and 1 in 200 women.

What does this mean for you?

It means, that visual color assessment or using human eyes exclusively for color evaluation will have some significant limitations. Visual color evaluation is subjective. Observers have differing color vision and, therefore, color opinions. Color differences are difficult to quantify and communicate. Many variables need to be controlled including light intensity, angle of view, surrounding color, and light source quality.

It is almost impossible to state or declare differences in colors based on our eyesight alone. So the next time you buy a product and it looks a little different than it did in the product image, know that it is natural. And you can always change your lights or color correct your photos to achieve the color you desire.