When I was a kid I thought I was stupid. No one could figure out why I couldn’t remember the colors of all the crayons. My teachers thought I had a learning disability. I remember having to pick up a crayon over and over to read the name so I knew what color it was. That was the earliest I can remember having issues with color, but it really didn’t hit home until I was a teenager. I was walking to the river with a friend when I saw a raft sitting unattended. I said to my friend “let’s go grab that gray raft and go for a ride”, to which friend replied “dude, that’s pink”. That was the first time I realized I was color blind. To this day I still make mistakes. I recently bought an “orange” shirt, but turns out it wasn’t orange.
What is Colorblindness?
When it comes to photography I get asked all the time, how can I be a photographer if I’m colorblind? Sometimes I joke that Beethoven was deaf and his music was “ok” (insert sarcasm). People often think when someone is colorblind it means they only see in black and white. As it turns out, colorblindness is on a spectrum.
Being fully black and white colorblind is an extreme and rare occurrence. More commonly people fall into one of these categories: Protanopia, Deuteranopia, or Tritanopia. I fall into the Deuteranopia category. I have a type of red-green color blindness in which the green cones in my eyes do not detect enough green and are too sensitive to yellows, oranges, and reds. This results in greens, yellows, oranges, reds, and browns appearing similar, especially in extreme lighting (both bright and dark). It can also be difficult to tell the difference between blues and purples, or pinks and grays.
Where Things Get Tricky
Since being colorblind will affect different hues or colors based on the deficiency you have, there are times where it is easier to work through it and times that it is harder. The biggest struggle for me is seeing the subtle color shift and color changes on location. I remember standing at Lake Louise one morning surrounded by other photographers that were already shooting and I could not understand why. I finally turned to the photographer next to me and asked, “Am I missing something?” They responded, “You can’t see that? The sky is full of pink”.
The struggle is not just in the field but also back home when I’m editing. There are times where I have trouble trying to separate or distinguishing the different tones in the sky. When the sky has pinks, reds, oranges, and yellows it becomes difficult to determine where the one color stops and other begins (or even if there are certain colors in the sky at all). Now this is not necessarily a bad thing while shooting, however it does pose a challenge while editing.
Since my eyes basically have trouble seeing every color that landscapes are made up from, it can be difficult to edit images in a realistic way. It is common for me to over saturate or introduce unwanted noise and blemishes into an image. Thus results in a shot that looks “overcooked” and unrealistic. So how do I make it work then?
How to Work Around it on Location
I get it! Every article out there will tell you to get to your location early, but it is for a good reason. And in my case it is no different. Getting on location and setting up early (well before sunset or sunrise) gives you the chance to catch the light before it starts to change. That way if something starts earlier than expected you are ready to go. This also means typhoon should stay later than usual, just in case there are any moments of “after burn” in the sky.
Working on location I’ve learned to start snapping away as soon as I see the brightness shift in the clouds. Once the clouds start to shift their brightness or intensity, that is when I know that there could be color up.
When you are out there, don’t be afraid to ask other people what they see. Other photographers or even just other sightseers. Ask them what they see and they will often have no troubles letting you know. It can also spark some interesting conversations.
Tips for Editing
The best advice I can give to anyone colorblind or not is to make sure your computer displays are calibrated. This will ensure that the colors on the screen will match what the camera captured. If you don’t do this your display can introduce cold or warm color to your shot and once you share it elsewhere it will look totally off from what you wanted. As for being color blind, this will ensure that you are not over correcting your image to get back a color that is being suppressed by the display.
When I start editing I often open a file and start moving the color adjustments very drastically in order to see what colors are predominant, where the colors are, and just how strong or weak they are in the image. Luckily shooting in raw will allow you to use the camera raw suite in Photoshop to adjust individual colors with great control. For example, crank the saturation slider for an individual color really far to one side so that you can see a change. If nothing changes, goes black and white, or goes over the top saturated, then that color is not in the image. However if something changes, then you know that color is present. Now you can make your adjustments. Be sure not to over do it though. Remember if it is increased enough for you to see it then people with normal color vision will see it as over saturated.
You will begin to see how often, when you edit, that you change the same sliders. Creating a workflow can help manage the time you spend editing and can help you keep it consistent. Over the years I have found I am adjusting certain colors by the same values, therefore I memorize these or create presets to load when I am working.
If all else fails a second pair of eyes is always helpful. You can send your images to a friend or family member to get their opinion on the shot. I usually take my computer to my family members and have them look at it as I make adjustments.
There have been some great accomplishments made with software to help people that are color blind. Even in some smart phones there are settings to help adjust for each variation of color deficiency. There are also companies dedicated to creating glasses that help correct the effects of being color blind.
My best advice to anyone in a creative field is this: it doesn’t matter if you are colorblind. With enough persistence and dedication you can overcome just about anything. Continue to practice your craft, continue to push, and you will find ways to make it work.
You often hear that anything worth doing can be hard. As cliché or anecdotal as that sounds, it is true. I love photography. I love being able to travel the world to see beautiful places. I love meeting amazing people and capturing once in s lifetime moments. If it was easy it wouldn’t be special. So don’t be discouraged by being colorblind! Be motivated! Let it be the fuel behind working harder and going further, proving to yourself that you can do it.