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Is that the Real Color?

Updated: Dec 17, 2023

The intense and unexpected colors in the Escalante Canyons are often due to the nature of reflected light. This photo is one of the many photographs in my E-book on the Escalante Canyons here.

Colorful wall of sandstone in a remote canyon near the Escalante River. Click here to go to its location in a gallery. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

Q1. Is that the actual color?

A1. The color is as it appeared in person.

This photo was taken in winter. The sun had dropped behind a high canyon wall to the left, throwing this wall into shade. The intense cobalt hue results from a deep blue, high-altitude (5,000') sky being reflected from the wall's dark, glassy mineral coating (desert varnish). The blue color captured by the camera was even more intense; I had to reduce its saturation in Photoshop to match better what I saw in person.

In the image from the camera, there is also a strong red color cast — the result of indirect light bouncing off the red sandstone walls on the opposite side of the canyon. The red color was, in fact, there, but I didn't notice it. No one would have noticed it in person. Human perception of color tends to disregard the color of the illuminant, but the red cast was quite noticeable and "unrealistic" on the computer screen.

In Photoshop, I removed much of the red color cast to match what I perceived in person.

So, yes, this is the color you would see if you were looking at this wall in the afternoon of a cloudless winter day.

Q2. Does it matter?

A2. It mattered to me.

While photographing this wall, I was working on a book to show a visitor what these remarkably colorful canyons looked like in person. I aimed to increase public awareness of the relatively new National Monument. It was important that the reader trusted the color in my photographs and would not feel duped or disappointed when they saw the place in person.

I am not bothered by unrealistic colors in a photograph as long as there is a valid artistic reason. However, I like to be made aware that colors have been altered in a scene that is presented as accurate.

But that's a discussion for another time.



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