The Blue of Distance

This post is about a common feature in color photography and paintings, where distant objects appear to have a deeper blue tint than near objects.  My first formal exposure to the Blue of Distance came in the form of an essay by Rebecca Solnit in a photography class at ICP  (it is apparently not unusual to use this essay as a photography class handout).

The essay is contained within Solnit’s book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost.  A reviewer described her book as “largely autobiographical meditations and wanderings through landscapes external and internal”.  Four of her essays have the same title, “The Blue of Distance”, but it was the first one we studied:

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.”

Solnit is describing Rayleigh scattering, which is the reason for the blue color of the sky.

Blue of Distance In Art History

Solnit also discusses how European painters began to paint the blue of distance in the early 15th century.  She noted that prior to the Renaissance, European artists had not been much concerned with an accurate portrayal of distance.  Indeed, during the earlier International Gothic period (1360 – 1430), backgrounds are often patterns or a solid color, e.g., gold.  An example is the Wilton Diptych (National Gallery, London), by Unknown (English or French), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

It was not until the Renaissance that landscape developed as a distinct genre of painting.  The Blue of Distance developed along with this.

Solnit summarized some of the key points in Leonardo da Vinci’s writings on painting.  He noted that when painting buildings:

“…to make one appear more distant than another, you should represent the air as rather dense. Therefore make the first building…of its own color; the next most distant make less outlined and more blue; that which you wish to show at yet another distance, make bluer yet again; and that which is five times more distant make five times more blue.

An early example of Blue of Distance is in the background of The Virgin of the Rocks (National Gallery), by Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Blue of Distance in Photography

The Blue of Distance is something you can really see in your photographs.  However, in order to capture what your eye sees you should shoot in raw and not adjust the white balance in post.  Here is a picture I took one afternoon in the Grand Canyon (as shot, no color adjustments – please excuse the lens flare).  ISO 200, f16, 1/250 sec at 50mm.

Note that the Blue of Distance should not be confused with the blue hour.  The blue hour is the time after the sun has dropped below the horizon, but there is still sufficient indirect illumination to capture an image.

Here is a photo that I took in the Andes during the blue hour that also shows the Blue of Distance (as shot, no color adjustments).  ISO 320, f4, 1/60 sec at 23mm.

Exhibit Inspired by the Blue of Distance

The American artist Catherine Opie exhibited her works at the Stephen Friedman Gallery (London) in 2008. The exhibition title, The Blue of Distance, was inspired by Solnit.  Opie captured the remote beauty of the Alaskan landscape, with large color photographs documenting immense and sublime landscapes free from any trace of humanity.

I found this work quite interesting and I tried my hand at it when we were sailing in the Galapagos one afternoon (as shot, no color adjustments).  ISO 200, f5.6, 1/400 sec at 70mm.

Closer to Home

Of course, you don’t have to go far to see the Blue of Distance.  Here is a photo I took of the Flatirons from our deck yesterday.  It is a few minutes to sundown and so also is approaching the blue hour (as shot, no color adjustments).  ISO 200, f16, 1/5 sec at 48mm.

Interestingly, the Sherwin-Williams company even developed a particular color of paint for the Blue of Distance.

Cold winter days do not always lend themselves to hiking.  I promise more of that in the spring!

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2 thoughts on “The Blue of Distance”

  1. Jon Watson

    Those mountain photos do a great job of illustrating this! It’s always kind of funny to see early paintings in which artists were discovering these techniques- there are so many times that they’ll throw in a window or a cutaway in the wall just to show that they know how perspective works.
    In drawing classes, we always referred to this as “atmospheric perspective” instead of “the blue of distance” though- though possibly because it was taught around the same time as linear perspective. If I’m not mistaken, wouldn’t the mountains get more orange instead of more blue if it were sunset or similar?

    • Admin Post Author

      I think the blue color could depend on the surface. If the mountains were covered with snow they would reflect the reddish evening sunlight better than rock and trees. Still, the more distant mountains would appear more blue due to the atmosphere. It would be relative…

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