Is This Dress White And Gold Or Blue And Black? A Scientific Look.

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02.27.15 72 Comments
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By now, you’ve probably seen the dress that’s wrecking the internet. There are two camps: white and gold, and black and blue. Neither can understand the other. How did this happen? It’s one or the other, right?

Well, it is, and there’s a convincing answer to that which we’ll get to. But first, why is this even a dispute in the first place?

Why Are People Seeing Different Colors?

The short answer? It’s an accidental, and very neat, optical illusion. The perception of color is subjective; my red may be your blue. And that makes the brain’s color sense shockingly easy to throw off. For example, context matters in an image; we’ll see the same color as lighter or darker depending on what’s around it.

So, if you see the dress as blue first, you’ll see the lace as black. If you see the gold of the lace first, you’ll see the dress as white. So both sides are actually correct, as far as the colors they see in the photo. But what about the actual dress itself?

The Camera Never Lies… Except It Does

What about the arguments over the technical end of things? Surely, physics can help us! Well… maybe.

There are two arguments here, and it boils down to the actual lighting and how cameras work. If the dress was shot in sunlight, it’s white and gold. If it was shot in another kind of light, it’s blue and black. The problem for team blue and black is that the dress being shot in sunlight is much more likely.

Why? Take out your camera and turn off the white balance. Everything changed color, right? If you’re outdoors, everything suddenly took on a bluish tinge. That’s because all light has a “color temperature,” practically speaking from blue to red. Because of Rayleigh scattering, daylight is technically blue in a photo and has to be corrected with a white balance. Here’s a GIF demonstrating how a “white” object can be different colors with the same camera:

White_Balance_Snow

Canon

Notice that the “tungsten” setting, that is, the setting for standard light bulbs, makes white objects in daylight look blue. Smartphones aren’t good at getting a proper white balance, especially when there are two strong light sources of a different color temperature… like in a dress shop, near the window, with tungsten lighting in the background. So, the “blue” in the dress would actually be white to the naked eye. Another point for white-and-gold is that shades of yellow contain no blue, so if you put them under a blue light, they won’t reflect any of the blue wavelengths and will look black. That would help reinforce the optical illusion.

It’s true that if it were under some other light, it could be black and blue. That said, having spent far too much time screwing around with lights and cameras in my life, I’m not really sure what light source that could even be. It’s got to be dim enough that it can be overwhelmed by cheap retail lighting, yet bright enough to wash out a dark blue. Furthermore, turning black to yellow is pretty hard to do: The entire point of black is that it absorbs all wavelengths of light.

And even if there were, somehow, enough yellow in a black dye to reflect back to the eye, there’s another problem. Why doesn’t the dress look green and yellow, then? Blue objects under yellow light look green. There could be some sort of post processing effect on the image, but why does it only affect the dress, then?

I’m not ruling it out entirely. There could well be some unique combination of crappy camera, strange lighting, and Instagram filters that would also create this illusion. But the idea that it’s a white and gold dress in a dress shop window with a poor white balance is a lot more likely.

But… But Somebody Found The Dress On The Internet!

They did indeed! And it does come in black and blue! That would seem to settle the debate, except for one thing: We’ve got no guarantee the dress in the photo is the dress on the website, or for that matter, the dress in the photo is also that dress in the wedding photos.

Knock off dresses are fairly common, and it’s not unusual for a dress shop to have the knock-offs next to the original. The best we’ve got is a third-hand confirmation. Until somebody asks the woman who bought the dress, or goes to the dress shop themselves, we’re not going to know for sure.

So, to review: The photo itself is a neat optical illusion, that illustrates color and our perception of it is subjective. But, based on what we know about photography and color theory, the dress in that photo is likely white and gold.

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