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A Breakdown Of Color Spaces | You Really Should Have A Grasp On This

By Kishore Sawh on August 29th 2015


You’re a photographer, not a printer. You’re the artist, not the laborer; the visionary and not the executive. This is how most photographers see themselves, and they are most likely right. Are there photographers out there with phenomenal grasps of the technical side of the digital photo world? Sure, throw a rock in a room of a thousand and you’re bound to hit three or four, but they are the exceptions, and you’re likely the rule. In this digital age, where the playing field is greatly leveled, you should cross that line in the sand to be an exception.

But how does one do this? Well, for a start, understand that there’s a lot more to being a photographer than taking great images, and part of that is understanding the digital space in which we all now work. When we think of digital spaces (not that we all do very often), in this instance what I’m referring to is color spaces. It’s sort of a dreaded topic because, for an artist, it’s sort of the antithesis of what we want to be learning. But if you want your work to look as good as you know it is, you should have a grasp on it.


The video herein by Forrest Tanaka is a great primer on the subject (though I think it’ll still leave many with questions). Actually, it may leave you with more questions than you started with, and this is no fault of his, but just that the subject matter is rather intricate. What I’ve learned is that when most photographers come upon the color space setting in camera or elsewhere, they usually go with the one they’ve heard of or ask a friend which is most used, set it and forget about it. As you progress in your work, you’ll realize this isn’t the best approach; or at least you’re doing yourself and your work an injustice by doing this.

What is a Color Space?

In very basic terms, it’s a spectrum/range of colors that can be represented in an image. As an oversimplified example, imagine a swatch of 100 colors (color space A), and then one of 1000 colors (color space B). If a picture were taken and loaded or printed using color space B, it would have so many more colors with which to render from, so it would look smoother and likely more accurate, whereas color space A would probably look blotchier. That is completely oversimplified especially when you consider that color spaces usually are in the millions of colors.


But that’s just it, there are color spaces that have wider or narrower ranges of colors and, of course, the wider the range the ‘better’, or more true they will be to what you see. In fact, there are some spaces that have colors not even your eyes can render. The most typical example of color spaces we as photographers use, is between sRGB and AdobeRGB or ProPhoto RGB. sRGB was first out of the gate and is sort of the standard for most images we see on screen, and most computing software is built ‘around’ it. It’s typically good enough for the majority of people, and your monitor probably still can’t even render 100% of those colors (maybe high 90’s %). Adobe RGB on the other hand, includes quite a wider range of colors and ProPhoto wider still, and your monitor can show an even lower percentage of those colors – somewhere in the 70s to low 80s. You can check your monitor spec to see or use a calibration tool, like a Spyder, to see for yourself.

[REWIND: CMYK vs. RGB and Why You Should Care]

So you might be thinking, well then I always want to use Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB because it gives me more colors, and therefore, better rendering, and on and on. But not so fast, because there’s no point in say, uploading a picture to a site in AdobeRGB that can only display the sRGB spectrum. What happens, in that case, is some crap algorithm is going to turn that AdobeRGB into an sRGB equivalent and probably do a rather crap job of it (see images below). So much so that the conversion will look noticeably worse than if you just did the damn thing in sRGB to begin with. This is why it’s important to know what the rendering intent is for your image. Will it be used on a high-end monitor, a basic website, a pharmacy printing machine, or a high-end printery?


sRGB on left vs. ProPhotoRGB right (this one is a bit extreme, but so it goes)

Understand that most browsers, most monitors, and so forth, are all going to work with the sRGB standard, so if you’re not planning on printing anything other than 4×5’s to send to your grandparents with macular degeneration, then sticking with sRGB is probably the way to go for most of your stuff. Actually, if you go to most small printing machines like at a pharmacy, they won’t even be able to print your images unless they are in the sRGB space on your memory card. This is good to keep in mind if you’re traveling because many cameras will give you the option in camera of choosing between sRGB and AdobeRGB.

How I Think You Should Handle It

So what do I recommend? If you’ve gotten this far in the reading, then you probably care enough to do a little extra work to ensure they best quality is always an option for you. So while it may seem easiest to just shoot and solely work within sRGB versus, like a ProPhotoRGB or AdobeRGB, I suggest not to. I will shoot and edit within the higher color space like ProPhoto and then export to the smaller color spaces when necessary. And when you do this from Photoshop or Lightroom, the process is painless, and they tend to convert well. So shoot RAW, retouch in ProPhoto or AdobeRGB, export to AdobeRGB for printing (probably), and then sRGB for web display.

It’s also probably a very good idea for you to beg, borrow, or steal a Spyder calibration tool to get your monitors and such in sync and also to calibrate your printer. You can find more info on calibrating your monitor here, and your printer here.

I’m assuming most of you are using some combination of Lightroom and Photoshop and probably mainly Lightroom. I use Lightroom for cataloging and then Photoshop for most retouching. If you want to really get the most out of LR, understand how this whole export thing works, and many other areas more in depth than anywhere else so you can wield it best, check this out. Really.

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Max Karmazin

    Thanks for the great article, Kishore!

    But to make it clear…
    Lightroom has two File Settings:
    1. Image Format (JPEG, PSD, TIFF etc.)
    2. Color Space (ProPhoto RGB, AdobeRGB, sRGB etc).

    So what would be a correct combination of these for different goals?
    JPEG + sRGB for Web and Monitors? TIFF + AdobeRGB for Printing?


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  2. Tino Solomon

    Hm, then how would printers (commercial labs) take that Adobe RGB profile and print it ? Don;t most papers only print sRGB and how would you be sure it is accurate in Adobe RGB. I’m all for Adbe RGB printing but can it actually be done or is it a gimmick to charge more?

    Any advice?

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    • John MacLean

      Tino, Depending on what substrate the printer is using will determine its gamut. Type C silver halide paper can certainly utilize the Adobe RGB gamut, and Epson Ultrachrome inkjet printers like my 9900 can print colors beyond Adobe RGB. I print DNG files directly from LR CC to the Epson 9900. This solves at least 2 issues. One, I don’t have to make a specific sized/sharpened PSD, TIF or JPG file for every time I want a different size print, and two, I can let the internal color conversion from the RAW/DNG widest gamut data be converted to the custom ICC paper profiles I created with my X-Rite i1Profiler/Spectrophotometer. This insures I’m sending as much color information to my printer as possible and letting the profile deal with the hand off. When I look at my prints under the Just Normlicht Color-Match 5000 viewing booth, they almost match what I see on my NEC PA272W SpectraView calibrated (Adobe RGB display).

      However, if you’re sending files out to a commercial lab that only wants sRGB there’s a good reason. Because they are performing the lowest common denominator service for the masses. Will they look decent? Possibly. Will they be everything you could eek out of your carefully processed files, certainly not!

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  3. Karen Freer

    I had completely overlooked the possibility that websites wouldn’t be using the same colour space as me. fortunately I think Lightroom had defaulted to the correct colour space. Glad I know to look out for that now though. Especially seeing as I ordered a nikon DSLR, no idea what colour space options that will have.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Well glad to be of service, and Karen, do shoot over any questions you have to help you progress. Cheers

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  4. lee christiansen

    I’m not aware of any monitor on the market that can show a full ProPhoto colour gamut so I see no advantage in working in that space. Editing in ProPhoto is fraught with issues because we’d simply be working with an image that we can’t truly see fully.

    If we work in aRGB then we must be prepared to carefully check each and every image that we convert to sRGB and that could take quite a bit of time, particularly when specific areas may need attention.

    I choose to deliver in sRGB and edit in sRGB. If I can make it look right at that point, then I know it will stay looking good. (Rather that than spend ages fine tuning an image only to find it’s not quite as I intended at the final conversion).

    For those who work like me, you may find it great use to have LR set to show images as soft proofed. (An option you can select). I have mine to show as sRGB / Perceptualand it’s quite surprising how different your image can look – but looks the same when you export to PS). This little feature seemed to be added shortly after I demonstrated a discrepancy to Adobe between images in LR and PS. I just wish we could activate that feature by default rather than having to remember for each session.

    Remember, most people can’t view images in aRGB (certainly not ProPhoto) and many papers / printers can’t deliver an aRGB gamut.

    Many would argue that although sRGB has a more limited gamut range, it serves to deliver smoother results within any given 8-Bit or 16-Bit limitation because there is less colour data to handle. Certainly if we’re to deliver aRGB, then 16-Bit is an absolute must.

    I use an Eizo CG211 monitor which handles sRGB. I think I will continue to work sRGB even when I eventually upgrade to a 4K monitor that can work with aRGB.

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    • Otakar Seycek

      As far as I know, LR works (internally) in a modified ProPhoto with Gamma=1 and there is no way to change it. Therefore, there is also no reason to think about it a lot. However, LR doesn’t try to display the image to you in ProPhoto. What you get is Adobe-RGB and you see Adobe-RGB if your monitor can display it. LR can show you, what parts of your image (what colors) will be affected when you change the color space. [Try Softproof in the bottom line just below your image in the LR-window].

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  5. Dalibor Tomic

    I agree with you. I shoot RAW (Adobe RGB), retouch in ProPhoto, export to AdobeRGB for printing if I need, and then sRGB for web display.

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    • Justin Haugen

      Shooting in RAW doesn’t have anything to do with the color space in camera, it only comes into play when shooting JPEGS.

      Not that it really changes our workflow.

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    • Dustin Baugh

      Depending on the sensor the RAW may capture more data than ProPhoto can use. The setting on your camera (AdobeRGB or sRGB) is just in reference to what is displayed on your viewfinder and the jpg (if you use RAW+jpg).

      Personally I like the ability to upload straight from the camera to social media so I do RAW+jpg with it set to sRGB for people’s monitors.

      After being put on my computer I do the same as you (ProPhoto>AdobeRGB prints and sRGB uploads).

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  6. Peter Nord

    So what do you do? I do what my commercial printer tells me to do.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Well here’s the thing Peter, in a way I agree with you. If you don’t know what you’re doing and you don’t print often, when it comes that time it’s always beneficial to hand it over to printing pros – note that I do not mean any and any company.

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    • Peter Nord

      I don’t own a printer. The commercial company has one that costs in the upper five figures, has a field engineer to manage it, has a trained person doing the printing. I follow their directions and the stuff looks good. And it’s just around the corner from my house. What more can I ask.

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