Colorless, green, and red photographic filters as imaged ("perceived") by camera.

Color vision or color vision is the ability of an organism or machine to distinguish objects based on the wavelengths (or frequencies) of the light they reflect, emit, or transmit. Colors can be measured and quantified in various ways; indeed, a human's perception of colors is a subjective process whereby the brain responds to the stimuli that are produced when incoming light reacts with the several types of cone photoreceptors in the eye. In essence, different people see the same illuminated object or light source in different ways.

Perception of color begins with specialized retinal cells containing pigments with different spectral sensitivities, known as cone cells. In humans, there are three types of cones sensitive to three different spectra, resulting in trichromatic color vision.

Each individual cone contains pigments composed of opsin apoprotein, which is covalently linked to either 11-cis-hydroretinal or more rarely 11-cis-dehydroretinal.

The cones are conventionally labeled according to the ordering of the wavelengths of the peaks of their spectral sensitivities: short (S), medium (M), and long (L) cone types. These three types do not correspond well to particular colors as we know them. Rather, the perception of color is achieved by a complex process that starts with the differential output of these cells in the retina and it will be finalized in the visual cortex and associative areas of the brain.

For example, while the L cones have been referred to simply as red receptors, microspectrophotometry has shown that their peak sensitivity is in the greenish-yellow region of the spectrum. Similarly, the S- and M-cones do not directly correspond to blue and green, although they are often depicted as such. It is important to note that the RGB color model is merely a convenient means for representing color, and is not directly based on the types of cones in the human eye.

The peak response of human cone cells varies, even among individuals with 'normal' color vision; in some non-human species this polymorphic variation is even greater, and it may well be adaptive.

Two complementary theories of color vision are the trichromatic theory and the opponent process theory. The trichromatic theory, or Young–Helmholtz theory, proposed in the 19th century by Thomas Young and Hermann von Helmholtz, as mentioned above, states that the retina's three types of cones are preferentially sensitive to blue, green, and red.

Ewald Hering proposed the opponent process theory in 1872. It states that the visual system interprets color in an antagonistic way: red vs. green, blue vs. yellow, black vs. white. Both theories are now accepted as valid, describing different stages in visual physiology, visualized in the diagram on the right. Green ←→ Magenta and Blue ←→ Yellow are scales with mutually exclusive boundaries. In the same way that there cannot exist a "slightly negative" positive number, a single eye cannot perceive a blueish-yellow or a reddish-green. (But such impossible colors can be perceived due to binocular rivalry.)

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