Various models of visual-pigment spectra are critically discussed in terms of the spectral properties of protonated Schiff bases and the common structural features of most proteins. The opsin apoprotein is capable of regulating visual pigment wavelengths in ways that are difficult or impossible to reproduce in model systems. Theories based on solvent effects of the spectra of protonated Schiff bases may be misleading. Careful parameterization using known polyene spectra allows accurate calculation of the spectral properties of protonated Schiff bases. It is shown that an isolated protonated Schiff base of retinal should absorb near 600 nm and that blue-shifted spectra seen in solution arise from associated counterions or solvent molecules. We conclude that the most plausible specific model of chromophore-protein interactions is one in which the protonated Schiff base is closely associated with its counterion and where additional negatively charged or polar groups are positioned by the protein in the vicinity of the ring half of the chromophore. Pigment absorption maxima, bandwidths, and the A2-A1 pigment absorption differences arise naturally from these simple models of pigment spectra.