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Primal Perception

This Article Features Photo Zoom

world viewThe way we see color today is shaped by events from 35 million years ago, when some nocturnal primates shifted to a diurnal lifestyle, and began to seek out leaves and fruits by day instead of insects and other prey by night. That evolutionary change shaped primate eyesight to better recognize the colors associated with their favorite new foods, and that’s the reason human retinas today are particularly sensitive to shades of green, and respond so well to red and blue. In fact, one of the main tools for processing color in digital photography today is based on the RGB model—which stands for Red, Green and Blue—and is rooted in a long-established theory about the human perception of those fundamental three colors.

The walkways that have been built in rain-forest canopies around the world during the past two decades provide wonderful opportunities to experience and photograph the arboreal world where primate eyesight evolved. With my wife and partner, Chris Eckstrom, I had traveled to one of them, a swaying aerial bridge strung up in a magnificent cloud forest in Costa Rica, for a National Geographic assignment about the boundaries of biodiversity.

One morning we went out after a night of heavy rain, which had refreshed all colors in the forest. As Chris walked ahead of me in her red rain jacket, I was well aware of the potent effect of combining red and green in color designs, but then I noticed other things coalescing as well. When she walked off into the distance to a point where the walkway cables appeared to come together, she became a focal point in more ways than one. As a subject, she combined a familiar outline with the unfamiliar world of the rain forest; she was framed in a composition where all elements converge; and she accentuated a color scheme that goes to the heart of our primate perception.

For information on upcoming Frans Lanting workshops, visit

Frans Lanting has been hailed as one of the great nature photographers of our time. For more than two decades he has documented wildlife and our relationship with nature in environments from the Amazon to Antarctica. He portrays wild creatures as ambassadors for the preservation of complete ecosystems, and his many publications have increased worldwide awareness of endangered ecological treasures in the far corners of the Earth.