The Story of Digital Color

Earlier this year, I did some work on digital color management for a project. During my readings for the project, I accumulated a lot of interesting articles that I thought I could share. The festive colors around inspired me to finally write about them (and also in case I need to refer them again :D). In this post, I have presented a collection of articles, papers, wikis, comics, podcasts …, that you may refer to find out more about the subject. Let’s then begin our story, starting from all the way back to how we see and perceive colors:

I. The background

Dispersion of light - Prism experiment.
The ‘splitting of white light into seven colors’ experiment. In reality, you see more of a continuous spectrum than the discrete seven colors shown above.

Before we get started on digital color, let’s refresh some  high-school science topics. It is kind of mind-boggling to think about it, but the concept of colors is something that you make up in your own head. Fundamentally they are electromagnetic radiation with frequencies in the visible range. Our eye’s retina is layered with mainly two types of photoreceptor cells: the rods (black-and-white vision) and the cones. The cones enable us to see color and are of three types: rho (more sensitive to longer wavelengths), gamma (medium) and beta (short). At this point I would like to introduce you to the applets designed by Prof. Mark Levoy. I’d strongly recommend you to play around with them, at least the ones on the Introduction to color theory page.

Radiation with different wavelengths (or frequencies) excite these color receptors in our eyes to varying levels which is then processed by the brain to give us a perception of seeing color. This phenomenon is known as metamerism or the tri-stimulus response in humans.  Such type of color reproduction is cheaper to process and is easier to control. IA similar technique is also exploited in building displays for our computer screens and mobile phones as well – the objects that we cherish the most and spend most of our time staring at. They also use three types of sources to produce all the colors on the display.

There may be differences in how we see the world by adding more types of color receptors. Most men have 3 types of cones (8% have even fewer types and are color-blind), while women can have up-to four due to genetic factors. This Oatmeal comic beautifully illustrates how the number of colors affects color vision in erm.. the Oatmeal way. As a bonus, you also get to find out about how Mantis Shrimp’s vision is powered by technology superior to humans. [1] All of this and the search for a tetra-chromat woman, can be found in this Radiolab podcast on colors.

Now that you understand that the beauty is indeed in the eye, let’s get a little further into the color theory and move on to our next topic.

II. Color Theory Basics

In the previous section, we learned that the illusion of color can be created by three primary colors. Based on this we have two types of color systems:

a) Additive: We add varying quantities of primaries to get other colors. If we are using R, G and B as our primaries: we can have R+G = yellow, R+B = magenta and B+G = cyan. This kind of color mixing is used in digital displays when we have individual sources for each primaries.

b) Subtractive: A paint or ink based medium would follow such a system. It is named so because of the fact that we perceive the color of object as the kind of light that it reflects back, while absorbing the rest of the colors. This can be imagined to be like subtracting color by reflecting it. An example of this system could have Cyan, Magenta and Yellow as the primaries. We also add black to increase contrast and for other practical concerns in the popular CMYK color format.

The other type of system that you may have heard about deals with Hue, Saturation and Value (HSV). These three dimensions are supposed to describe how we actually understand colors:

Representation of a HSV color system. Hue is depicted as an angle of of the circle, saturation along the radial line and value along the vertical axis through the center.
  1. Hue: name of the color – red, yellow, blue
  2. Saturation:  a color’s ‘strength’. A neutral gray would have 0% saturation while saturated, apple red would be 100%. Pink would be an example of something in between – an unsaturated red.
  3. Value: It deals with the intensity of light. You can kind of understand it as seeing colors in dark and bright light. You don’t see any color in very dim environments and also when it is blinding bright.

This color system is more suited for image processing and manipulation uses.

III. Color Spaces

Finally we have arrived at the computer science portion of our discussion. Since computer displays have to process and present all of these different types of colors, we must find a good way to represent them as well. Most color spaces have 3 to 4 components (or channels or dimensions). A complete digital image reproduction system would involve three phases: 1) acquiring the image (say using a camera), 2) transmitting it (saving it in an image format / using an A/V cable etc.) and finally 3) displaying it (on a screen, printing or projecting it). Some color formats are more suited for a particular phase in this system. These color spaces would be based on one of the color systems that we learned about in the section above.

The simplest of the color spaces would be a Gray color space. It only has a single channel with values varying from black to white. The common 3-channel color space families are:

RGB family: These are mainly used in displays and scanners. Members of this family included sRGB, Adobe RGB color formats etc. These formats are defined by international standards defined by various organizations.

YUV / YCbCr / YCC family: These are the most unintuitive types of color spaces. They were designed keeping in mind the transmission efficiency and for efficient storing.

Device Independent Colors: All the colors spaces that we have discussed till now may produced varied results on different output devices unless calibrated. Different devices have different ranges of colors that they can produce. [2] As a result they are called device dependent colors. To counter this, some clever folks at CIE developed imaginary color formats (although not useful for any making output devices [3] ) that specify color as perceived by a ‘standard’ human. Examples of these colors spaces include CIE XYZ, L*a*b and L*u*v.

The Apple developer article on color management is a good source to read more on this topic.

IV. Color Display: Techniques and Terminologies

Now that we have covered most of the basic stuff. Let’s talk about the other common terms in brief that you may have encountered about color reproduction.

  • Color Depth and Bits per pixel (BPP)
    These parameters define the number of bits used to define a single pixel’s color. If you are using 8 bit color, you will use 3 bits (or 8 levels) for R & G and 2 for B. This is assuming that your 3 channels are red, green and blue. Similary you can have other color depths like 16-bit and 24-bit (True color) which can represent 256 shades of red, green and blue. Modern displays support something known as deep color (up to 64-bit) with gamut comprising of a billion or more colors. Although our human eye can not distinguish between so many colors, we need this bigger gamuts for high dynamic range imaging. This also affects image perception by the humans as we do perceive red, green and blue in equal capacities. So even though we may be producing more colors on the screen, we may not have sufficient number of shades for the colors we are more sensitive to. Having a larger gamut takes care of all those shades to which our eyescan distinguish but need more information in order to be represented in the digital space.
  • Color Temperature
    Color temperature is derived from the color of radiation emitted by a black body when heated to a particular temperature. Hence, it is commonly specified in units of Kelvin. Our main interest here is adjusting the white point or the chromaticity of the color reproduced by equal red, green and blue components in an output device. This allows us to adjust the colors appear “warmer” or “cooler”.
  • Dynamic Range and Quantization
    You may have heard about the newer camera phones having an HDR mode. These phones are able to process a photograph so that it can have both clear shadows and also brighter regions in the frame. The dynamic range of the image is what they are referring to here. Dynamic range is the ratio of the brightest to the darkest light levels. These levels are quantized into several intensity levels in this range. An 8-bit device would have 256 such intensity levels.
  • Gamma
    We are able to better distinguish between colors intensities at lower levels.

    Our eye is sensitive to the various intensities of colors in a non-linear or power relationship. This allows us to see clearly both indoors (or at night) and outdoors in bright daylight. [4] This leads us to have something known as gamma correction in computer graphics.  You can map the linear levels of your images to a curve of your choice. This must be done according to the characteristics of the output device like the monitor. When you adjust the brightness, contrast or gamma settings on your display, you are essentially manipulating this curve. This GPU Gems article from the Nvidia’s Developer zone tells you more about Gamma that you need to know.  I think, I’ll probably stop here but this topic probably deserves more space than a short paragraph. There are a couple of excellent articles by Charles Poynton on this such as The Rehabilitation of Gamma and the Gamma FAQ.

  • Dithering
    Our eyes tends to smear adjacent pixel colors together. This phenomenon is exploited to simulated higher color depth images than what that could be supported by an output device or possible in an image format. You can see some examples of dithering here. In another type of dithering known as temporal dithering, colors are changed in consecutive frames to create a similar illusion.

V. The sRGB color format

Although now a bit dated, most of the consumer devices still use sRGB as the default color spaces. When you see sRGB content on compatible devices, you will enjoy the same colors. You can find out more about what goes into making a standard color space here: After reading about the fundamentals of digital color, I hope that you’d have a good understanding of how to read a specification like that.

This is a very short post considering the breadth of topics that it deals with. I have tried to highlight the human factors that influenced the development of color theory and technologies throughout this post. They sure were able to piqué my curiosity to find out more. I hope that you’d also like this collection of resources to read about color. I would be glad if you could point out any errors and typos here.

Image Credits: Munsell System. © 2007, Jacob Rus


  1. Update: Study reveals that Mantis shrimp uses color to communicate! ^
  2. More info here: ^
  3. Device independent colors are useful for studying the color theory. They are also used as intermediaries when converting between different colors spaces. ^
  4. This could be similar to other psychometric curves: ^

One thought on “The Story of Digital Color”

  1. A very good introductory article about colors. It will surely make readers curious about this field. As you have already written about Gamma, the entire topic deserves more space. Keep going and putting up such posts for the general public.

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