If you put a colorful image into photoshop or instagram and blur it, you’ll see a weird,
dark boundary between adjacent bright colors.
In the real world, out of focus colors blend smoothly, going from red to yellow to green
– not red to brown to green!
This color blending problem isn’t limited to digital photo blurring, either –\hpretty
much any time a computer blurs an image or tries to use transparent edges, you’ll see
the same hideous sludge.
There’s a very simple explanation for this ugliness –\hand a simple way to fix it.
It all starts with how we perceive brightness.
Human vision, like our hearing, works on a relative, roughly logarithmic scale: this
means that flipping from one light to two changes the percieved brightness a TON more
than going from a hundred and one to a hundred and two, despite adding the same physical
amount of light.
Our eyes and brains are simply better at detecting small differences in the absolute brightness
of dark scenes, and bad at detecting the same differences in bright scenes.
Computers and digital image sensors, on the other hand, detect brightness purely based
on the number of photons hitting a photodetector – so additional photons register the same
increase in brightness regardless of the surrounding scene.
When a digital image is stored, the computer records a brightness value for each colors
– red, green and blue – at each point of the image.
Typically, zero represents zero brightness and one represents 100 percent brightness.
So 0.5 is half as bright as 1, right?
This color might LOOK like it’s halfway between black and white, but that’s because
of our logarithmic vision – in terms of absolute physical brightness, it’s only
one fifth as many photons as white.
Even more crazy, an image value of 0.25 has just one twentieth the photons of white!
Digital imaging has a good reason for being designed in this darker-than-the-numbers-suggest
way: remember, human vision is better at detecting small differences in the brightness of dark
scenes, which software engineers took advantage of as a way of saving disk space in the early
days of digital imaging.
The trick is simple: when a digital camera captures an image, instead of storing the
brightness values it gives, store their square roots – this samples the gradations of dark
colors with more data points and bright colors with fewer data points, roughly imitating
the characteristics of human vision.
When you need to display the image on a monitor, just square the brightness back to present
the colors properly.
This is all well and good – until you decide to modify the image file.
Blurring, for example, is achieved by replacing each pixel with an average of the colors of
But depending on whether you take the average before or after the square-rooting gives different
And unfortunately, the vast majority of computer software does this incorrectly.
Like, if you want to blur a red and green boundary, you’d expect the middle to be
half red and half green.
And most computers attempt that by lazily averaging the brightness values of the image
FILE, forgetting that the actual brightness values were square-rooted by the camera for
better data storage!
So the average ends up being too dark, precisely because an average of two square roots is
always less than the square root of an average.
To correctly blend the red and green and avoid the ugly dark sludge, the computer SHOULD
have first squared each of the brightnesses to undo the camera’s square rooting, then
averaged them, and then squared-rooted it back – look how much nicer it is!!
Unfortunately, the vast majority of software, ranging from iOS to instagram to the standard
settings in Adobe Photoshop, takes the lazy, ugly, and wrong approach to image brightness.
And while there are advanced settings in photoshop and other professional graphics software that
let you use the mathematically and physically correct blending, shouldn’t beauty just