Misidentifying changes of illuminant in natural scenes due to failures in relational colour constancy

Sérgio M.C. Nascimento , David H. Foster

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The colours of surfaces in a scene may not appear constant with a change in the colour of the illumination. Yet even when colour constancy fails, human observers can usually discriminate changes in lighting from changes in surface reflecting properties. This operational ability has been attributed to the constancy of perceived colour relations between surfaces under illuminant changes, in turn based on approximately invariant spatial ratios of cone photoreceptor excitations. Natural deviations in these ratios may, however, lead to illuminant changes being misidentified. The aim of this work was to test whether such misidentifications occur with natural scenes and whether they are due to failures in relational colour constancy. Pairs of scene images from hyperspectral data were presented side-by-side on a computer-controlled display. On one side, the scene underwent illuminant changes and on the other side, it underwent the same changes but with images corrected for any residual deviations in spatial ratios. Observers systematically misidentified the corrected images as being due to illuminant changes. The frequency of errors increased with the size of the deviations, which were closely correlated with the estimated failures in relational colour constancy.
Original languageEnglish
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Early online date29 Nov 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 29 Nov 2023


  • colour vision
  • cone-excitation ratios
  • colour constancy
  • colour relations
  • natural scenes


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