Fifty Shades of Black

Our Visual Perception of Dark Objects & Why Very Few of Them are Truly Black

It is quite remarkable, and unrealized by most, that the average person can perceive millions of colors. These colors vary from light to dark and dull to vibrant, capturing an extraordinary array of hues seen by the human eye. While we have delved into our imagination to create names for a lot of these colors, Crimson, Honeydew, Peachpuff, Mulberry ‘there are countless more that are still without their own paint swatch or crayon color name. Many of these known and unknown colors, however, are often mistaken for other colors, as can be seen in our frequent misperception of the’ color black.

Technically, true black is not a color. It is considered the ABSENCE of color and is devoid of hue. This is because when light hits a black object, the object absorbs all of the light’s wavelengths. Our perception of color is dependent on the wavelength and amount of light sent to our eyes; if no light, or very minimal light, is reflected off of an object, no color is perceived (blackness). Cones within the retina of the human eye play an integral role in this because of their sensitivity to color. Every moment we are awake and wide eyed, these cones are sending messages to our brain to translate what color we are seeing in front of us. Without enough light reflected off of an object, the retina cones will not be stimulated to send any message.

Very few objects we come across in our daily life are truly black. An object we perceive as black is often just a black shade mixed with a color hue (e.g., dark red or purple). The ‘contrast effect’ can have a lot to do with color misperception. When a dark colored object is placed on a very light background, it appears darker than it really is. For example, the deep, purple hue of a plum placed on a white countertop brightly illuminated by daylight will likely appear black. Also influencing our perception of an object’s color are light sources and the angle at which we are viewing it, as these directly affect how bright an object will appear to the human eye. At other times, it is simply just an object’s deep hue that is too dark for the human eye to visually discern from black.

To objectively determine an object’s color, a spectrophotometer is required. These color measurement instruments accurately quantify color in numerical terms and are immune to the subjectivity of our visual color perception. The accuracy and precision associated with a high quality spectrophotometer enables them to sense even the slightest difference in surface color and lightness. Measuring a black object with one of these instruments will often reveal some amount of red, yellow, or in the case of the plum, purple hue in the object or product.

Accurate measurements of color are critical to the R&D, manufacturing, and production processes. The impact color has on the consistency and appearance of a product, as well as the visual misperceptions it can cause, makes it an element to be focused on. Next time you look at a ‘black’ object, know that there is likely a little crimson, mulberry, or some nameless color hue in there being mistaken for the ‘black’ color your eyes perceive it to be.

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