Wednesday, November 6, 2013

What difference does it make? (part 1)

I want to talk about the difference between two colors, but I need to lay some background first. This background is useful for understanding how we got ourselves into such a nice mess.

Albert Munsell, jealously guarding this cool little color toy
from two envious kids [1]

For the purposes of this blog post, I am going to say that Color Science (with capital letters) began with the work of Albert Munsell just after the turn of the last century. I call him the Father of Color Science, and I think I can get away with affixing that moniker to him because:

1. If he were alive today, he would be 155 years old, and there is still a book of his available: The Munsell Book of Color. The 2010 edition is available for the low, low cost of $994.75.

2. The Rochester Institute of Technology has a building named after him, "The Munsell Color Science Laboratory".

3. He has his own friggen' website: At 155 years old? Complete with a blog! Although I suspect that some of his more recent blog posts were by ghost writers.

I have blogged about the Munsell color space before, in a marvelous post entitled Organizing Your Crayons. That incredible blog post gave a superficial understanding of value, hue, and chroma. That task of organizing crayons was already a pretty cool thing to be known for. But I neglected one of the really big things that he did: perceptual linearity. The colors in Munsell space are organized so as to be equally spaced according to the eye. 

The world's most attractive color space supermodel,
clearly enjoying her experience with the Munsell Color Space

This was a monumental undertaking, and the undertaker was none other than Albert Munsell. Painstakingly, he mixed colors in all combinations, at each step trying to find mixtures exactly half way between two colors. His ultimate goal was to organize colors in a way that is visually uniform. The result was the best-selling book "Atlas of the Munsell Color System", first published in 1915.

Four pages from the Color Atlas

Our messed up perception

I'm gonna ponder a bit about our perception of difference. Imagine getting a raise from $10 per hour to $10.50 per hour. Not a bad raise, right? 5%? Compare that to getting "that same raise" -- of $0.50 per hour -- if you are making $50 per hour. That's only a 1% raise. The skinflints! This example shows that our perception of salary and money is not linear. We think in terms of percentage of change. A mathematician (or an engineer who remembered her math) would say that our perception of the size of a raise is logarithmic. 

Our perception of loudness is also logarithmic, so we measure sound pressure in a nonlinear scale, decibels. Each step of ten in decibels represents a factor of ten in energy. Each step of one decibel is about a 26% increase. Our perception of musical pitch is also logarithmic, so we "measure" pitch in a logarithmic scale that we call musical notation. Each key on the piano is roughly 5.9% higher in pitch than the one just to the left of it. (Want some more math about the frequency of notes on a piano?)

The brightness of stars and the intensity of earthquakes are also measured on a logarithmic scale. The general rule that all of our perceptions are logarithmic is known as the Weber-Fechner law. The law is named after Weber and Fechner, by the way.

The same law applies more or less to our perception of color. Let's say that we give someone a pile of little tiles with different shades of gray, and ask them to find the gray tile that is half way between pure black (0% reflectance) and pure white (100% reflectance). What would the reflectance of the mid-gray be? You would think that it might be pretty close to 50%, but not so. The preferred choice is somewhere around 20%.

Nonlinearity in the chromaticity diagram

Now I'm going to take back what I said about Munsell being the father of science. Lord Kelvin (AKA James Thompson) said this about science: "When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science."

Munsell provided us with a fancy book with lots of pretty colors. He gave us a three dimensional ordering system that allowed us to uniquely specify every color in the world. I guess you could say that his three attributes are the expression in numbers of color, but I could argue either way about whether he truly provided us with a way to measure color. 

The genesis of the color measurement work came in the late 1920's and early 1930's. W. D. Wright and J. Guild (whose first names are doomed to be lost in the annals of history) performed experiments to measure the spectral response of the human eye. The culmination of that work resulted in "the standard observer" functions that were standardized in 1931. Applying this standard to spectrometer data, we arrive at the beloved X, Y, and Z tristimulus values that define the color that the human eye sees.

This was all well and good, and everyone was justifiably excited. But when the champagne had gone flat and the helium balloons lost their buoyancy, they realized that the tristimulus values were just not intuitive. The numbers did not readily relate to our intuitive understanding of hue, value, and chroma. 

The diagram below shows one early attempt at relating these numbers to something intuitive. The x axis is the x tristimulus value, and the y axis is the y tristimulus value. The brightly colored overlay shows a rough mapping of these numbers into our perception of colors.

The chromaticity diagram, showing the MacAdam ellipses

Another deficiency of the chromaticity diagram is illustrated by the "MacAdam" ellipses on the chart in the above diagram. These ellipses represent the range of tristimulus values that we would perceive as being the same color [3]. Anything within those ellipses looks the same.

Munsell provided us with a color space that had this wonderful property of perceptual linearity. Beyond just being cool, this property is of practical importance. While it is important that we can say "if two objects have the same XYZ values, then they are the same color", it is even more important to be able to specify how close to the same XYZ values that they need to be in order for us to perceive them to be the same color. And even more important still is the idea of being able to quantify when a measured color is acceptably close to a target color.

Attempts to rectify the situation

The challenge was taken up by many researchers. The goal was basically this: to find a mathematical transform to convert XYZ tristimulus values into a color space that looked like the Munsell color space. Richard Hunter, in his book The Measurement of Appearance provides a handy summary of the work that went into this effort between 1931 and 1976. I recommend printing this image off and tacking it to the wall in your office. I am sure that you will find yourself frequently referring to it.

A family tree of color spaces
(Stolen with neither malice or remorse from Hunter's book)

As you will see, the culmination of this work came in 1976, with the standardization of the color space called L*a*b*. This is a natural point for Hunter to end his color tree, since this book was published in 1975. How he came to know that L*a*b* would become a standard the year after his book was published is a mystery to me. He must have had some inside information.

L*a*b*, AKA CIELAB [4], did a good job of capturing the essence of the layout of the Munsell color space. The L* value correlates moderately well with Munsell's "value" axis. The a* and b* values can be translated quite easily into analogs of Munsell's hue and chroma. A mathematician (or an engineer who remembered her math) would be immediately reminded here of the arctangent function. 

L*a*b* also came along with a reasonably simple way to express the difference between two colors. If you lay out two colors on a three dimensional grid, you can use a tape measure to determine the distance between two colors. A mathematician (or an engineer who remembered her math) would recognize the Pythagorean theorem in this. 

The L*a*b* values are scaled so that one step in any direction corresponds to a "just noticeable difference" in color. This step is referred to as a ΔE (read as delta E). Unfortunately, a ΔE does not do a great job at predicting color difference. For example, a step of 5.0 ΔE in the direction of making yellow a more saturated color is just barely noticeable. A step of 0.5 ΔE in any direction around a neutral gray is noticeable.

As another example of the disparity between ΔE and our actual perception of color difference, one brilliant researcher devoted an entire blog post to counting the number of discernible colors. An entire blog post! Can you imagine that?!?!? When counted in L*a*b* space, there were something over 2 million. But the real number is somewhere closer to only 346 thousand.

What was needed is a more accurate way of expressing color difference. That's the topic of the next part in this series.

[1] I need to be fair here. Albert Munsell was a brilliant man who devoted his life to understanding color, and to teaching kids about color. 

[2] At least that's the way they look on my monitor. Like most computer monitors, mine is not calibrated, so I can't really be sure what the ramps will look like on your monitor!

[3] Technically, the ellipses are drawn at ten times that threshold of just noticeable difference.

[4] These are the only correct names for this color space. They are routinely called Lab or CIELab or even LAB. These are all incorrect and naughty. Note that Hunter invented Lab, so it is just plain wrong to call CIELAB by this name. Wrong. 


  1. Can Issac Newton be Albert Step-brother and have a slice of the FofCS title? Please...

  2. What about J. C. Maxwell and his disk colorimeter
    J. C. Maxwell, "On the theory of compound colours of the spectrum", Phil Trans Royal Society, London, v150, pp 57-84, (1860).
    or even ....

    Thomas Young, "On the theory of light and colours", PHil Trans. Royal Soc., London, v92, pp. 12-48, (1802)

    H. Grassmann, "Zur Theorie de Farbenmischung", Poggendorf Ann. Phys. Chem., vol 89, pp 69-84, (1853).

    E. Herring, "Uber Newton's Gesetz der Farbenmischung", Jahrb. Naturwiss., v7, pp 177-208, (1887).

    Seems all of these color scientists predated Albert Munsell, who was an artist not a scientist.

  3. I agree... all of these are worthy candidates. Personally, I go with Munsell since his work was really the foundation of CIELAB.