Hey Photographers! Cataracts Are Messing Up Your Color Vision

Hey Photographers! Cataracts Are Messing Up Your Color Vision

I had recent cataract surgery on both eyes, about a month apart for each eye. The doctor told me my vision would improve (a good thing). I was having the surgery because it was getting more difficult to see, especially close up. I knew it was time to do something when I realized I couldn't clearly read my weight on my bathroom scale, and I was sitting closer and closer to the computer when editing. 

What I hadn't expected was a rather dramatic change in color vision. As a cataract adds yellow or brown to everything you see, if you remember to mix the primary colors, you will get Yellow(from cataract)+Red=Orange, Yellow(from cataract)+Blue=Green, Yellow(from cataract)+Red+Blue=Brown. In short, all colors are changed. I saw this effect after the first eye was operated on. Things that had been orange were now yellow. Skies were a more brilliant blue. The yellow and brown tint caused by the cataract changed everything, and since I still had one eye with cataracts, I could cover the good eye and see the difference easily. Or, as Dr. Brent Bellotte of the West Boca Eye Center says:

The changes are subtle and occur very slowly—we might not even notice the first stages. However, colors will gradually become more faded and take on a brown or yellow tinge. As the disease progresses, the ability to distinguish between darker colors, such as blue and purple, decreases.

Cataract color changes can begin in many people when they are in their 20s, and then, it usually gets progressively worse.

For most people, it's nice to get sharper vision, but a surprise to get the colors back. In pre-op conversation with my eye surgeon, he said to expect sharper vision, but not a word was mentioned about the change in color balance.

I'm primarily a landscape photographer, and a lot of my work is during the so-called golden hour. When I looked at recent edits after the surgery, they simply looked wrong. Lovely warm sunset colors were coming out an awkward yellow. Skies with mixed colors sometimes looked fine, at other times were slightly off. The further I went back into my archives, the better colors looked, which is logical, since cataracts get progressively worse. 

Here's an example. It's a landscape image I took in April and edited. My edit looked fine.

After the surgery, I had another look at the image. I was shocked to see it looked like this:

I'm simulating to give you an idea what I saw. My carefully crafted sunset tones were a sickly yellow, greens were off, and the more blue the sky was, the worse it looked. 

I'm going back and correcting things in my archives where needed. I'd love to write a script that would do it automatically, but the reality is each photo is different and needs different degrees of correction. Some require no correction. It depends on the mix of colors, and what would be most shifted because I was looking at the world through yellow-brown lenses.

None of the post-op color shifts were subtle. It was like entering a new world. The house I'd lived in for 15 years suddenly had some different color walls. I liked the false colors better.

Here's my hard-learned recommendation. If you depend on good color work and you have some degree of cataracts, your vision has been shifted toward the brown and yellow. Other colors are shifted too. There's not much you can do about this after the fact except re-edit. One consolation. People with advanced cataracts will see your images the same way you do!

If you've been told you have cataracts, it's probably a good idea to get the surgery. It's not considered risky, and most insurance covers it. 

If you do get the operation, you'll see a whole (and more accurate) new world. 

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15 Comments
jim hughes's picture

I've had both eyes fixed and the surgery is a piece of cake - there's no reason to delay it.

And yes, it's a blue world for a few days afterwards, until your brain adjusts its white balance.

Steven Barall's picture

I had it done for both eyes nine years ago and I am still amazed and grateful for it. The difference it made was dramatic. All I did was show up and go home four hours later. It helped me with my photography greatly. Get it done! Happy photographing everyone!

Martin Owen's picture

I had my cataracts done in August, the right eye on Tuesday and the left on Friday. The actual surgery was very easy and not unpleasant. A couple of weeks of drops afterwards. I had Toric lenses inserted at the same time. One for close vision, one for distant vision. Just like my contacts (and glasses) had been for the past 40 years. It took a short while - a little over a month for my brain to adjust focusing correctly at all distances. Now, coming up to 4 months and the focus is perfect. No contacts or glasses. Colour rendition is great. Brightness and contrast better too. Prior to the surgery the only issue I had was that my eyes got tired easily and my contacts were causing tiredness earlier each day. Now my photography is easier. No problems with post work either. I agree with Jim below that there’s no reason to wait if your eye doctor suggests it. It’s been an eye opener. (Sorry, couldn’t resist!).

Joe Svelnys's picture

Same is true with master painters of yesteryear where their paintings would be more blue then turn more yellow as the painter aged; just painting how they saw the world around them.

Ivor Rackham's picture

There has been a lot of reserach into some people having the ability to see ultraviolet light after the cataract operation. This is why many folk seem to over-satuate their images after the operation because they are trying to match what they see on the screen, which doesn't give on UV light, with what they see in daylight.

Philosophically it's fascinating as it shows that your red isn't the same and mine, and that we all experience the world in different ways depending upon the sense data sent from our eyes to our brains. What we see is just an interepretation of reality and, moreover, what we photograph another step away from what is real.

It would be interesting to hear from someone who still has cataracts to see how they view your two images above. Also, if anyone prefers the second version, it would be good clue to get to see an eye doctor.

Stephen Felce's picture

I have had my eyes done. See what I wrote above. Both images are very poor, so not a good pair to use. But I prefer the second version!

tom walker's picture

OK, to muddy the water, the first image looks over saturated with the sky way too blue. The second image, the foreground looks right, but the sky color, well, a little greenish, and not right. Yes, I have cataracts.

Joe Svelnys's picture

It would be interesting to have a image for all of use to adjust to our own liking/eyes and re-post them here to see all the differences.

EDWIN GENAUX's picture

There is nothing wrong with your eyes if you see purple/violet LED lights! It happens when the very cheaply made ones yellow lens breaks down. Like some street lights or even the older LED bulbs. Extreme heat and cold will break them down. Vancouver has the problem. But being Christmas it may take awhile to fix.

william sheehy's picture

Great and very help full article. Your doctor will tell you when the time comes that you are a candidate. Due to my profession he recommended it early. What the article leaves out is the fogginess of vision as well. I was well aware of the warm color but generally worked with a DIT or Colorist for the final. I was able to compensate for awhile but then it was too much. I would also look at a color waveform/histogram to see color levels and still do. This takes a lot or guesswork out of your color saturation and levels. Similar to black at 0 and white at 255 you know where you are with your colors. There is a difference in how some people perceive color and some are totally color blind. All you can do is put things down the middle so to speak. If your in this business you need to have a good sense of color like any other trait you need for a particular job. Much of it too is training yourself in color and perception. Not sure what people are saying about the images. If you look at the second with cataracts it will be double warm. The first just warm. It's the same as adding a warm fog filter to whatever you are looking at.

Stephen Felce's picture

I take few photographs but always process then through Photoshop CS2 to get the best out of them, have become expert in those features I use regularly. What I always do is try auto contrast and then auto color, but then decide whether to accept or undo. The first ensures I am using the full range of brightness from 0 to 255. I rarely want to differ. Auto color gets be back to neutral color balance, sometimes but not always helpful too. For example, you want a sunset to look like a sunset and the auto control will not give you that.

Dan Stiel's picture

Thanks for sharing your story. My ophthalmologist just told me last week that I would need cataract surgery in a few years and instantly assumed the worst as far as my photography was concerned. So, hearing your experience along with reading the article's comments was most uplifting.

regan albertson's picture

Yup, me too. My wife would tell me that the people were too brown, and after getting those new lenses, so much better. Also, there is an adjustment period, as if your brain is recalibrating. Check your ofv diopter before you go out to find the sweet spot. Months after I found that the diopter on a body I hadn't used in years was dramtically different from where it was after surgery.

Stephen Felce's picture

WHERE YOU NEED TO BE CAREFUL IS THIS. As you age you slowly lose your vision even before you get cataracts. So, unlike the guy commenting here who makes light of it, my vision is better than I remember, so some of the images on my computer look too saturated, especially blue skies. I do not know what is normal again until I see the real world some more for several months after my cataract operations, then go back and reassess my existing portfolio, maybe reprocess some of the contents if I still think that is needed, when I have adjusted to my new vision visually AND MENTALLY. This is not just my eyes but my brain interpreting the signals it receives, and they have changed, so what my brain does also has changed. The brain constructs out of the signals through the eyes, quite like but not exactly like a computer. On your monitor you adjust the colours to match "normal" vision. The guy I am critical of here thinks he knows what that is, but does he? A young person should, for an older person, maybe.

Having addressed how it affects photography, the rest is to do with the medical side. If I could I would have this broadcast to the whole world everywhere because it matters. It matters a lot and hardly anyone knows nearly enough about this.

This is going to be very, very long. For those who do not know already, there is some very valuable information and several warnings about cataracts and the operation. The eyes are very, very complicated but the operation usually is not, has a very high success rate. But there still are risks. That is why I am going to such lengths. You need to know this.

Cataracts matter and dealing with them may not be a matter of two straightforward operations, though for the majority it will be. The change to your vision afterwards is going to present challenges which at least one guy here is his comments skirted over, in my opinion incorrectly, as I explained above.

Read this through, think about it and check if you are going to be a cataract patient in the weeks and months ahead, or even after a few more years have passed.

This is a warning, well actually several, and all from personal experience. There may be a great deal more to this medically than guys here are saying and how it affects your vision and photography may also be greater than you think. There are several various different reasons.

My first cataract was diagnosed in 2016 and it took four years to develop to the point my vision in one eye was very slightly affected, so most likely you will not even know you have them for quite a while. As they develop, your vision increasingly will be affected on top of that just because of ageing and in most cases, like with mine, it will begin to look slightly foggy, contrast is lower and your focus may also change. At first these changes will be very slight but slowly over time things worsen.

I was long sighted and it actually improved my focus eventually at distances like about eight feet where I have the television, so I gave up using spectacles towards the end with the second eye except for reading, about three months before the first operation. By then I was as near as blind in the other eye because of a further two years delay. You probably will have operation on the first eye a lot earlier than I did, while the other eye is less affected visually or not noticeably at all.

First, the actual operation. I have had both my eyes done, the first mid October, the second six weeks later in 2022. Both were a success but there are potential dangers to be aware of. I was lucky, given my circumstances.

On the day originally scheduled for the operation in December 2020, they cancelled it on the day for two reasons. Firstly two surgeons who met with me beforehand said it was not bad enough to be needed yet, true then, and secondly being a chatty person, I had told them out of the blue, I had taken tamsulosin. Men who have an enlarged prostate as most will eventually, have difficulty passing urine. As I later discovered, tamsulosin relaxes muscles which help with that but the iris in the eye is a muscle and it affects that too. THAT MATTERS A LOT. Occasionally, tamsulosin is also given to women, but I do not know when or why.

I live in the UK and went to Moorfields because they have a worldwide reputation. So much for that. They had not even asked about tamsulosin at the first consultation or at any time since. AND BOY DOES THAT MATTER. One of the surgeons on the day said my eye could explode because of the tamsulosin, but I knew that was nonsense. They sent me away without any explanation. They said they would see me to check developments in three months, cancelled that also without explanation and I have not heard from them two years since. Almost all the staff at Moorfields, Potters Bar were hostile and gave me a very bad time. If you live in the UK, go somewhere else.

Where I eventually went they were hugely more thorough, doing about ten times as many tests and checking time and time again. All the staff were very thorough, patient, kind and sympathetic. I cannot praise them enough. That was at the Edgware Community Hospital, in North London.

I looked it up on the web. David F. Chang, M.D is widely recognised as the leading eye surgeon in the world. In 2005, he wrote that 43% of people who had taken tamsulosin had serious damage to the eye during cataract surgery. The reason, which a long time later I discovered is that EVEN IF YOU ONLY HAD TAKEN TAMSULOSIN FOR A FEW DAYS AND A LONG TIME AGO, when they do the operation, the iris gets mishappen, prolapses. That can also affect being able to position the artificial lens correctly.

The good news for me, not then but later, is that they have learned how to deal with it, although the risks still are higher. Both my operations were successful. On good advice from a recently retired surgeon, I asked for and got a surgeon with the greatest level of skill available who had experience with inter-operative floppy iris syndrome, as the condition is known, He said both irises were affected during the operation, but not a lot so I was lucky. It did not affect the operation and no additional measures were needed. Sometimes, they may have to use tiny hooks to move the iris back into shape and into place. heaven knows how that ever is possible without damaging it but even so, of course, it does present risks.

So, about eighteen months later, the delay mostly due to bureaucracy in the NHS (the UK's state medical system) I went for the first operation. That was in June 2022. However, they checked my blood glucose because I have diabetes. It used to be mild. Suddenly, it had become very high. So I had to go away and wait four months for my doctor and a big change in the medication to get it under control again. Infection of the eye after surgery can lead to permanent blindness and high or low blood glucose creates that risk. By the time I was able to go back again, I had no meaningful vision in that eye, the other had become affected and I had to give up driving. I could barely cross the road safely when there was traffic and could not see in certain lighting condition, mostly when the light was bright and there was a lot of flare in my eyes because of the cataracts. Reading text close up was close to impossible.

The usual practice here is to to give you artificial lenses that give you long sight. Some people elect to have one short, the other long, because your brain combines the two images and you get near to perfect focus both near and far. That is what I have now, but in my case it is by a lucky accident, the reason being that the cataract in the first eye they did was so dense with the delay that they could not get accurate measurements. With that vision now is sharpest at about twenty inches. I can read letter sized text ands slightly smaller perfectly easily, helped by the fact that my astigmatism is low. I believe that results from the shape of your eyeballs, nothing to do with the operation, so is likely to stay the same. With the other eye, everything is close to perfectly sharp from about eight feet. I checked at night on a star and that was perfectly sharp. So everything is pretty sharp beyond a few inches only I need an eye test to ascertain whether I need spectacles for driving. I think possibly not, but maybe at distance they would make things even clearer.