Photography: Black and White or in Living Colors

Does anyone remember a time before color photographs?

When photography began to flourish in the early 1900s, the camera produced only black and white images. However, a desire stirred inside many people, like physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who wrote about the first technique used to color photographs in 1855. Through his work, other photography enthusiasts were able to develop the capacity to capture life in living colors.

Maxwell predicted that it was possible to capture the essence of a photograph—the arrangement of color—in a time when only black and white photographs were produced. He wrote about color vision; a study to advance the concept that color identified by both human brains and machines is based on the wavelengths of light that reflect, emit, or transmit color signals. Maxwell found that a wide range of colors could be created by mixing only three pure colors of light: red, green, and blue. This manipulation of color had to be done in proportional amounts to stimulate the three types of cells the same way “real” colors did. In his writing, Maxwell used black and white photography as an analogy for his findings.

Maxwell’s Analogy:

If three black and white photographs were taken of the same setting through red, green, and blue filters, then made into transparencies (also known as negatives or slides), one could project light through these filters and superimpose them into a single image on a screen. The result would be an image that reproduced all of the colors seen in the original setting, not just red, green, and blue.

At this time, Isaac Newton’s work advancing the fact that all color is influenced by light, was common knowledge. In a similar fashion, Maxwell insisted that eyes see color on the surface of a perceived shade, where millions of intermingled cone cells represent only three colors. Red and blue sit at opposite ends of the spectrum with green planted as a middle region. They signal sensitivities (red) and stimulation (blue) that eyes receive when light shines through particular colors. The process of taking a set of three monochrome “color separations,” was also known as the triple projection method. Maxwell’s analogy was first tested by Thomas Sutton in 1861. However, the experiment did not work and the desire for photographs to represent living colors encouraged other enthusiasts to develop the art of color photography, which picked up steam again in 1890.

Color photography has been around for a little over one hundred years, and look at how far it has come. Flawless colors and mass production of images show how color photography has influenced enthusiasts and much of the world. This, however, is made possible because of the records kept during photograph exposure, like the triple exposure method which was outlined in Maxwell’s analogy. At the end of the appropriate exposure time, analyzing the spectrum of colors into three channels of information, red, green and blue, helped form a method to imitate the way a human eye senses color. The recorded information has been used to reproduce and enhance the original colors by mixing together aspects of the red, green, and blue lights and removing or adding elements of white light.

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