• Joe

(not quite) all about color space

Let's continue talking about accurate editing. The next subject that trips up photographers is color space. I have seen people editing in CMYK and wonder why they have flat and inaccurate color in their prints, I've seen people spend a lot of mental energy worrying color space that they cannot see or work with. But mostly, I see people with no earthly idea what color space is. They merely see it as an option in the menu and hear that Adobe RGB is better and that's the end of it.

Not really.

A color space demonstrates the full range of colors that a particular thing can display. That thing can be an electronic file, or a monitor, or a paper coming off an inkjet printer. They all have color spaces. And you may have seen these. Or at least, seen them demonstrated before. Like this:

Sometimes it's called a footprint. You have all this possible color produced in the visible light spectrum and cut out of that cloth comes a variety of color spaces. We can see here that ProPhoto RGB is a lot bigger than Adobe, which in turn is bigger than sRGB. Here we are talking about the color space of an electronic file.

Let's address the first question first. Namely, what color space to shoot in? RAW files have no inherent color space. Color space is only defined when your editing program finishes with a RAW file and exports it. So shoot in RAW and don't worry about it.

Next, I want to do something with my file and therefore need to export my RAW file. What color space do I select? Notice the phrasing of the question. I have a purpose and the file will help me fulfill that purpose. Color space should be directed to a goal.

Oh, by the way, the above image is inaccurate. Color spaces are three dimensional. Here's Adobe RGB:

Adobe RGB is bigger. This is true. In fact, it is designed for inkjet printing. Most inkjet printers can work with the Adobe RGB color space and will produce beautiful work from it. Does this mean that you should always work in it? No. Unless it said very specifically on the box (and they charged you a lot for it) your monitor does not show Adobe RGB. I'm working right now on a pretty nice iMac and it does not show Adobe RGB. So it's difficult to edit in a color space that I cannot see.

It's true that sRGB is smaller. Let's compare the above Adobe color space to sRGB:

The smaller one? That's sRGB. And the outer shell is Adobe RGB. Yikes, that's quite a bit smaller. So what's the benefit?

Your monitor shows sRGB. Your minilab where you get most of your prints done, that's sRGB. Oh, and the internet and your internet browser are all programmed in sRGB. If you print an 8x10 or put a photo online, you will display it more accurately when working in sRGB. So it definitely has its place.

And ProPhoto RGB? Like five printers in the world and no monitors can work in it. So we tend to ignore. At least, for the moment.

If you print with a particular paper at home, you may want to see if its color space is closer to Adobe or sRGB because the way your printer works with out of gamut colors can definitely change the way your image appears. But that's another blog post.

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