Discovering the Body and Soul of Photography

Discovering the Body and Soul of Photography

Learning is essential for us to grow as photographers. Collaborating with the Polish artist and photographer, Maya Kot, I discovered new ideas about color that get to the very heart of photography.

One of the fastest aspects to reach our perception in the medium of photography is color, its intensity, composition, and permeation. We perceive colors through the basic and most primal cognitive process of visual impression.

Our sensing of colors is nothing more than a mental notion perceived by our brain, thanks to the range of electromagnetic radiation from the visible light occurring in the eye.

Individuality in Vision

Importantly, everyone perceives colors slightly differently. The sky won't be the same shade for each of us. This phenomenon is influenced by personal characteristics such as health, mood, and even experience in using the sense of sight. This is an important aspect of color theory.

The essence of Color Theory is partly physics, biology, and psychology. However, before we look into the more elusive features, it’s worth understanding the color basics.

© Maya Kot 2019

Classifying Color

In photography and art, there is much more to color than we first realize. There are divisions within the meaning of the word that goes beyond the simplest explanation we first understand. In Polish, there are two words to describe color: "barwa" comprises Hue, Saturation, and Luminosity, whereas "kolor" is a psychological and individualized impression onto which an individual's perspective is superimposed.

The meaning and types of color are far broader. Here are examples:

  • Simple (monochromatic, spectral) colors are obtained by splitting white light, as ideally illustrated by a prism or rainbow. They are non-separable and very rare in nature.
  • Complex colors - these are mixtures of simple colors, i.e., combining electromagnetic waves in the range of visible radiation. This is the preponderance of existing colors. Interestingly, the human eye often misperceives mixtures of different colors, observing them as having the same appearance. Minor differences are often only perceptible when lighting changes.
  • Achromatic (non-colors), all tones that do not have a dominant color, i.e., white, black, and all degrees of grey.
  • Monochromatic colors are strictly single hues, although in photography and art, they can vary in luminosity, i.e., by mixing a single hue with white, black, or gray.
  • Chromatic refers to colors with hues and have qualitative characteristics, i.e., a specific hue, saturation, and luminosity. All colors in which a hue can be individually distinguished.
  • Primary colors are those which cannot be broken down into other constituent colors. For example, we learned in art at school that orange paint is a mixture of yellow and red. But you cannot mix any other two colors to make yellow, red, and blue. While red, blue, and yellow are the historic primary colors, they are not ideal for printing and, instead, we use cyan, magenta, and yellow. This has to do with the way they absorb light, which we will come to later in this article.
  • Secondary colors are those that are formed by mixing two of the three primary colors, while tertiary colors result from mixing three.
© Maya Kot 2019

Sir Isaac Newton’s Prism

The identity of color was first discovered by Isaac Newton, who started his experiments on the subject by using prisms. Newton’s important, and now very well-known conclusion, was that the colors were present in the white light, but not visible until separated by the prism.

A prism splits white light into the seven colors that we always see when a rainbow appears: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

However, the emission of light and its modifications are purely physical phenomena. Newton also showed us that color is only a perception, and it needs an individual to receive the rays of light and interpret the colors. He discovered that the rays are not colored until modified light enters our eyes. That begins the complex mechanism of our retinas absorbing it, turning it into an electric signal, which gets processed by the brain.

The Colorful Three

Digital cameras and the screen you are reading this on use three of those colors: red, green, and blue, referred to as RGB. This is additive synthesis, i.e., mixing the emitted light. A white screen will be achieved by a composite of red, green, and blue lights with equal brightness. Black, on the other hand, is the result of no light emission.

The mixing of reflected light is called subtractive synthesis, which is used, among other things, in printing, or to mix pigments and dyes. In this case, the three basic primary colors we use are magenta, cyan, and yellow, which give the impression of different colors when mixed. This is because cyan absorbs red, magenta absorbs green, and yellow absorbs blue.

Maxwell’s Ribbon

The first color photography was made by Maxwell in 1861.

He wanted to illustrate the three-color basis of human vision and demonstrated the result by taking three separate black and white photos of a tartan ribbon, using for each photo a different filter: red, blue, and green. Next, he made three black and white positives, which he projected from three projectors. In front of each projector, he placed the same three filters. (He also photographed the ribbon with a yellow filter, but didn’t use it in the demonstration.)

James Clerk Maxwell, 1861. Wikimedia Commons

On the screen were only three colors. However, the viewers could see a whole range of colors.

Although it was a huge and important progress in photography, Maxwell’s method was full of disadvantages because of its complexity and the fact that only stationary objects could be photographed this way.

Obviously, it’s not the same as Maxwell’s experiment, but even nowadays, and especially for black-and-white photography, we can apply colored filters for special effects. These filters can either be placed in front of the lens or applied digitally. They increase the intensity of shades or reduce highlights and are often employed to take better photos of landscapes when the natural bright areas are overexposed.


As we mentioned earlier, the appearance of color depends on many factors, including the level of illumination.

We can see a difference between the color range and intensity on a grey and cloudy day and one full of sunshine. During the night, when the lighting is very low, our possibilities of perceiving color are practically nil.

An extremely interesting phenomenon is our ability to identify the nature of surfaces by small and subtle variations in color and luminance, even when seeing them only in a two-dimensional photograph. We can determine whether a surface is glossy or matte, thanks to shadows and reflected color. Thus, we can judge which material we are looking at.

It’s important to remember that increasing the amount of light reflected from a surface always increases the contrast; highlights get brighter and shadows deeper.

© Maya Kot 2019

Deep Colors

The careful use of color can uplift the artistic value of our creations significantly. Opposite to other animals, when we perceive color, we apply great aesthetic importance. Especially in visual arts, color has a meaning and is translated into an emotional experience. Thanks to color photography, we can give insights into storytelling and communicate even better than before. But that's for the next article.

Images use with permission of Maya Kot.

Ivor Rackham's picture

A professional photographer, website developer, and writer, Ivor lives in the North East of England. His main work is training others in photography. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being. In 2023 he accepted becoming a brand ambassador for the OM System.

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"The first color photography was made by Maxwell in 1861"

Im afraid that not quite true and not actually what happened. Pedantic yes, but this experiment is often misunderstood and misquoted. I have to say Maxwell is a bit of a hero of mine and one of those historical figures who needs to be much better known as our world revolves around his discoveries. Without a doubt Maxwell was a true genius and had his 'four equations' had the same 'off the tongue' quality of E=MC^2 he would be much better known and celebrated. Go look them up and you will soon understand. Unless you have an advanced degree in mathematics they will be meaningless. While he has a token statue in the centre of Edinburgh, where I live, for most he remains an unknown. The fact that his hugely significant and important equations are pretty impenetrable have consigned Maxwell to the shadows despite the fact he was one of Einstein's own scientific heroes. He was a scientist, scientist such was the complexity of what he did. The story surrounding his ribbon experiment, which he himself thought of as a great disappointment, is one that has become slightly distorted over time and needs some clarification as Ivor has presented something that may well give people the wrong idea as there was no actual colour photograph produced, which needs to be stated. Even if, in Maxwell’s own words, the experiment was a failure due to the outcome, his theory most definitely was not, and was one of the major breakthroughs in optics and engineering of that time. What we should understand and help correct is that this moment in history was not the origin of “The First Colour Photograph” but the “The First Attempt at Tri-Colour Separation”. Maxwell’s principals of colour photography hold true even though the famous “Tartan Ribbon” is currently celebrated for the possibly the wrong reasons. Its the story of Maxwells Life as the work he did was so complex and difficult to understand that it was almost impossible to present to the general public in an easy to understand package hence its often misunderstood and misrepresented.

Thanks for clarifying, Eric. Yes, I guess it depends upon one's definition of a photograph. Should we consider his experimental method of producing a projected colour image from three (or four) filtered images as a photograph? You think not, I am not so sure. But it's a subjective point of view.

I think I would accept that there are two equally valid answers. It's not a black and white question. (Pun intended!)

If it wasn't a photograph, then I guess we could equally say that digital images collected by arrays of three differently colour-filtered light sensors, and then projected in three channels by our RGB displays, are not photos either.

Of course, in a short article it's impossible to cover every last discussion point, so thanks for raising it. It's a great topic for a future article perhaps.

It's great to hear you are fascinated by Maxwell's work. He's an often forgotten, but nonetheless hugely important, historical figure.

Thanks for the comment.