How to fix rainbows and other bad colormaps using Python

Yep, colormaps again!

In my 2014 tutorial on The Leading Edge I showed how to Evaluate and compare colormaps (Jupyter notebook here). The article followed an extended series of posts (The rainbow is dead…long live the rainbow!) and then some more articles on rainbow-like colormap artifacts (for example here and here).

Last year, in a post titled Unweaving the rainbow, Matt Hall described our joint attempt to make a Python tool for recovering digital data from scientific images (and seismic sections in particular), without any prior knowledge of the colormap. Please check our GitHub repository for the code and slides, and watch Matt’s talk (very insightful and very entertaining) from the 2017 Calgary Geoconvention below:

One way to use the app is to get an image with unknown, possibly awful colormap, get the data, and re-plot it with a good one.

Matt followed up on colormaps with a more recent post titled No more rainbows! where he relentlessly demonstrates the superiority of perceptual colormaps for subsurface data. Check his wonderful Jupyter notebook.

So it might come as a surprise to some, but this post is a lifesaver for those that really do like rainbow-like colormaps. I discuss a Python method to equalize colormaps so as to render them perceptual.  The method is based in part on ideas from Peter Kovesi’s must-read paper – Good Colour Maps: How to Design Them – and the Matlab function equalisecolormap, and in part on ideas from some old experiments of mine, described here, and a Matlab prototype code (more details in the notebook for this post).

Let’s get started. Below is a time structure map for a horizon in the Penobscot 3D survey (offshore Nova Scotia, licensed CC-BY-SA by dGB Earth Sciences and The Government of Nova Scotia). Can you clearly identify the discontinuities in the southern portion of the map? No?

equalization_before_horizon

OK, let me help you. Below I am showing the map resulting from running a Sobel filter on the horizon. Penobscop_sobel

This is much better, right? But the truth is that the discontinuities are right there in the original data; some, however, are very hard to see because of the colormap used (nipy spectral, one of the many Matplotlib cmaps),  which introduces perceptual artifacts, most notably in the green-to-cyan portion.

In the figure below, in the first panel (from the top) I show a plot of the colormap’s Lightness value (obtained converting a 256-sample nipy spectral colormap from RGB to Lab) for each sample; the line is coloured by the original RGB colour. This erratic Lightness profile highlights the issue with this colormap: the curve gradient changes magnitude several times, indicating a nonuniform perceptual distance between samples.

In the second panel, I show a plot of the cumulative sample-to-sample Lightness contrast differences, again coloured by the original RGB colours in the colormap. This is the best plot to look at because flat spots in the cumulative curve correspond to perceptual flat spots in the map, which is where the discontinuities become hard to see. Notice how the green-to-cyan portion of this curve is virtually horizontal!

That’s it, it is simply a matter of very low, artificially induced perceptual contrast.

Solutions to this problem: the obvious one is to Other NOT use this type of colormaps (you can learn much about which are good perceptually, and which are not, in here); a possible alternative is to fix them. This can be done by re-sampling the cumulative curve so as to give it constant slope (or constant perceptual contrast). The irregularly spaced dots at the bottom (in the same second panel) show the re-sampling locations, which are much farther apart in the perceptually flat areas and much closer in the more dipping areas.

The third panel shows the resulting constant (and regularly sampled) cumulative Lightness contrast differences, and the forth and last the final Lightness profile which is now composed of segments with equal Lightness gradient (in absolute value).

equalization_pictorialHere is the structure map for the Penobscot horizon using the equalized nipy spectum.
equalization_after_horizon

And below I place the two versions side by side to facilitate comparison. I think this method works rather well, and it will allow continued use of their favourite rainbow and rainbow-like colormaps by hard core aficionados.

If you want the code to try the equalization, get the noteboook on GitHub.

2 responses to “How to fix rainbows and other bad colormaps using Python

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