Getting to Know your Color Spaces
The human eye is sensitive enough to register a single photon, but picking out that photon’s color can be a challenge; trying to recreate and render whole swaths of color in a photograph is even harder. To start, people don’t perceive the color spectrum in a uniform way. There’s an old thought experiment where a race of people are born with weird eyes that invert their color experience. They see the exact opposite of what normal people see: orange for blue, green for red, etc. Still, they’re able to go through life without a problem, and even talk to us, regular-eyed people about blue skies, green apples and red fire hydrants. That’s because our color experiences are private ones. The visual spectrum being what it is, there’s a lot of room for interpretation within concepts like ‘pink’, ‘orange’, or ‘cyan’. As the story goes, it would be pretty difficult to pick out these people from the rest of us, or even decide whether or not you yourself are one of these monsters.
Maybe there’s a touch of that going on as we segregate into camps of camera brand loyalty. Choosing between a Canon and a Nikon boils down to a choice between two different sensors or chips. A digital Camera’s chip takes the place of photosensitive film. In the case of a film camera, there is a chemical reaction that occurs when light hits the filmstrip. The chip in a digital camera triggers an electrical charge. Film interprets and records colors based on the wavelength of the light hitting the photosensitive cell. The digital chip is a discrete set of photosites (one per pixel). Color is interpreted and recorded from light that triggers a tiny electrical charge in each photosite.
Using different film, or using a different chip, is like having a particular set of eyes. Mechanically speaking, chips function in the same way. What the camera does with the electrical information just is how the colors are interpreted. This interpretation is proprietary in the way that our color experiences are private. There is a set of unique algorithms built into each chip that maps the electrical information from the photosites onto locations in color space (colors in the visual spectrum).
The Nikon mapping is different than the Canon mapping; they offer unique color spaces with some overlap and with some disjointedness. You might think of a color space or gamut as a kind of painter’s palate, but with millions of discrete colors. The visual spectrum is the largest color space, with the whole spectrum as its proper part. All other color spaces are proper subsets of the visual spectrum, some with more colors and some with less. Adobe RGB is a big color space with millions of colors. Within this space are familiar, smaller color spaces like CMYK or the Pantone gamut. Nikon and Canon’s respective chips have a gamut that’s within AdobeRGB, and contain smaller spaces like CMYK and other safe print gamuts.
For the most part, their color spaces overlap, but there are colors that are unique to both, and this is what makes the essential difference between being a Canon person or a Nikon person. Canon seems to have a wider range of colors (more latitude) in darker shades (what’s called the toe). Nikon generally has more latitude with lighter tones. Canon has a color gamut that incudes more dark blues, greys, and purples, where Nikon has a wider range of light greens, oranges, and light blues. This results in a less saturated, moodier look for Canon that does well to resemble certain film, and a more vibrant, true-to-life look in Nikon.
We see this born out in the lens kits available for each respective brand, as well as the photographers who use them. Nikon’s lens are usually crystal clear, sharp, and built to apprehend the environment without adulteration. While each different photograph demands This makes Nikon a choice brand for journalistic projects (see Lyndsey Addario) or photographing nature (see Jim Richardson). Canons lenses allow for more tints in any given lens. Studio photographers interested in light painting in a studio tend to favor the Canon setup for certain projects (see Timothy Saccenti).
Lighting, filters, context, subject matter, the final medium… all complicate matters, but at the bottom, this is what you’re making a choice between when it comes to digital SLRs: the color space your photograph will find itself in.