Trying to do some color matching I purchased a 450 nm laser. I expected monochromatic light of this laser to have similar properties to those of all others I've already played with — 808, 640, 520, 405 nm — in that they all cause an unambiguous color sensation.

But when I shined it onto my wall (having removed the lens), I was surprised to see something unusual. In the center, where the intensity is high, it looks as "very blue" — much like those 465 nm blue indicator LEDs we can see everywhere today, only more saturated. But on the sides, where the intensity falls off, the color looks like violet! When I shine this laser on a ceiling obscured by a wall, I see its reflected light as violet. When I move the spot so that the reflected light becomes more intense, I begin to see it as blue again in the intense areas, and still violet in dimmer ones.

I've checked with a spectrometer, and there doesn't appear to be any fluorescence in the light spot to confuse me.

Interestingly, if I increase amount of ambient lighting (white LED lamps + CCFL ones), sensation of blue once again transforms to violet. Also, the "very blue" intense spot looks violet in bright sunlight, although I can make it blue again by focusing into a smaller spot to make it brighter. In a fully dark (apart from the laser) room I still do notice the violet areas on the sides of the spot.

405 nm light also seems a bit silvery-whitish when its intensity is high, unlike at low intensity. Maybe it's the same phenomenon, which I simply didn't notice before because the tint is not that blue in this case.

In both cases of 450 nm and 405 nm the additional color on high intensities is still "shiny" due to the speckles specific to high monochromaticity, so this indeed doesn't look like the result of fluorescence of the objects I shine the light to.

I've asked several people whether they see it the same, and they answered affirmative.

I suppose it's not related to color balance, because I only changed the intensity of ambient light, not the tint to observe the changes in color. Especially it shouldn't be due to color balance since I can simultaneously see different colors in the areas with different intensities.

Interestingly, while I thought the "very blue" color to be the main color of 450 nm, CIE 1931 XYZ value for it, converted to sRGB, appears to be (if we desaturate and normalize to fit in sRGB range) (0.43,0,1), which is purple, not blue.

So, what is going on here? Is it a well-known phenomenon? Could it be due to some fluorescence of the retina itself rather than the objects lit by the laser?


2 Answers 2


This is a general feature of human perception of blue-white mixtures. It's known as Abney effect. It's not limited to highly monochromatic blue colors (not even to blue colors). We can observe this blue-related phenomenon even with longer wavelength light than 450 nm – e.g. sRGB blue, whose dominant wavelength is about 464 nm. Here's what most people would undoubtedly call blue – in HTML notation #0000ff:

square filled with sRGB blue primary

And here's a mixture of 60% white with 40% blue (in HTML notation #cacaff):

square filled with blue-white mixture

To me, if I haven't stared at shades of truly violet a few moments ago, this mixture seems to have a considerable amount of violet — more than I'd expect looking at the primary blue. Naturally, shorter wavelength light should give even more violet perception, until it becomes violet even in its pure form.

Percentage is given in linear scale, actual color presented is gamma-corrected to be displayed on sRGB monitors.

  • $\begingroup$ Your examples are useless: the first square is not monochromatic if produced by a computer display. It is not laser light. $\endgroup$
    – Anixx
    Oct 4, 2018 at 9:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Anixx it's not required to be monochromatic. It's good enough to be indistinguishable from monochromatic+{a bit of white}. This perceptual feature is not limited to monochromatic light — I just don't have access to 450 nmD LEDs, but do have 450 nm lasers. $\endgroup$
    – Ruslan
    Oct 4, 2018 at 10:12

This merely corroborates the experience but is in no way a bioengineering or biology explanation.

If you stare, at arm's length, at any discrete colour 5mm LED of high brightness, it's colour will appear to shift after a few minutes. This is not the (scotopic/photic) night vision effects from Cones to Rods towards blueshift but rather the cone's protective response to the high-density stationary colour indicators and makes that spot less-sensitive.

Also if one often stares at the bright ceiling or street lights for several minutes, then look away, they will see a remanent ghost image with that previously dominant spectrum now suppressed so it will appear in the inverse pastel colour.

It appears as the spectrum has been diminished in that spot, because it has, by a reduced sensitivity of the cones in the eye for detecting that spot of light. The recovery time is about the same time or a bit more as it takes to react. The human retina contains about 120 million rod cells and 6 million cones .

This may be safe as long as the light is not held too close to the eye and certainly not looking into a direct laser beam, rather a diffused image.

Even some 5mm LEDs at 20mA can be so intense as to be painful quickly at arm's length with >20,000 millicandella luminous intensity measure by std methods. But it only needs to be as bright as an auditorium ceiling light intensity for this example of color-shift to occur.


Each depends on the spectrum of dominant and sub dominant peaks in the spectrum that results in the apparent shift in appearance. The 450nmD must have this sub dominant spectrum in an otherwise monochromatic spectrum for this affect to occur. Because our eyes are logarithmic yet spectral densities of monochromatic light sources are displayed on linear scale, it is often not reported. I.e. there must be some red 6xx nmD spectrum for this blue to appear to become purple when our eyes attenuate the blue after a period of intense viewing for several minutes.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think this mechanism is the same as that observed in the OP: the one you're describing relies on an afterimage to distort colors. It'll make a "wrong-color" point or line in the visual field. But the OP is about the light which is not intense enough to make a prominent afterimage. It's easy to look away from the blue part of the 450 nm light spot and see violet in the same part of the visual field (i.e. same part of the retina), without any ghost color spots. So I think that color shift mechanism is different. $\endgroup$
    – Ruslan
    Sep 24, 2018 at 5:54
  • $\begingroup$ I reported both examples which are similar electrochemical responses yet different. Staring at a right Yellow LED with some orange red spectrum will shift towards that spectrum because the 592nmD wavelength is attenuated. Or the 420 nmD wavelength is attenuated and the lower level broad spectrum 6xx nmD reddish spectrum becomes purple in the net mix. Each depends on the spectrum of dominant and sub dominant peaks in the spectrum that results in the apparent shift in appearance. $\endgroup$ Sep 24, 2018 at 6:11
  • $\begingroup$ nmD is the dominant wavelength of CIE eye corrected nmP peak wavelength of emitted light. This due to our sensoral bandpass filter slopes spectral response of our eyes is centred around 525nm green and the slope shifts the peak towards green and our brain equalizes these RGB sensors to become a flat white response. $\endgroup$ Sep 24, 2018 at 6:24
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    $\begingroup$ Well, the OP is about a laser, not a LED. The laser I'm testing has FWHM about 2 nm (or less, I'm limited by resolution of my spectrometer). There can't be much difference between nmD and nmP there. $\endgroup$
    – Ruslan
    Sep 24, 2018 at 6:51
  • $\begingroup$ There is ALWAYS a difference nmD vs nmP if it is not green 525nm . Any expert EE in filter analysis understands the effect of spectral peak shift due to bandpass filters. (in this case our eyes) Also the same effect occurs in yellow (AlInGaAs) LEDs so it is a valid analogy. $\endgroup$ Sep 24, 2018 at 7:36

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