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Why do we see different colors in the same picture?

Have you ever looked at an image with a friend and realized you saw the colors differently? One person might describe an object as blue while the other insists it’s green. This phenomenon is more common than you might think. The same picture can appear to have very different colors to different people due to a variety of factors related to how our eyes and brains process color.

How the Eye Sees Color

To understand why people see different colors in the same image, we first need to understand how the eye perceives color in the first place. Visible light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum. It contains different wavelengths associated with different colors. When light hits an object, some wavelengths are absorbed while others are reflected. The reflected wavelengths determine the color we see.

The human eye contains two main types of photoreceptor cells that are responsible for detecting light: rods and cones. Rods allow us to see in low light conditions, but they cannot detect color. Cones are responsible for our ability to see color. There are three types of cones that each detect a different range of wavelengths corresponding to red, green, and blue light.

These cone cells send color information to the brain, which processes the signals to produce the colors we perceive. This complex process already provides room for variability between people in terms of how we each see color.

Individual Differences in Color Perception

There are several key factors that influence color perception and cause people to see different colors in the same image:

  • The number and distribution of cone photoreceptors – We each have a unique composition of the three types of cones. Some people have more red cones while others have more blue or green. The exact positioning of these cones also varies.
  • Genetic differences – Our genes impact the structure and function of photoreceptor cells. Genetics can cause color vision deficiencies but also more subtle differences in color perception.
  • Differences in visual cortexes – The visual cortex located in the brain plays an important role in processing color. Anatomical and functional differences in these areas across people influence color perception.
  • Age – As we age, the lens of the eye gradually yellows. This can affect the wavelengths of light that reach the retina, specifically impacting shorter blue wavelengths.
  • Gender – Research has found some differences between males and females in terms of color sensitivity and discrimination ability.

In summary, the structure and function of our visual system varies from one person to the next based on a range of genetic, biological, and environmental factors. This means that the way our eyes capture color and the way our brains process those signals is unique to each individual.

Color Constancy and Perceptual Biases

Our perception of color is also highly influenced by cognitive factors. Our brains don’t passively detect color but actively infer color based on context and prior knowledge. This helps provide color constancy – the ability to perceive consistent object color despite changing light conditions.

However, it can also introduce perceptual biases that make two people see different colors in the same image. These biases include:

  • Memory colors – We have existing memories and expectations for what color objects should be (ex. bananas are yellow). This can override the actual color we are seeing.
  • Surrounding colors – The colors surrounding an object impacts our color perception. This is called simultaneous contrast.
  • Lighting conditions – The type of lighting (fluorescent, LED, incandescent, etc.) can alter the wavelengths reflected from objects and the colors we see.
  • Optical illusions – Some patterns of color can trick our eyes due to the way our visual cortex processes information.

These cognitive and perceptual factors make color highly subjective. Two people can look at the exact same image but perceive the colors differently based on their unique visual system and how their brain interprets the color signals.

Practical Examples of Differing Color Perception

Some famous examples clearly demonstrate how the same picture can be interpreted with wildly different colors by different people:

  • The dress – A photograph of a dress went viral because some saw it as white and gold while others saw blue and black.
  • The tennis shoe – An image of a shoe divided the internet with some insisting it was pink and white while others saw gray and teal.
  • The couch – A picture of a couch had people arguing over whether it was blue and brown or purple and gold.

In all these cases, individuals were exposed to the exact same picture but had strongly differing color perceptions. The ambiguity of the lighting, patterns, and possible optical illusions in the images likely contributed to the variability in color interpretation.

Impacts on Art and Design

The fact that people see color differently has major implications for artists and designers. Color choice in art and media can convey very different meanings and emotions to different viewers. When painting a picture or designing a website, artists have to consider how color may be perceived across the population.

Digital designers also need to account for variability in color vision. When picking colors for apps, software, or infographics, they need to ensure critical elements have enough contrast and stand out regardless of small differences in color vision. Using color blind assistive tools helps test designs for accessibility.

Understanding individual differences in color perception is also important for color quality control. Companies that manufacture paint, fabric, cosmetics, and more need to have diverse panels evaluate colors before production. A color that appears vibrant to one person may look dull and muted to others.

Impacts in Medicine and Psychology

Considering how people see color differently is also vital in medical and psychology fields. Many visual diagnostic tests rely on color perception. A psychotherapist needs to be aware that describing the “blue” walls of their office may not match the client’s experience. The applications and interpretations of Rorschach inkblot tests depend heavily on color vision.

In ophthalmology and optometry clinics, tests for color blindness or deficiency must account for the diversity in normal color vision. Diagnosing pathologies requires understanding the range of normal perceptual differences first.

Color Perception is Subjective and Malleable

As we have seen, color perception is a highly complex process affected by the intricacies of our visual system and neural processing. The same image can be interpreted as having very different colors by two individuals. While this can cause disagreements like with the dress photo, it also gives us opportunities to understand perspectives other than our own.

We each have a unique vantage point when it comes to color. Our eyes and brains map the world of color based on our individual biological canvas. By considering how others may experience hues differently, we can grow in empathy, creativity, and understanding.

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

This table shows the wavelength ranges associated with different colors of visible light. Though we categorize color into distinct hues, there is actually a continuous spectrum of wavelengths that our eyes and brains divide into perceptual color categories.


The phenomenon of different color perceptions from the same image highlights the complex, subjective nature of human color vision. Small variations in our eyes and brains mean we each see the world through a unique lens. Appreciating individual diversity in color interpretation can foster creativity and understanding across disciplines like art, design, medicine, and psychology.