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Like your digital camera, the back of your eye has an area of light-sensitive material on it. Unlike your camera though, the material in your eye is covered with four types of light-sensitive cells. There are three types of cones, each sensitive to either red, green, or blue, and there are rods, which have no ability to perceive color. Instead, rods are sensitive only to brightness. In other words, they see the world in black and white. Because they can't detect color, rods may not sound as glamorous as cones, but consider this: 98% of the light-sensitive cells in your eyes are rods. That's right.
The substantial majority of your vision is black-and-white vision. Thanks to all those rods, that human eye is incredibly sensitive to changes in brightness, and this sensitivity is there for a reason. Your rods help with your spacial awareness. They are a big part of your navigation system that keep you from bumping into things, and they help you see in the dark, and I mean dark. Once light levels drop below a certain point, your cones shut down and your rods take over completely. When adjusted to complete darkness, the rods in your eyes can detect a single photon of light.
But as you may already know, your night vision is black and white only. Now you might be thinking, "That's not true. I see color at night." Well, you might see an overall colorcast perhaps, say, orangish from sodium- vapor streetlights, or bluish from moonlight. But if you really pay attention, you'll realize that you cannot discern any actual color. If your memory is that you can, that's probably because you already understand that certain things are certain colors. For example, you might remember seeing green trees at night.
Of course, you know trees are green, so you have a memory of green trees, even though you couldn't see green at the time. Even while you're standing in front of the trees, your brain is probably signaling green, despite the fact that your eyes aren't showing you any color, and if you really pay attention to what you're seeing, you'll realize. "I'm not actually seeing green in those trees." This is all probably another reason that black-and-white images can make sense to us. We are already used to seeing the world in black and white because we see it that way every night assuming we go out in darkness. So walking around at night is a great way to start seeing the world in black and white.
What you see at night is a very dark version of what you can capture as a black-and-white photographer.
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