Calling in the Experts: What’s up with Obama’s Hair?!

Calling in the Experts: What’s up with Obama’s Hair?!


Whoa. My morning news perusal has brought me several stories discussing Obama’s hair color, and the very important debate about whether he has a little Revlon secret.

New York Magazine posted two images of Obama from Getty; the one on the left is from July 27th, and the one on the right is from yesterday.

Their synopsis:

“Barack Obama has begun talking about how he’s ‘going gray’ lately, and
it’s true — the man’s hair is going silver faster than you can say ‘Anderson Cooper with a tan.’ So fast, in fact, that we have to wonder
at the legitimacy of it. Just last month, Obama’s longtime barber said he’d never dyed Obama’s hair
darker — implying that the candidate’s youthful color is

But within the last week, the candidate has
mysteriously gone nearly fully gray. Look at the above pictures.

We hate to call the effects of age into question, but doesn’t it look like he’s dying his hair to look more distinguished?”

Ok, we love you New York Magazine, but we have to say, we find your photography analysis rather layman. Let’s check in with an expert– say…. PhotoShelter’s Photo Editor, Amber Sexton. Amber looks at like, 5,000 news images a day. She knows what’s what.

Amber! Analyze!

(amber also knows from hair color)

“Looking at these two images, I think people are just making the mistake
of treating photographic representations as reality. It’s
understandable really, we all are in the business of making people feel
that photos are real. But photographers take pictures at different
exposures, situations have different color balance, and contrast, and
pictures can have varying levels of saturation.

On the left we have a photo that was processed or captured at a darker
exposure, and higher level of color saturation. Therefore his hair
looks quite black, but his skin tone is richer and deeper also. His
hair is also dark because he doesn’t really have a hair light, he’s lit
from the front. Gray hair is still clearly visible though. It seems
like a slightly warmer color temperature setting was used (maybe 5200k

On the right it’s a lighter exposure, the color balance is a hair
cooler, so both his skin and hair are lighter. The contrast is similar,
which is what fools your eye into thinking that the images are
comparable lighting situations– but they really aren’t. He’s lit more
from the top, and further, he’s tilting his head so the side of his head
where you see a lot of hair is now better lit. All the color that your
eye processes as gray hair is mostly not gray hair, but highlights from
the lighting on his hair.

Does he dye his hair? I don’t know, but I certainly don’t think he’s
dying it gray. That would actually be difficult to do starting from black
(as a person who has double process hair myself I know from whence I
speak). At any rate I don’t think a comparison of these images reveals
that he’s dying it gray.”

Thanks for the expertise, Amber. This hair-color conundrum is an age-old question:


What do you think, fair-haired reader?

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There are 10 comments for this article
  1. Charles Jones at 12:23 pm

    My first impression was that the difference was all in the lighting. However, with a little more observation I think there is another point. In the “greyer” photo I think the gentleman is in possession of a more recent haircut. With the hair being shorter, more reflection from the harsh frontal lighting comes through. Add in a few opportunist specular highlights from the overhead lights and an impression of gray is formed.

  2. MarcW at 2:34 pm

    Amber & Charlie FTW. It’s mostly lighting and angle of incidence, and a little bit hair length. If you wanted to see a REALLY dramatic example of this, you could stop by on a day I trim my beard. I have extremely dark facial hair, except for the part that’s completely silver. When it’s fairly long, you mostly see the dark hair. Right after I trim it, the silver hair is much more visible. The difference is quite striking. (And annoying.) I’d show you, but cameras won’t record my image. M

  3. Dustin at 5:55 pm

    I think a discussion of Obama’s hair should only be brought up in the media if it suddenly turned the same color as Amber’s hair. (Which I quite like by the way, just not for Presidential candidates. :) Cheers!

  4. Laura at 7:56 pm

    I think Amber is spot on. I am a professional photographer who used to be a professional hairdresser. It is definitely the lighting/processing/new haircut. Because there is not much call for it, it is actually hard to find grey hair color in any case. Most people want to get rid of grey, not the other way around, so I do not recall many hair color manufacturers having a large line of grey to choose from. It would also be difficult to get his very dark natural hair light enough for a grey toner to look right. He also has hair that is so short, to get that salt and pepper look would really be just about impossible…so NO I do not think he is dying his hair grey…

  5. Robert at 9:30 pm

    Its well known the Bill Clinton even did the same. They candidate would color their hair depending on who they are talking too. Bill had really light/gray hair when speaking to the elderly then would color it darker when trying to appeal to younger voters

  6. chloe at 7:21 pm

    I recently went to a very short haircut, and my gray hair is VERY much more visible. I think BO case is (1) different lighting and (2) fresh haircut. Look at the photo on the right: gray hair is visible here and there, especially on the top.

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