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.

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