Skip to Content

How do we see color from reflection?

Color is a fundamental part of how we perceive and interact with the world around us. The varied colors we see all originate from light, but the exact mechanisms through which light produces color are complex. In this article, we will explore how we are able to see color from reflected light off of objects, looking at the physics and biology behind this phenomenon.

Vision begins when light hits an object and some wavelengths are absorbed while others are reflected. The reflected wavelengths reach our eyes and are focused onto the retina, where photoreceptor cells detect the light and send signals to the brain. But how do these wavelength differences get translated into the colors we perceive? Read on to learn more about the science behind seeing color through reflection.

Properties of Light

To understand how we see color, we must first explore some key properties of light itself. Light is a form of electromagnetic radiation that can be characterized by its wavelength or frequency. Wavelength refers to the distance between consecutive peak waves of radiation. Frequency describes the number of wave cycles that pass a fixed point per unit of time. The two properties are related – shorter wavelengths correspond to higher frequencies.

The wavelengths of visible light range from about 380 to 750 nanometers (nm). The spectrum of wavelengths we can see from longest to shortest is: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Each color has a corresponding wavelength range, as shown in this table:

Color Wavelength range (nm)
Red 620-750
Orange 590-620
Yellow 570-590
Green 495-570
Blue 450-495
Indigo 440-450
Violet 380-440

When all wavelengths of visible light are combined together, they produce white light. Objects appear colored because they absorb some wavelengths and reflect others selectively.

Light Interaction with Objects

What determines which wavelengths an object will absorb or reflect? It comes down to the atomic and molecular structure of the material that makes up the object. Elements, pigments, and dyes all absorb light energy at specific wavelengths. The absorbed colors are subtracted from white light, while the reflected colors combine to give the appearance of a certain color.

For example, a leaf appears green because it contains the pigment chlorophyll. Chlorophyll molecules strongly absorb reddish and bluish wavelengths, while reflecting back green. A red apple absorbs greens, blues, and indigos from white light – allowing red wavelengths to be reflected and produce its signature color. Absorption and reflection patterns vary across materials, giving rise to the diverse range of colors we observe.

The Eye and Light Detection

After light reflects off objects and enters our eyes, it passes through the cornea and lens which focus the light onto the retina. The retina contains light-detecting photoreceptor cells called rods and cones. Cones are specialized for color vision. There are three types of cones, each containing a different pigment that is most sensitive to certain wavelengths:

Cone type Peak sensitivity
S cones (short) 420 nm (blue)
M cones (medium) 534 nm (green)
L cones (long) 564 nm (red)

According to the trichromatic theory, these three cone types allow us to detect the entire spectrum of visible light. The cones contain photopigments that absorb light and undergo a chemical change, generating electrical signals. These signals get sent via the optic nerve to the brain for visual processing.

Brain Processing and Color Perception

Interestingly, the cones themselves don’t actually perceive color. They simply detect wavelengths and relay intensity signals about red, green, and blue to the brain. It’s the brain that handles the computations to translate signals from the cones into the colors we see. This process involves specialized neurons in the visual cortex called opponent neurons.

Opponent neurons receive input from one type of cone and inhibit response from another type. This opposing combination allows different colors to be sensed. There are three hypothesized opposition pathways:

  • Red vs. Green
  • Blue vs. Yellow
  • Black vs. White (light vs. dark)

By comparing signals from the different cones, the ratios and intensities detected are constructed into color perceptions. However, there are some limitations to this opponent process theory when it comes to explaining how we perceive millions of subtle variations in hue and brightness.

There are also higher-level factors and illusions that influence how we ultimately see color. Our brains incorporate contextual clues, memories, and even emotions when interpreting color. Despite decades of study on vision and color, neural processing of color remains a complex, intricate phenomenon.

Pigment and Dye Colors

Pigments and dyes also contribute to the range of colors we see in the world. Unlike gases, liquids, and solids that have intrinsic colors based on their molecular makeup, pigments and dyes selectively absorb wavelengths. Pigment particles act by reflecting only certain wavelengths and absorbing others. Common coloring agents like melanin, carotenoids, and flavonoids all absorb a portion of the visible spectrum.

Dyes contain colored substances that are soluble and can bind onto materials like cloth fibers. As light strikes the dyed surface, part of the spectrum gets absorbed so that only the color of the dye molecule gets reflected back. This produces the appearance of whatever color the dye emits. Mixing multiple dye colors together expands the color possibilities.

Structural Color

There are also instances of color produced through structural mechanisms rather than pigments. Structural color arises from microscopic structures that interfere with visible wavelengths to generate reflective color. Blue color in peacock feathers, for example, comes from intricate nanostructures rather than a blue pigment. Other examples include iridescent beetle shells and butterfly wings.

Specialized surface structures cause light waves to interfere and amplify specific wavelengths through diffraction and refraction. As the viewing angle changes, different colors are produced through this optical manipulation. Scientists are now working to replicate structural color for applications like sensors, reflectors, and chromatic paints and coatings.


Our ability to perceive color depends on complex physics, biology, and neurology. Light’s interactions with objects, absorption and reflection, photoreceptors in the eyes, and opponent processing in the brain all play a role. Understanding these mechanisms helps illustrate why we are able to see vibrant colors all around us. Additional coloring agents like pigments and dyes, along with structural color effects, further diversify the spectrum of colors visible to the human eye.

Color science remains an active area of research. New technologies for displays, VR/AR visuals, color-changing materials, and lighting effects make insights into color perception highly valuable across many fields. As we continue studying how vision and the brain enable color sensations, we can find new ways to enhance and manipulate color in our lives.