The white VS blue debate is back! But why do we all keep seeing these colours so differently?

The famous question of ‘what colour is #thedress’ divided the nation in less than 24 hours, with a photograph some optometrists suggested was perhaps one in a million.

Well… perhaps not! With the latest photo of #thebag yet again dividing opinion about whether it’s white or blue, the real question this time is ‘why do we all keep seeing these colours so differently?’

Back in March 2015, Daniel Hardiman-McCartney from the College of Optometrists explained that the scientific reason people were seeing different colour dresses, was because the photo itself was a colour contrast illusion. The answer to why this illusion is formed, is all to do with the lighting in the photographs. ‘Colour constancy’ is our ability to perceive colours of items and objects, irrespective of the colour of the light source. For example, throughout the day your visual systems will continuously adjust to ensure you see a white piece of paper as white, regardless of changes in daylight or artificial lighting. When the photo of #thedress was taken, there was a rich yellow light shining onto it which caused shades of gold and orange to illuminate from the black and wash out the blue. Daniel Hardiman-McCartney explains “when viewing the image, our visual system has to decide on how much to discount the colour illuminance, due to the rich yellow light.”

The first photo of the bag posted by Taylor Corso (photographed below) in which many say #thebag appears white, is where the famous white or blue debate started again.


Interestingly, a second photograph of the bag was later posted in completely different lighting (below), in which the bag appears to be very clearly blue. Kate Spade, the American fashion design house behind the item, officially lists the bag as “Mystic Blue.”


Vision Express Learning and Development Manager and Optometrist, Neil Retallic says, “One of the interesting facts about our amazing human eye is its ability to adjust its perception of colour, depending on lighting conditions. Colour perception can start to change as you mature, or with certain eye conditions, which is why it’s so important to look after your eyes.”

Eighteen months ago when #thedress debate spread around the world, many people who had originally seen the dress as white and gold, were actually able to perceive it as black and blue, once they knew this was the true colour of the dress after it had been confirmed by the retailer. Although with the picture of #thedress colour was perceived by the light source, once our visual systems know a colour to be true, we can often see this regardless.

So there we have it, whether you see #thebag as white or blue, it’s certainly nothing to do with colour deficiency. When photographers say ‘it’s all about the lighting’ they really aren’t joking!

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