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Color Space Made Easy

by Dan Bailey on May 13, 2010 · 11 comments

Color Space Explained for Photographers

Color Space. What is it? We hear about it all the time, and as photographers, it affects us all. However, the concepts of color space is often explained with graphs and mathematical equations that are not easily understood by the common, everyday photographer.

In the world of photography, color is reproduced one of two ways. Printers use a combination of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black ink (CMYK) Digital cameras and computer monitors use Red, Green and Blue light (RGB). To keep things simple, I’ll just focus on RGB.

No device, camera or computer monitor can accurately reproduce all of the colors that the human eye can discern. Thus, in order to ensure that color is accurately and consistently rendered across all devices, a system of standardized color spaces was developed for use within the digital imaging industry. Each color space, also referred to as a color profile, represents a specific range of color within the spectrum of visible light that a device is calibrated to reproduce.

The size of a particular color space is referred to as its ‘gamut.’ Put simply, a wider gamut color space represents a broader and more saturated palette of colors, which ultimately makes for more vivid and brilliant images.

Although the methods of how to use color spaces can easily overwhelm, it’s really quite simple. You start by choosing which color space to shoot in with your camera, either sRGB or Adobe RGB, open the image in your RAW software and perform your edits and then assign a color space to your converted image.

Here are the three most common profiles you’ll typically use.

sRGB Developed by Microsoft and HP, sRGB is the standard color space for photo finishers and also for the web. It was designed to standardize colors on computer monitors and consumer printers and match typical home and office viewing conditions.

sRGB has the smallest gamut of the common color spaces, although its range is still larger than that of most standard photo papers. If you’re posting images to the web, emailing photos or using a consumer printing lab like Costco or Walgreens, use sRGB. You’ll get consistent results.

Adobe RGB (1998) Developed by Adobe, this color space attempts to duplicate the spectrum of colors that is reproduced by the professional CMYK offset printing process. It was designed for the professional graphic arts sector and has become the standard for most photographers.

It’s more of a ‘working’ profile instead of a device profile, and after adjustments are made in Adobe RGB, images are usually converted to the specific color profile that matches the designated printer or output device. Use this color space if you’re printing on a professional printer, home inkjet printer or if you submit photos for publication.

ProPhoto RGB Developed by Kodak, this color space was designed to reproduce the color space of Ektachrome slide film. With an extraordinarily large gamut, it attempts to duplicate most of the colors that are visible to the human eye, as well as all the colors that a modern digital SLR can reproduce.

Also a ‘working’ profile, ProPhoto RGB is only recommended for use with 16-bit images. An 8-bit image simply doesn’t have enough room for all this color information and you’ll end up clipping certain colors. Don’t ever send a ProPhoto RGB image to a mini lab printer or post it on the web, I guarantee, you be very unhappy with the results. Here’s a great article on how to use ProPhotoRGB Color Space.

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Dan Bailey is a professional adventure, outdoor and travel photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska. You can follow his own blog at danbaileyphoto.com/blog and see his daily Facebook updates at facebook.com/danbaileyphoto

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mike Panic May 13, 2010 at 6:10 pm

Well written, and an often confusing and misunderstood aspect of photograph, digital workflow and printing. It's worth noting that nearly all photograph labs operate in an sRGB color space environment and most printing places (business cards, brochures, etc.) work in CMYK. Before you go to get stuff printed, know the color space of the output device you plan on sending the job to.

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