Monday, April 16, 2012

Colorblindness in Wildlife Photography

Northern Cardinal
I like vibrant Reds!
If you've read enough of my posts, you've probably read that I have red-green colorblindness.  My colorblindness is probably the single greatest obstacle I face in both birding and photography.I suspect I'm not the only color-blind wildlife photographer in the world, so I thought it would be helpful to describe how it affects me and how I cope with it.  In some ways, my coping mechanisms, if followed consistently, would actually be good birding and photography practices anyway.

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Black and White Warbler
one of the few birds I see just like you
For those of you who aren't colorblind, it's an interesting problem because it has to do with a deficiency in perception, so it's really impossible for me to describe how I see things compared to how a "normal" person sees things; I've never seen anything the way a "normal" person sees it.  There is a site that attempts to duplicate how a colorblind person sees color, if you're interested.  The best way I can describe it is that my eyes both de-saturate reds and greens and confuses them so that sometimes I can't tell if I'm looking at something red, green or brown.  This is particularly a problem with more muted colors.  Sometimes it affects my ability to distinguish between colors like blue and purple, since I may not see the red in the purple well enough to distinguish it from blue. For instance, the only reason I know that a Purple Gallinule is purple and not blue is that purple is in the name of the bird.

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Purple Gallinlule
I'd call it a Blue Gallinule if I were naming it
There are at least four ways in which my colorblindness affects my wildlife photography:
  1. Finding Wildlife:  I can see bright, saturated colors pretty well, but muted reds and greens often blend together.  I can usually find male Northern Cardinals very quickly, but the females often become lost in green leaves.
  2. Identifying Wildlife: I'm horrible at identifying species of birds by color.  The first time I saw a Wilson's Plover I was in an area where Piping Plovers can be found.  One of the clues to look for to distinguish between the two is the color of the legs: Piping Plovers have bright yellow to orange legs, while Wilson's Plovers have pink to gray legs.  I'd be hopeless in telling them apart if I had to use leg color alone.
  3. White Balance: If my white balance is set improperly, it is sometimes impossible for me to correct the problem manually in Lightroom, since I don't see warmer reds as well as the cooler blues. When shooting JPEG files, Lightroom lets me modify the white balance, but only relative to the white balance I chose in the camera.  That's not very helpful to me.
  4. Saturation: My eyes do not distinguish colors very well, but I'll often find that if I increase the vibrancy or saturation in Lightroom, all the sudden I can see what I couldn't see before.  It's wonderful!  But sometimes I end up posting photos that look too saturated to those with normal vision.
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Wilson's Plover
Don't ask me the color of the legs
There are several ways I cope with these limitations:
  1. Two's Company and so is Three: Birding and wildlife photography is almost always better in small groups.  Four eyes can see more than two, and if the person I bring with me is not color blind, he may see what I don't.  And I can always ask, are those legs pink or orange?
  2. Structure and Shape over Color:  I was a geology major in college, and I failed my first freshman rock-identification test because I couldn't tell pink feldspar from green feldspar.  Since I was a geology major, I realized this was a problem I had to solve, so I found a tutor that gave me other ways to identify rocks.  The same is true for identifying birds and other wildlife.  I try to use the shape, structure, behavior, habitat to help me identify birds more than color.  Wilson's Plovers have a larger, black bill than Piping Plovers, so I use this marker over leg color. In reality these markers are often more reliable anyway, since color appearances change with lighting conditions.
  3. RAW:  I try to set my white-balance for the weather conditions (cloudy, sunny, etc), but these conditions can change, especially on partly cloudy days.  With RAW files, though, I can choose these same settings in Lightroom.  I don't have to trust my eyes as much to correct white balance issues if I can get in the ball park by simply selecting the lighting conditions in my software.
  4. Saturation:  I prefer vibrant colors because they help me see.  But since my eyes aren't normal, I move my Vibrance slider in Lightroom to where I like it and then back off a little.  I use the Saturation sparingly.  I also try to look at my photos on a couple different monitors.  I know on occasion I over-saturate, and I won't take offense if you tell me. 
My geology tutor in college was an art major, geology minor.  We both were interested in art and geology, and she tried to convince me to switch my major from geology to art.  She didn't succeed, but she taught me something very important in the attempt.  I had told her that I wouldn't be a very good artist because of my colorblindness.  She had an excellent response that I've never forgotten.  She said that while I'm limited in the way I perceive reality, I'm less limited by reality;  perhaps my color blindness would actually provide me a unique perspective to bring to my art.

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Patapsco State Park
Alberton Rd Area
Photography, like all art, does not duplicate reality.  It distorts reality in innumerable ways.  It flattens reality into a two-dimensional space; it removes smells and changes textures irreparably. At wide apertures, we blur out backgrounds that may actually have a great deal of detail.   We reduce the color palate of the world to a mere 8 to 16 bits of color.  It's foolish to think that photographers represent wildlife the way it is. Instead, we present images that have a relationship to reality while remaining very distinct from it. It's important to be intentional about how we create our images from reality, but the extent to which we depart from reality is a function of artistic expression, not some obligation to duplicate what we see in pixels.

7 comments:

  1. Very interesting post...I've wondered what it would be like to be a colorblind birder, and this explains it pretty well. If it makes you feel any better, I too would change the name of Purple Gallinule to Blue Gallinule, and I've never noticed any glaring over-saturation in any of your shots. Keep up the quality work!

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  2. I agree with the first comment. Very interesting and informative post. Your work is amazing anyways.

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  3. I remember your former boss, telling me a story of when he immediately noticed a poisonous snake in the wood ready to strike his friend.  His friend didn't see the snake because it was camouflaged with its surroundings, but your color blind boss instantly recognized the different patterns on the snake.  The snake didn’t make it, but the friend did.  You see a reality that us “normal” people don’t see.

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  4. Awesome pics and great information.The post is being very informative and interesting as well. Thanks for sharing.

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  5. Must say awesome shots of the wildlife.Thanks for sharing.

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  6. Amazing pics! I am very fond of the wildlife and love of photography too,thanks for sharing the pics.

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  7. Great post! I love Advanced Digital Photography when it is related to clicking the pictures of nature. You shared a good information.
    Thanx!

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