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Workflow - Color Space

Joe Kegley | E-Mail | Updated 01-29-2011

Color Settings dialog for Adobe Photoshop CS5

Color Settings dialog for Adobe Photoshop CS5

From a digital photography standpoint color management is usually considered the process of matching the colors on your monitor with the colors of your printed output. That's a somewhat simplified explanation because your output may not be for print. Maybe your output is for the web. Maybe your output is for another person who will do further editing. In any case, it is important to calibrate your display and select appropriate color space profiles for editing and appropriate color space profiles for output.

Different devices such as printers and computer displays may interpret color data differently. This color data is nothing more than an assortment of numbers. Color profiles provide a template to such devices on how to interpret the color data (numbers) within the image file.

Photographers are generally concerned about color spaces within the RGB color model, although commercial press may require a color space within the CMYK color model. Common color spaces based on the RGB model include sRGB, Adobe RGB, and ProPhoto RGB. Color space refers to the collection of colors within a color model described by a particular color profile.

Adobe Photoshop CS5

The color space profiles available for the RGB Working Space within Adobe Photoshop which photographers are likely to use include the three mentioned above: ProPhoto RGB, Adobe RGB, and sRGB.

sRGB, also known as sRGB IEC61966-2.1, has the smallest color gamut (color range) of the listed color spaces. The sRGB color space is the best suited color space for web or email display.

sRGB was created by HP and Microsoft in 1996 for use on computer displays and printers.

Adobe RGB, also known as Adobe RGB (1998), has a wider color gamut than sRGB. Adobe RGB is considered better for printing than sRGB and converts nicely to CMYK should a publisher require it. Most personal inkjet printers can print the colors in the Adobe RGB color space.

The Adobe RGB color space was developed by Adobe Systems in 1998 with the goal of including most of the colors achievable on CMYK color printers.

ProPhoto RGB has the widest color gamut of the three listed color spaces. This color space is considered the best for printing should your printer have the capability to produce the colors. Some of the better inkjet printers are capable of reproducing cyans, magentas, and yellows that are outside of the Adobe RGB color space, making ProPhoto a better choice.

The ProPhoto RGB color space was developed by Kodak and designed for photographic output. The large ProPhoto RGB color gamut is capable of preserving the full range of colors from raw files when converting to RGB.

Because ProPhoto RGB has such a large gamut, it is recommended to work in 16 bit color depth to avoid posterization effects that frequently occur in 8 bit modes.

Lightroom 3

The Library module stores low/medium quality previews in the Adobe RGB color space and high quality previews in ProPhoto RGB. These previews are also used when printing in draft mode.

Lightroom's native color space for editing raw files within the Develop module is ProPhoto RGB.

For rendered files such as TIFF, JPEG, and PSD files, Lightroom uses the image's embedded color profile to display the image. If the image doesn't have a profile, Lightroom assumes the sRGB profile.

Lightroom attempts to simplify color management so the only time you set color profiles is during output. When you print a photo in Lightroom, you can choose to convert the colors to more closely match the color space of the printer, paper, and ink you are using.

Photoshop Elements 9

Photoshop Elements can only be set to the sRGB or Adobe RGB color space profiles. There are 4 settings to choose from.

  • No Color Management
  • Always Optimize Colors for Computer Screens (sRGB color space)
  • Always Optimize Colors for Printing. (Adobe RGB color space)
  • Allow Me to Choose (assumes sRGB but allows you to choose Adobe RGB is a profile is not present)

Raw files and color space

Raw files have no embedded color space; they simply capture everything the sensor is capable of. So when you set your camera's color space to sRGB or Adobe RGB you are only setting the color space for JPEGs the camera might produce. If you don't capture JPEGs with your camera then the color space setting on the camera doesn't matter.

Which color space do I use?

I currently use the Adobe RGB color space though I am giving serious consideration to using the ProPhoto RGB color space. If you use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 it makes sense to set your Photoshop settings to match the working space of Lightroom's Develop module (which is ProPhoto RGB for raw files).

Be sure that you convert images destined for the web to sRGB. The same is true for distributing JPEG images to friends or family, those images need to be sRGB. Within Photoshop you would do this by selecting "Edit" from the menu, then choosing "Convert to Profile..." and entering the desired destination color space profile and conversion options.

If you want to play it safe when using a Camera Raw/Photoshop workflow (maybe you're not ready for color management, or you're just starting out with digital photography, or the benefits of a wider color gamut are not worth the aggravation), set your color space profiles to sRGB. This also includes setting your camera color space to sRGB if you are shooting JPEGs instead of raw files. This will lessen the danger of color shifts between editing and output. You will have less latitude when editing and might be robbing your printed output of additional colors, but it should be easier to maintain consistent color reproduction.

If you're using Lightroom then the application manages most of your color space decisions for you. One of the few times you have the opportunity to change the color profile is during output such as when using the "Export" dialog found under the "File" menu item. As noted above, if you plan to use Photoshop in conjunction with Lightroom, then set your Photoshop color space to ProPhoto RGB.

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