The white balance of your eyes...


People have been thinking about how we perceive the world since the dawn of time. You can go all the way to ancient philosophy, with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, for example, where Plato wonders whether if you never saw the ‘real’ world, whether you would know. Or, indeed, even care.

The senses are curious, because how would you know whether you see the world the same as somebody else? To me, for example, the rainbow never really made much sense: Sure, it looks the way I have always seen it, but that doesn’t mean it makes any sort of logical sense. How do I know, for example, that what I think of as ‘red’ isn’t what the rest of the population sees as ‘blue’. Of course, I’ve been pointing at colours and naming them since I was barely able to talk, so it’s pretty well-ingrained that ‘red’ is ‘red’, and that ‘orange’ is ‘orange’… But what if they aren’t?  

Deep philosophy about the very core of colour theory aside, I know for a fact that I don’t see the world the same as other people. Specifically, I know that what I see isn’t the real truth, because both of my eyes are giving me a different impression. Yes, really.

Two eyes, two realities

I noticed many years ago that my eyes are subtly different from each other: My left eye has a ‘colder’ colour balance than my right eye. I’ve spent a bit of time experimenting, and it appears that there is about an 800 kelvin difference between the two. That means that if I look at the left photo with my left eye, and the right photo with my right eye, these two look identical:

It’s been a bit of a curiosity for me for a while, and a while ago, I tweeted about it. As a result, I got a pretty big response, with the vast majority of responders saying something along the lines of “omg, me too!”.

That got me to thinking… Seeing as both my eyes are different from each other, there’s a 100% chance that one of them is ‘incorrect’. On the other hand, there’s nearly as big a chance that both my eyes are ‘incorrect’. Of course, white balance can be measured objectively, but ultimately, as photographers, we make a subjective judgement call on how we want to white balance our photos.

How can you test it?

Honestly, I have no idea how you can test it scientifically – but I find it’s most noticeable when I’m indoors, in medium-to-low light (presumably because my pupils will be bigger, but I have no physiological explanation for why this might be the case). Hold a hand in front of one eye, then move it to the other. You’ll see the picture ‘jump’ slightly to the side, but if your eyes differ from each other, you’ll also see the colour temperature change slightly.

So what does that mean to me as a photographer?

Nothing, I think. There are ways you can correct for your colour vision, apparently (you can wear slightly tinted glasses or contacts, for example), but ultimately it makes very little difference: Your eyes are absolutely incredible at capturing light, and your brain can handle colour balancing perfectly fine most of the time. In fact, your eyes / brain combination is vastly superior in this respect than a camera / computer combo.

I just think of it as a curiosity, and secretly, somewhere deep inside, I’m quite pleased that nobody in the whole world sees their surroundings exactly identically to what I do.

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