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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.