modern adventures in scale model photography

In the first post, we looked at how we see and might perceive colour, and what it means to us as modellers and photographers of scale models striving to replicate colour as accurately as possible.

In this second post we’ll expand the discussion about how we see colour to look at how we think we can remember a specific colour and how this often falls short of our expectations and can lead to confusion.

Fade to grey: Applying post shade effects to a sea-going Beau alters the mid grey value.

Although most people can distinguish between millions of viewed colours, (there are currently 17.5 million combinations of digital pixel screen colour) we have trouble remembering specific tones and shades. Let's unpack this and see how it influences our hobby, the colour choices we make and some historical aspects.

Before we go on, lets remind ourselves of some universal terms:

Colour terms:

  • Hue is pure colour: red, blue etc.

  • Tint is adding white to a hue

  • Tone is adding grey to a hue (grey is equal parts of white and black)

  • Shade is adding only black to a hue.

So yeah, we all think we can remember colour and can recall what it looks like accurately, but can we really?

Let's use a popular colour such as the German RLM Farbton 04 as an example of a colour most modellers have come across and one which we believe we could reliably remember if asked to pick it out from a swatch of yellow variants. . .

As sure as eggs is eggs. . .

Does your 'recalled' version of the colour look like this?

To my eyes (I have a colour vision defect) it looks a little too gold, too vibrant, and too saturated like a good egg yolk, yet it is a properly calibrated display screen value.

My initial reaction is that this is an overly saturated value, and my idea of 04 which is based on period colour images is a much less saturated value.

But what if these reference points I'm thinking of have been subjected to erosion, fading and atmospheric pollution? Or are poor exposures? Or maybe my internal idea of 04 is coloured (pardon the pun) by seeing the 'real' colour on various models and real-life preserved warbirds?

What I'm trying to say is that we are exposed to a range of visual and memory recall variants of this colour, and if these are all based on someone else's information or a collection of varied data (no one agrees on Luftwaffe colours!), then the colour will over time become changed. It's basically a form of bias - based on the opinion of so-called experts, perpetuation of erroneous, even false or misleading examples being held up as the origin by popular opinion and continual reuse.

Take this a stage further - we usually (ok some of us do!) don't slavishly question, check and cross reference every colour we use as modellers every time we use it, so this bias based perception sticks in our memory. That said, is this 'variable colour value thing' such a bad thing? I mean if we are happy with how it looks in relation to the other colour on the model than what's the problem?

Weird science - "Where were you on the afternoon of the 15th September 1940?"

Researchers dispute standard assumptions about memory, suggesting that people’s memory for colours are biased in favour of 'best' versions of basic colours over the colours they actually see. For example, there’s azure, navy, cobalt and ultramarine; all strong apparently easily recalled versions of blue. The human brain is sensitive to the differences between these hues—we can tell them apart when they are in front of our eyes. But when we store them in our memory we label all of these various colours as 'blue'.

To make this task of recalling colour values harder, there is a difference in the memorability of certain colours and this is actually the result of the brain’s tendency to categorise colour. We remember colours more accurately when the colours are good examples of their respective categories.

We can differentiate millions of colours, but to store this information, our brain has a trick to tag the colour with a coarse label. When faced with a multitude of ‘somethings’, people tend to remember them later as being more prototypical. So that Gelb 04 is maybe a primary 'course' yellow in my memory and not that golden yellow/orange value. It’s not that the brain 'doesn’t have enough space' to remember the millions of options, it’s that the brain tries to reconcile those precise details with more limited, language-driven categories.

"It's not as blue as I remember"

Here's another example (and apologies for yet another Luftwaffe colour) Farbton (colour) 65. It's a perennial favourite and is an ideal example of how memory and personal exposure to a variety of sources influence the 'memory' and what I think this colour should look like now.

I have to go back to childhood and the seminal film 'The Battle of Britain' for the earliest examples of Hellblau 65. The enduring mental image is of bright pale blue Bf109s in a summer sky. This memory colour was perpetuated by the application of some home brew mixed 65 being applied to the Christmas present Airfix 1/24th scale Superkit by my dad with a Humbrol airbrush. Spin forwards a few years and that similar 'bright' tint of blue appeared again in some 1980s issues of Scale Models when they ran a series on the Battle of Britain anniversary. Of course the magazine colour is an added variant and the spot value of the ink will be different to any screen colour too, but there are lot's of other key colour memory moments. Regardless, that initial idea of what 65 looks like is fixed in my head I have a very clear idea of what a JG26 Bf109 circa 1940 should look like.

What's worse is that in my modern, more informed modelling practice of today, non of the colour values from the carefully researched sources below come remotely close to that memory of light blue 65. They're all too dark, too grey and even green to my slightly wonky colour vision.

Perhaps the Ries value, (which coincides with the 60's era of the movie) is tonally closest, but it's nowhere near my mental idea of that blue or the screen shot rendition below.

This is where we come back part one of this series on colour and remind ourselves that that the adjacent and surrounding colours have an impact on how we view the 65 colour. Of course in this case there is the added confusion of atmospheric light which with an increase in altitude, shifts everything towards the blue end of the spectrum, and colour film stock of the 1960s was prone to ultra-violet light colour shifts. Added complexities when working out colour values.

So my memory perception and altered points of real references are, in all probability, wrong.

This is upsetting as my memory says they are bright pale blue shark-like machines not some grey/green dull thing.

But what about conflicting visual information? Like this period image which supports my memory of pale blue values (although its not as blue as i'd like)?

Notice the yellow 02 value on the horizontal stab is close to that strong egg yolk colour, but why is the 65 so pale when the official values in the colour chart strip are all obviously much darker?

It might be argued that this JG26 Bf109E is actually painted in Farbton 76, but that doesn't quite fit with historical data.

This colour image was taken by JG26's technical officer at Caffiers in France and shows Walter Blume's a/c from July 1940 - its certainly no later than early September 1940 as Blume was shot down around this time. It also doesn't fit with the known Luftwaffe service regulations for this period (Luftwaffen Dienstvorschriften or L. Dv. 521.2) and in any case this still looks too light to my eye. It certainly doesn't fit the accepted variations shown below. So maybe it's just a poorly over exposed image. . . Here's the known chip values for 76 for comparison. "You pays your money and you takes your pick".

Our perceptions are further confused by the ability of period film stock to record colour accurately, the impact of adjacent colours and the quality of atmospheric light falling on the colour. We'll come back to this, colour temperature and the importance of illuminated light quality in a later post.

So that's just one aspect of colour which influences our perception and preconception of what a colour should be; what about the period images we use as black and white reference points. Is it possible to determine colour from a monochromatic image?

Any colour you like as long as it’s grey - a quick look at interpreting greyscale images

The fact that many of our visual reference points are black and white (greyscale) period images, only serves to further ‘subvert’ our colour memory and our visual translation of colour values. I deal with this tricky subject and how colour works in more detail in my manual.

Here's a picture to interrogate.

For arguments sake, what might the Typhoon's various colour values be? Let's think about the chin radiator, that Medium Sea Grey underside colour. It's very close to the tonal value of the gear door. So how can we be certain that the chin lower colour value isn't the same as the inner gear door? For reference, here's a calibrated screen reference swatch.

Doesn't look like the same value as the monochromatic photo right? What the heck?

What is actually going on here is that the film stock used to record the scene has a ‘latitude’, a limited response to a range of light frequencies and has a fixed range of contrast between black and absolute white.

But maybe the photographer got it wrong?

Even if we assume the exposure in camera was correct, we can never know what the photographic paper used to create the print was. Photographic print paper also has a fixed contrast range (modern papers have a multigrade coating) or may have had a red or pink filter used during the darkroom printing process to boost the contrast in a flat image.

This means that certain colour values which translate as fixed grey values can be altered without any intent to do so (look at the MSG on the chin and then look at the natural metal inner gear door tonal similarity) and film type, exposure and the skill of the photographer in the darkroom will alter the greyscale values. Of course a skilled darkroom operator will know that the image must have true blacks and silky whites to be considered as a properly exposed photograph, but the limitations of the photo paper means that it will not record all colour values accurately.

This all plays with our visual perception and idea of what a colour should be. We know its Dark Green, Ocean Grey and Medium Sea Grey but is that mono image right? Maybe we are seeing a faded version or a weathered version or. . .

So basically we can never quite be certain that our black and white references are accurate representations of a certain colour value and translating these back into a model colour value is complicated and fraught with dangers of misinterpretation.

What we can be certain of is the colour demarcation and variances in values in a greyscale image.

To further complicate the issue, certain colours have very similar grey value when converted from colour to grey scale. If you don’t believe me get a green apple and a red apple, and then either photograph them side by side in your cameras monotone setting, or shoot in colour and then desaturate them in your favourite editing software.

Same shade of grey?

Confused much?

So that spinner back plate on the Tiffy might even be red, or blue or green. . . In the next post, we’ll look at what this means for our appreciation and interpretation of colour on the model, and how the quality of light we view it under alters our perceptions. All of this leads to a better ability to understand how we go about photographing our models.

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