In short, an RGB LED Christmas light pixel can make 16.7 million colors when running at full intensity.
If you’ve ever worked with LED lights and talked to an RGB LED salesperson, you may have heard a line like this:
“These LED’s can make 16.5 million colors!”
And that’s just got to make you raise your eyebrow in suspicion, at least a little.
Can a simple RGB Christmas light pixel really make 16.7 million colors?
After all, if they can, that would mean that you have a massive amount of options when creating your Christmas light display!
In order to understand if this is possible, let’s first talk a little bit about how pixels work.
How Do Pixels Work?
The most common pixel that we see in Christmas light displays is the single RGB LED pixel, that is driven by a standardized protocol.
Most often, the protocol used is WS2811 or something similar, and this protocol is sent to the pixels via a pixel controller.
From there, the pixel controllers are sent Art-Net or sACN (e1.31) information from the show’s computer. These networked signals are based on DMX512, which is the signal designed to control stage lights.
So the flow of information starts at the show computer, goes to the pixel controller, and then to the pixels themselves.
Red, Green and Blue
For each pixel, there are 3 “channels” of information. Each channel controls one color of the pixel, and most pixels that we see in Christmas displays are RGB pixels. Within each pixel, each color is an individual LED.
Each channel is made up of 256 “steps”, which are different levels that you can set that particular channel to.
By mixing these 3 channels of 256 steps together, RGB LED’s are able to mix colors.
And yes, technically that is 16,777,216 colors that you can get out of an RGB pixel. (256*256*256)
But it’s not really that simple. When we’re working with Christmas displays, the pixels are usually not run at 100% intensity – that is often too bright!
Of course, this depends on what type of pixels you are using, how far away they are from the viewer, how far apart the pixels are from each other, as well as a few other factors like the weather (really!).
But let’s say we’re running them at 50%. Now we’re down to 8.35 million colors…still not too shabby! If you can’t make a dynamic light show out of 8.35 million colors…I don’t know what you’re doing!
The Truth – Color Theory Basics
When it comes down to it, the “real” question we should be asking is this – how many discernible colors do I have to work with on my Christmas light display, so that I can create a great show for my friends and neighbors?
That is, how any different colors can I make that I can actually tell apart?
When I’m sitting down to sequence a display, I have 10 “main” colors that I put in my palette to begin working. They are:
These 10 colors really give me a good starting point for thinking about what I want as I begin to work with a song or animation.
From there, we can shade these colors towards each other as desired. This may triple or quadruple the total amount of colors we have at our disposal, and that’s great!
Are there really 16.7 million colors to use? No, nobody can really tell the difference between that many colors!
But the truth is, we get a good toolbox with 30 or so colors, and most audiences aren’t going to notice the difference in any more colors than that!
Color Variation Between Different Strings
Now that we’ve covered how many colors we can actually make, it’s time to think about color variation.
While we shouldn’t ever see colors that are inconsistent within the same string, as that would likely be a power problem, sometimes you will see color differences between different strings – why is that?
Do The Colors Vary By LED Vendor?
In general, my advice is that you try and stick with a single source for all of your LED’s – at least for any given prop or section of your display.
With standard pixel “nodes”, I am happy to report that I have noticed only subtle differences between the colors produced from nodes of different brands.
In general, these types of nodes are quite consistent. The biggest thing to look for when comparing manufacturers is the total brightness / wattage rating of the lights. Some places optimize for brightness, while others optimize their pixels for a lesser brightness so that Christmas light hobbyists can run them at higher levels.
While you can definitely mix strands of lights that have different wattages in your display, you won’t want them on the same controller output. You’ll need to keep them to separate outputs so that you are able to control the brightness level separately to make them consistent!
As we also discussed above, running the pixels at higher levels does technically give you more color options, and definitely makes your fades and transitions smoother.
Do Colors Vary By Age?
This is a big one. As LED’s “put on the hours”, they do tend to fade, and each color will fade a little bit differently.
The areas where I have noticed this the most is when LED’s are permanently installed and run 24/7 (or near that). Thankfully, once again, for most Christmas light hobbyists this is a non-issue, as we don’t put a ton of hours on our lights while they are on a night, and we only use them on a seasonal basis.
Do The Colors Vary By Type Of LED?
The biggest place that I have seen color variation in LED’s is across different types of nodes.
Pixel tapes or strips are the worst offenders, but I have noticed slight color differences when comparing LED’s of different form factors, even within the same brand.
The general consensus is that it’s harder to make a pixel tape that is bright and consistent, so I would avoid them for your display. I have seen 2 reels of tape, bought at the same time, with VERY different colors – and do you really want that on your display?
Thankfully, the most popular types of nodes used in Christmas lights, the standard “pixel node”, are remarkably consistent!
As with anything, in the Christmas lighting hobby, this usually isn’t bad enough to warrant you taking a string out of your display, but it is something to be aware of.
I hope this post has helped you to understand how many colors you can make with your LED pixels, and how to get the most out of them for your display.
Be sure to keep coming back here to Learn Christmas Lighting, as we’re constantly putting out new articles and videos, so that you can create a low-stress, fun Christmas light display!