The Photographer’s Guide to Color Blindness

Fall Aspens Cowboy | Beebower Productions

Dad made it 16 years before he realized he was colorblind.  He might never have known had he not tried to enlist as a mechanic in the Air Force right after high school graduation.  

He passed a battery of mechanical tests with flying colors, but failed the visual test.  He couldn’t distinguish between the colors red and green when they appeared together.  Separately he knew each color, but when they appeared together he couldn’t say for sure which one was red and which one was green.  They both appeared grayish with splotches of red and green here and there.    Apparently the Air Force thought this could be a major problem when working with airplane wires.  They rejected Dad.

What Is Color Blindness?

Color blindness affects about 8% of males and roughly .4% of females.  According to the University of Arizona’s Department of Ophthalmology website, the human eye is amazing because it can see a million colors.  (No kidding!)  People with color blindness can see many of those colors but not all colors are distinguishable to their brains because they are lacking enough pigments in their eyes.  

The retina of your eye contains cones that hold three pigments:  red, green and blue.  The brain receives information from these pigments that it translates into color perception for you. When enough of these pigments are missing, you fail to see certain colors like red and green.

Color blindness can be inherited with the mother passing the gene on to her son.  This type of color blindness usually affects both eyes and doesn’t worsen over time.  However, color blindness also can be caused by damage to the optic nerve or retina.  This type does tend to worsen over time.  But complete absence of color perception is very rare.  In any of these cases there is no cure for color blindness.

We’ve all been to the eye doctor where he asks you to read the colored numbers that appear in the colored circle.  Your doctor is using the Ishihara Color Test developed by Dr. Shinobu Ishihara in Japan in 1917.  Your ability to read the numbers correctly tells the doctor you’re seeing all the colors you should.

This is where, no matter how hard he tried, Dad couldn’t read the number in the circle.  He could see a few red and green dots, but most of it appeared gray.  He had no idea what the number was supposed to be.  

Broad-Billed Hummingbird at Yellowbell Bloom | Beebower Productions

What About A Career?

Dad’s type of partial color blindness is most typical.   The good news is that most people with partial color blindness have no trouble functioning in the world—unless, of course, they want to work for the Air Force.

However, you might be surprised at Dad’s next career choice—photography.  Yes, color photography.  He had a few detours before arriving at photography, but eventually Dad earned a Bachelor of Fine Art Photography from Rochester Institute of Technology in New York state.  So how did a partially colorblind guy navigate through the challenges of color photography?

Dad, despite what the Air Force said, never saw his partial colorblindness as a problem.  He developed a strategy to make sure the color in his negatives and prints was spot on.  (This was waaayy before digital photography.)  He made a lot of friends.

Because Dad had other photographers as friends, he would just ask one of them to evaluate the red and green colors in his print.  Based on their feedback, he’d make adjustments until the colors were correct.

It worked.  Dad graduated and opened acommercial advertising photography studio in Dallas, Texas with his brother Gordon, also a RIT graduate.  And, surprise, Uncle Gordon also has the same partial colorblindness when it comes to red and green!  

Buggy in the Rain | Beebower Productions

The Color System

What to do?  In the days of film, the guys had several strategies to ensure accurate color reproduction in their photos. They learned to light product shots in a way that avoided casting a green or red tint.  They also included a gray card in every shot.  Both guys knew what gray should look like, so the gray card gave them a good starting point in calibrating color on the set.  You might even say the colorblindness actually pushed the guys to become better photographers when it came to technical mastery of light and color.

In addition to these techniques, the guys also asked trusted folks like assistants and photo retouchers to evaluate the color if they were in doubt.

WhenPhotoshop hit the market in the early 1990s, Dad received a gift.  Look under the “Color and Tone” menu and select “Info”.  Photoshop actually tells you the percentage of each color in the photo!  You simply move the eyedropper around the photo and up pop the numbers.   All Dad had to do was learn what “normal” red and green percentages were and apply them to his photo.  He also knew the correct percentages for skin tones too.

The combination of strobe lights, a gray card and Photoshop have made the challenges of partial colorblindness no obstacle for the determined photographer.  The proof?  Dad and Uncle Gordon delivered quality, color-correct photos to satisfied advertising agencies for 35 years.  

As Dad said, “I never thought this was going to be a problem in my life.  I just moved forward with what I wanted to do.”

Have you had to compensate for something in your photographic process?  Are you colorblind?  How have you learned to overcome it?  Leave a comment and share your story.

When Did Photoshop Become a Dirty Word?

Sedona Stage | Beebower Productions

Last fall Dad and I traveled to our first art festivals to sell his photos.  We met lots of great folks in the process.  But without fail at each festival we were shocked by how many people asked Dad if he used Photoshop to create his images.  The tone of their voices gave away their thoughts.  Photoshop was bad.  It made you less of a photographer.  That led us to ponder, “When did Photoshop become a dirty word?”

For those not familiar with Adobe Photoshop, it’s a top-notch image editing software program that professional photographers use to do everything from processing a digital image to enhancing color to merging two images.  Photoshop is chock full of wonderful tools that replace and expand what we used to do in the darkroom.

Back in the dark ages there was a limit to what you could correct in the darkroom.  You could darken or lighten an image.  You could burn down overly-bright elements or dodge to lighten up dark elements.  Basic stuff.  Honestly it was easier to learn to shoot it correctly than to fix it in the darkroom.

And if you wanted to get rid of dust specs all over your prints or airbrush a model, you hired a professional retoucher and paid a wad of money to let them clean up the details.  But retouching was common practice even back then.  So when Photoshop hit the markets in 1990 it quickly became a sensation.

A Brief History of Photoshop

Thomas Knoll, a PhD student at the University of Michigan, designed the program to edit gray scale images.  Luckily for us, Thomas’s brother John worked at George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic.  Being a visual guy, the program immediately caught John’s eye.  He collaborated with his brother and then pitched it to Adobe.  And the rest, they say, is history.

Photographers everywhere took crash courses to learn Photoshop when it first came out.  I just happened to be studying photojournalism at Mizzou in the early 90’s and took a class.  I even taught Dad how to use it.  He, however, far exceeded his teacher in short order.

We photographers love the freedom Photoshop gives us to enhance the color, sharpen the image, and fix mistakes.  It is great!  The photographer, if skilled enough, becomes his own retoucher.

Photoshop also allows photographers to create whatever they dream up.  For example, Dad merged two different photos, one shot near Sedona, AZ and the other shot at a ranch in southern Arizona, to create the old West image “Sedona Stage”.

And that’s where photographers started getting in trouble.  I think the bad rap Photoshop has received stems from a lack of understanding on the public’s part about thee different types of photography.

Art Photography

With art photography the photographer illustrates his vision using the camera and postproduction work in Photoshop.  The art photographer uses tools like brushes and layers in Photoshop to create the envisioned image just as a painter uses different brushes and different types of paint to create his envisioned painting.  The painter can alter the scene to fit his vision just as the art photographer can.

Commercial Photography

The commercial advertising photographer creates photos that sell products or services.  Like the art photographer, the commercial photographer has a vision (most likely supplied by the art director from the ad agency).  The photographer strives to fulfill that vision and, again, uses Photoshop to alter and shape images.

Photojournalism

Finally we have photojournalism.  A photojournalist documents news events through pictures.  People expect photos in a newspaper, a magazine or on TV to represent what really happened.  It’s a cardinal sin to use Photoshop to switch heads on people, remove key elements of the photo or add stuff to the photo.

I worked as a photojournalist.  My use of Photoshop was limited to color correction, sharpening the image and touch ups like removing a dust spot.  My Dad, on the other hand, is an art photographer and he used to be a commercial advertising photographer.  He does all sorts of amazing things in Photoshop that I don’t have a clue how to pull off.

Over the years since Photoshop was released, there have been many news stories that excoriate photojournalists who’ve altered the images.  Rightly so.  But many people have carried over the disdain for Photoshop to art and commercial photographers.  Not so right.

Purist vs Artist

I think of those “down with Photoshop” folks as photography purists.  They believe it’s wrong to alter a photo in any way. Even tweaking the color is a problem for them no matter what type of photography they’re viewing.  In the purist’s minds, Photoshop usage indicates a poor photographer.  In my mind (and Dad’s as well), artists use Photoshop to create amazing photos.

Photoshop doesn’t take anything away from the abilities of the photographer.   In fact, it requires more skill on the photographer’s part.  I’ve seen some horrible photos that were clearly “Photoshopped” by an amateur.

 

2 Key Points About Photoshop
  • If you don’t have a great photo to start with, no amount of fiddling in Photoshop will make it good.  So you’ve got to be a good photographer from the get-go.  
  • You really do need great ability to successfully blend two images without leaving clues you did just that.  Using Photoshop is a professional skill that is achieved by investing a great deal of time in learning and practicing your craft.  

Adobe House | Beebower Productions

Dad does not hide his use of Photoshop.  You can ask him how he created any of his images and he’ll tell you.  It’s not a deep, dark or dirty secret.

Take, for example, his photo “Adobe House”.  Dad started with three different photos:  the adobe house, the background rocks with the sunset, and the rocks in front of the house.  He utilized layers and masks and all sorts of other Photoshop goodies to create one great composite photo.

The Great Gallery | Beebower Productions

Dad’s ninja-like Photoshop skills allow him to create other things that would normally require special photographic equipment like a panoramic camera.  A couple years ago he photographed “The Great Gallery”in Canyonlands National Park.  The panel stretches at least 200 feet wide.  

Even with a very wide-angle lens, he couldn’t shoot the whole panel and he’d also risk image distortion.  Instead, Dad used his Canon 70-200mm lens to shoot chunks of the panel.  Then he stitched the chunks into a seamless picture.  Photoshop saved the day.

For an honest photographer who is skilled in his craft Photoshop isn’t a dirty word.   It’s one of many tools available to an artist just like light and composition help make a great photo.  Now we just have to convince the public of that truth.

Big Bass Blunder

Big Bass | Beebower Productions

We rarely talk about that day.  It’s too awkward.  It was the day I sent my husband on a low-key photo shoot with my Dad.  I blissfully thought it would be a great chance for them to bond since we hadn’t been married that long.  I never dreamed Dad would go into, well, “work mode” while Jonathan was with him.  I had not prepared Jonathan for “work mode.”

Dad needed a background for his giant, jumping bass photo (more about the bass later).  His scouting expeditions led him to Lake Ray Roberts north of Denton, Texas.  He also needed some muscle to get the canoe to the exact spot on the lake in time to catch the best light.  Enter Jonathan.  

Jonathan and I stopped at my parents’ house during one of our many Army moves.  When Dad asked if we wanted to tag along on the photo shoot, we said, “Sure.”  When Dad asked Jonathan to hop in the canoe with him, Jonathan said, “Sure.”  Upon their return to the shore, Jonathan said, “Never Again!”  It was clear something terrible had happened and neither one was talking.  (I had stayed behind on the shore because there wasn’t room in the canoe once the camera gear was loaded.)  

But later that night I finally got the truth.  Dad had treated Jonathan like one of his photo assistants.  “What’s so bad about that?” you might be wondering.  Well the photo community in Dallas didn’t nickname Dad and Uncle Gordon “The Killer Bees” for nothing.  They were tough on assistants, but at least the assistants got paid.  Jonathan was doing this for free.  He thought it would be a nice canoe ride where Dad snapped a few pictures and they paddled back.  Wrong.

To be Dad or Uncle Gordon’s assistant you had to be a mind reader like Carnac the Magnificent, have the strength of Sampson and the endurance of “24’s” Jack Bauer on a really bad day.  Believe me, I know.  I served as their side-kick on many a shoot and quickly decided a photojournalism degree looked very alluring, mainly because no one had assistants in that world.

So back to the lake.  Apparently Dad went into “work mode” on an unsuspecting son-in-law.  “Paddle faster.”  “The light is almost right.  Hurry up.”  “Stop.”  He barked out commands left and right.  You get the drift.  

Now my husband is a career Army officer, used to taking and giving orders, but I don’t think he anticipated the gruff, demanding photographer that emerged once they were on scene.  Plus he didn’t know his father-in-law all that well at this point.  Family dynamics can be so tricky.

Getting to the location wasn’t much fun.  And once there Jonathan got bored.  He skipped rocks. He pondered the meaning of life.  He wondered how long this canoe trip would last.

Meanwhile Dad was waiting for the light to be just right.  And he was taking shots from multiple angles.  And…who knows what else he was doing.  Those who have been on location with a photographer know it can be a long process.  The photographer is completely absorbed in capturing his shot.  The other person isn’t.  It’s kind of boring.  I know.  I’ve been there.

Finally the job was done.   He’d gotten his picture.  The Dad on the way back was much more relaxed than the Dad on the way out.  Nevertheless, Jonathan vowed he’d never be in that position again.  Dad was blissfully ignorant.  

Many years have passed since the fish incident and there has been a healthy dose of female intervention.  Dad has received coaching from Mom about appropriate father-in-law behavior.  Jonathan has heard plenty of photo assistant horror stories from me, and now he knows he wasn’t alone in his experience.  

The two have gotten to know each other much better over the last 12 years (I’m thinking the two-day “24” marathon at the cabin in the mountains probably helped).  They’ve even gone out shooting together—as two guys trying to get a photo, not a photographer and his assistant.  And about two years ago, Jonathan even suggested we go into business with Dad after he closed the commercial photo studio.  

The moral of the story:  Ladies don’t leave the two most important men in your life alone, especially in a work situation and especially early in their relationship.  The whole incident may end up in a blog on the Internet.

And Now, The Rest of the Fish Story

Dad had his background for the big bass.  The really tricky part was creating the big bass itself.  The whole project originally started as a commercial advertising shoot.  Dad needed a very special big bass that could launch out of the water on cue.  He found a taxidermist who could make a fiberglass fish that looked so real no one would believe it was a fake. 

To figure out how to best launch the bass, Dad consulted with a movie special-effects guy.  He suggested adding an arm to the fish that was connected to a two-way air cylinder.  The taxidermist again came to the rescue and attached the arm.  Dad was set to test the bass.

Launching the fish took many practice sessions and tweaking.  The water droplets needed to fall off the fish just so and the lure had to be spot on.  All of that depended on the pressure in the air cylinder and timing.  Finally everything came together.   Two thousand pounds of pressure propelled the fish out of the water perfectly.  

About that time, the commercial client canceled the shoot. Dad had already poured a good deal of money into the project and decided it shouldn’t go to waste.  He would use the picture for his stock photography collection.  

With the background and the bass action shots in the bag, all Dad had to do was merge the two images in Photoshop to create an amazing photo.  The two images blended seamlessly together.  It took some time, but Dad and Jonathan also forged a good relationship despite a rocky start. Although I have to say, I’ve never seen the two of them canoeing together since that fateful day.

Have you ever been a photo assistant?  Have you ever sent your spouse on an ill-fated mission with one of your parents?  Share your comments below.  C’mon, I know I’m not alone here.

Get Great Beebower Photos & More!

Receive our Photo of the Month Newsletter with tips, techniques, and more fun stories!
Plus be the first to know about events and special promotions!

You have Successfully Subscribed!