If color as we perceive it is dependent on the wave lengths that are reflected by an object, with white reflecting all hues and black absorbing all, how do we detect a black object?

I do understand there is no such thing as a perfect black. Is it this physical imperfection of black surfaces that provides the visual system with a cue about its shading?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The question is unclear. Why do you think we would not be able to detect the absence of something? This is like asking "how do we detect silence." $\endgroup$
    – sumelic
    May 22, 2016 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ Black we can see in a dark room is still a darker shade of gray $\endgroup$
    – user168218
    May 31, 2016 at 2:35
  • $\begingroup$ This question might be a duplicate of psychology.stackexchange.com/q/5050/7001. Also, you may enjoy this video: youtu.be/p-OCfiglZRQ $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    May 8, 2018 at 20:00

1 Answer 1


Objects are visually perceived when they reflect light. A black object does not reflect any light. In other words, no photons are reflected to be detected by the photoreceptors in the retina. A black shape on a colored background appears black because its brightness approaches zero relative to its surroundings.

Black, as any other perceived hue, is a relative perception. The visual system, as any other sensory system, detects physical stimuli in a relative way. For example, under bright daylight (photopic conditions) a camera flash might appear as a weak source of light. That same flash viewed under dark (scoptopic) conditions may appear as a blinding flash. When the visual system is light-adapted, it needs a lot of photons to be able to respond to a visual stimulus. Under this condition, dark colored objects may appear black, simply because the photoreceptor's thresholds are too high. Conversely, that same dark object may appear as gray under scotopic conditions when the retina is dark-adapted (colors are not perceived under scotopic conditions - note here that black and white are not colors, but the two extremes on the perceived gray-scale).

An important thing to realize is that colors are perceptions and subject to neurophysiological processing imperfections. For example, blind people rarely perceive the world as black, despite the fact that their visual system cannot detect photons. Instead, they may perceive the world as a grayish hue, they often experience illusionary spontaneous flashes of light (phosphenes), or even entire visual scenes (Charles Bonnet syndrome). Hence, while a black object is physically defined as an object that emits/reflects no photons, it does not mean that the corresponding area in the neural representation of the visual field is silent. Perhaps on the contrary.