Why night photos have color when we see black and white

Why night photos have color when we see black and white

Why do you see Milky Way and night photos with light paint that have vibrant colors? They’re fake, right? In short, no. Let’s see why!

The Milky Way doesn’t normally look that colorful to us. Why is that?

The color of the Milky Way

Most people in the world cannot see the Milky Way at night. When major urban areas have experienced widespread power outages, residents have called 911 to raise the alarm about these “strange clouds hovering over their heads.” There was nothing strange about the Milky Way. They just saw it for the first time.

When we can see the Milky Way, it mostly looks white to us. It turns out that “Milky Way” is a good name! In China it is called “Silver River”, another great name.

But it turns out that the Milky Way has colors other than white. There are parts that are more yellow or red, or even blue. Why can’t we see these?

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The color of nature

When you are in the darkness of nature, what color do the mountains and trees look to you? Probably black and white, with some shades of gray, unless the moon is unusually bright. And even then the colors are not very predominant.

Those colors are still there. But why can’t we see them?

Night photo, Nevada ghost town of Nelson
Night photo, Nelson ghost town of Nevada illuminates the camper with a white light from a portable LED light.

Revealing the color of a subject through light painting

Some night photographers add light during the exposure using a handheld light. This is a technique called light painting. Think of it like someone using a flash to brighten up a subject. The only difference is that a night shot will likely have a longer exposure, allowing someone to use an LED flashlight and illuminate a subject for much longer than a flash, sometimes as long as several minutes!

This can expose the color of the subject when using white light.

Night photo with light painting of vintage car.  Radiant photo by Radiant Imaging Labs.
Night photo with light painting of vintage car. I used blue light for the headlights.

Add color at night through light painting

We can even paint with colored light. I sometimes add color to the scene using a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device that can create any color in the RGB spectrum and provides control for brightness and saturation. I usually walk around and illuminate the foreground from multiple angles. All exposure is done in-camera at the time of exposure.

Photo by Perchek Industrie on Unsplash

Why can’t we see colors at night?

As we discovered, many night images are colorful. Some unfamiliar with night photography may find this odd, as this is not the way night usually appears before our eyes.

As the night darkens, our eyes become increasingly monochromatic. Our retina enlarges to let in more light. But while our cones function well in brighter light and see colors, our rods are monochromatic. However, our camera doesn’t have the same limitations as our eyes, so colors are captured much more vividly in low light.

Simply put, our low-light vision is not sensitive to color. The darker it gets, the less color we see.

However, our cameras are more sensitive to light. They have no such limitation, especially during a long exposure shot.

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We are not alone! Vasquez Rocks night photo. I used a flash for this photo. And it’s black and white. Not exactly the way we see the world.

The magic of photography

Photography freezes a moment in time… even if that moment is actually seconds or even minutes or hours in time.

And these fantastic images show us colors. Those colors are real. Just because we don’t have the sensitivity to see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

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Photographic images often do not represent the world as we experience it. After all, photos freeze water droplets from waterfalls in the sky. They enable us to see the day in black and white. They allow us to use a flash to illuminate what needs more light.

And they show us colors that our eyes can’t see at night.

How many other types of images can you think of that depict the world differently from how we experience it?

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Abandoned aircraft hangar. Nikon camera.

Interested in photographing the Milky Way?

If so, check out this great guide to photography gear in the Milky Way!