What Is Color, and How Does It Work in a Camera?

Color is complicated and incredibly important to what we do as photographers. Even if we shoot in black and white, we have to know how colors will be rendered by our film/sensor in order to create contrast. Let's dive into the technical details of what color is and how cameras capture it.

As someone who used to be a colorist, I find the science of color, both biologically and technically, absolutely fascinating. In this video from Tony Northrup, he breaks down color science in a surprisingly digestible way. Starting with the very basics of what color is from a light standpoint and then moving on to how cameras capture it by delving into the most common Bayer pattern, the upcoming RGBW pattern as well, as my beloved X-Trans, and even the Sigma-specific Foveon sensor. He doesn't just say: "this is a photosite." Tony really goes in depth into the pros and cons and the science of each sensor type. 

Color science is a complicated topic, so it's impressive to me that Tony so succinctly compressed this much information into a 20-minute video. While this is definitely more on the technical side than the artistic side of photography, I feel like it is still semi-required watching for all artists, even if just in the background. Learning the technical side of your chosen art form will allow you to exploit it, in my opinion, and therefore grow.

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10 Comments

Thomas H's picture

No, I will not watch anymore anything from Toni. No more. The usual title of his video would be something like: "10 lies camera companies tell you about color", or "The truth about color" (implying that all others keep telling something else but the truth). Still we have in the headline "Purple isn't real"...

Simon Patterson's picture

I haven't watched the video yet, but I already knew purple isn't real.

What's wrong with those titles if it's basically what their video is about?

It would be quite easy for me to make a video entitled, “The Truth About Sensor Sensitivity, Exposure Index, and ISO,” because many famous, and respected people ARE telling something other than the truth. Also, “The Truth About Exposure, The Triangle, and Noise.”

It does not imply that «…all others…» are not telling the truth. It only states explicitly that the lesson in question will give the truth, regardless of whether you have heard it before or not.

Studio 403's picture

This video is excellent example what my expert brother-in-law Solicitor comments on legal documents: GOBBLEDEGOOK. Dear Toni, please keep in simple and lets chat about photography. Let the scientist and engineers do their jobs. We know. You read a book on color. From me, I use a coloring book I gave my grand kids. I hope you see where I am headed. My rant for the day. Happy coloring Toni .

Let's see…. In the first 36 seconds, Tony explains that this is a nerdy video about the science of colour. In the first 29 seconds, he declares that one can be a great photographer without this knowledge he is about to drop. In the video description, it states, «Tony gets mega geeky as he digs into the science of color.»

So why are people complaining that Tony is getting all scientific and geeky to explain something scientific? If you are not interested in the science, then after 36 seconds, you have the knowledge to decide not to watch anymore. He kept it simple, and about photography, but we do not have the right to tell anyone on YT what kind of videos to make. (We can choose what kinds to watch).

Tony did a great job on this video, and, although it is not everyone's cup of tea, it is knowledge available to everyone who desires to know.

Studio 403's picture

Well said, but respectfully disagree

This was different from the usual, and useless, “Ten tips for better landscape photography” or “Why I’m Dumping Full Frame.” This was genuinely useful content that provides a basis for comparing one system with another, and understanding the challenges manufacturers face. More like this, please. Next, I’d like a follow-up on how color film works in this same context.

Simon Patterson's picture

I found the video very interesting and informative. Particularly the part about the challenge of interpreting the raw data from Xtrans sensors.