What It’s Like to be a Colorblind Photographer

I am colorblind. And I am a photographer. In my particular case, and in the majority of those that are “color challenged”, being colorblind doesn’t actually mean we cannot see colors. Or at least, without borrowing your eyes and brain for a while and comparing what we see, I don’t believe this to be the case.

Technically what it means is I have color vision deficiency, which means my eyes and brain interpret things differently to you “normal” people. I lack the ability to interpret the full spectrum of colors, and quite often get confused by shades of colors that are very close together.

My particular type of colorblindness has been diagnosed as “Strong Protan” and apparently I can only see anywhere from 5% to 10% of the shades that can be seen by those that have no form of color vision deficiency.

The easiest way for me to explain this is to compare it to not being taught the name of many shades of colors. I can easily depict sky blue when it is a solid color on its own. I can pick out shades of green that are very similar to grass when there is not a mish-mash of other greens (or yellows which technically greens are as I find out every time I try to saturate regions of images in Lightroom or Photoshop).

I can fairly easily pick out shades of yellow such as canary yellow or those that are similar to the sun. I know fire trucks are red. But here is where things get really confusing – mash a lot of those colors together into a scene, throw in variations and mixtures of those colors that produce different shades, add some cyan or magenta or pink (what colors are those anyway and why does the world need them?) and what we have is a whole mess of confusion that just doesn’t make sense to me.

Don’t even try to get me to tell you what colors are what in this image. All I know is that it is colorful and pretty. So that’s good enough for me

When I was in primary school my mother used to shave the ends off my pencils and write the names of the colors on all 12 of them. Then came along the Derwent Water Colour sets of pencils that had 256 individual pencils in them with the colors (or some made up color name) on the ends of them. Who on earth needs 256 individual colors and variations of shades in pencils when you are 7 years old? When yellow is no longer yellow the world just becomes a confusing place to me.

I can tell you now that all through school when there was any form of art class on, all I wanted to do is run outside and play basketball, cricket or anything else other than need to deal with colors! That may also be why the blackboards in the art class rooms were constantly covered with multi colored spit-balls…

So as a photographer I find it extremely challenging when it comes time to modify colors through the hue slider, color mix panels, and sometimes even just getting the white balance correct in an image. I have had occasions where apparently my skies become “candy colored” because I have over-saturated them and adjusted the hue and luminance sliders too far, or when darker parts of streams in my waterfall shots turn some form of green when they shouldn’t be.

I apparently also have a very distinct lack of pinks in images that I use anywhere on my social media feeds. My partner thinks the best parts of a sunset are the after glow when there is apparently a lot of pink in the sky. “What pink?” is my question just about every time she gets excited about this. It does my head in looking out at whatever she is looking at and just seeing a sky that is now devoid of any recognizable colors.

Ok, so is this pink enough for you? The colors in this image just don’t appeal to me at all and I don’t think I could have been less excited when I was shooting this scene.

I believe the best images I produce are waterfalls in forests. I also believe that the simplicity of the shades of greens (and yellows) in those types of scenes are a big part of the reason why I seem to produce these types of images well. There are no blues, reds, oranges, pinks, purples and whatever made up color names you non-color retarded people want to throw into the mix to confuse my simple brain. Just simple greens with a good mix of yellow, nice white water and hopefully some awesome yellow rays of light that to add a nice touch to them. I can easily handle that. I don’t need to ask anyone if the colors are correct.

On top of being a photographer, I also do quite a lot of web development. And this can be quite interesting when it comes time to present initial designs to clients. The great thing about a web browser is that colors are interpreted via hex codes! When I can attribute 6 characters with a mix of numbers and letters to any specific shade of color, I can guarantee getting it right every time. So more often as not when I am using Photoshop, rather than looking at the color palette tools and picking some sort of burnt orange rather than the yellow I was hoping to pick, I try to use hex codes whenever I can.

Now this is my type of scene! The simplicity of the colors and shades in this makes it easier for me to process. I am always drawn towards this type of landscape image and I believe being color blind definitely has something to do with it.

So why don’t you just shoot in black and white, you may ask? Well good black and white images are not just color images that have been desaturated or turned into monochrome in your editing suite of choice. Good black-and-white images are just as hard to produce as good color images as the reliance on such a limited set of shades in your images is a skill set of its own. And, where would the fun be in only trying to produce images with a lack of color?

Apparently the world is a very colorful place, so that’s what I still like to achieve in the images I produce. Sometimes it just takes me a little longer to achieve that than others. And when I get an image with heaps of color variations such as a crazy colorful sunset or sunrise right and it does really well on social media, it almost feels like a little mini-achievement that I should celebrate.

We all have our challenges in life and there are far worse things that could impact on people than not seeing as many colors as other people. I have never seen it as a handicap. I am still not convinced that you are not the one who has an issue with whatever we are all seeing. Myself and the other 8% of adults who apparently have some form of color vision deficiency may be the ones that see the world the way it really is. Or at least, that’s what we “8%-ers” will all keep telling ourselves the next time we tell you some form of purple shade is actually really blue.


About the author: Jason Futrill is a photographer based in Tasmania, Australia, who specializes in aerial photography and long exposure landscapes. He’s one half the Project RAWcast podcast team. You can find more of his work on his website, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

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