Color Spaces, Left Brain Thinking!

As a photographer you are confronted with many settings beyond the exposure triangle basics. One of the many settings is color space. You can typically set this in your camera and then again in post processing. So lets talk about what it is and what your options are.


What is color space? It is simply a range of colors that can be displayed in an image. There is an overall visible spectrum of color that the human eye can see. The color spectrums that you commonly deal with are a subset of that visible spectrum. The more colors in the range the smoother and more accurate an image will look. Color ranges with smaller spectrums can look blotchy or inaccurate. However, the spectrums that you will be working with will do just fine so long as you set it up properly to start.


Your first important step is to realize the power of shooting in RAW. When doing so you have the flexibility to adjust your color space in post processing. If on the other hand you shoot in JPEG you will get what you shoot. For example, if you shot in sRGB in camera you will get an sRGB JPEG out. Most cameras by default will shoot in sRGB. You can make the adjustment in camera but we will talk about what you should do in a bit.


There are three color spaces that you are going to most commonly come across. I have listed them here in order of colors within the spectrum:


  1. sRGB
  2. AdobeRGB
  3. ProPhotoRGB


So the question is if ProPhotoRGB has the most colors in the spectrum why not use that exclusively? The problem is that most displays where people will see these images haven’t caught up yet. They simply can’t render all of the colors. The current standard for most everything is sRGB and therefore what most software is built around. When shopping for monitors look at the specifications for a percentage of colors displayed from within a gamut. For instance my Dell display covers 99% of sRGB. You can look up the specifications for your specific display if you are interested in the colors it is capable of displaying.


Another thing to think about is where your images will be viewed. If you are posting the images to social media it is very likely that they will be displayed on a mobile device. Let’s face it, the world is going mobile and I bet at least 75% of images are viewed on these devices. Ultimately those displays currently don’t have the depth to display much more than sRGB.


So second you need to determine the ultimate intent of your image prior to processing. Do you plan on posting the image to the internet, printing it at your local pharmacy or printing with a high end lab? Most pharmacy style print locations will require the file to be in sRGB in order to print. If you create an image in ProPhoto and then put it somewhere that doesn’t recognize that spectrum it will do its best to convert the image, likely to sRGB…..and not do a very good job at all. Honestly, the conversions are most often flat and horrible looking.


If you do plan on making some high end prints you should consider going with AdobeRGB or ProPhotoRGB. When doing so you should also consider calibrating your display with something like a Spyder5. This will dial in your color to make sure at least what you are seeing is accurate and likely match what you will get from a lab. Most labs will work with you on getting sample prints to make sure what you see on your screen is what you will get in a print. Your best bet is to call around, find out who is willing to work through the process with you and stick with the one you like. Bay Photo is a good option for those of you local in the Bay Area.


As technology evolves displays will start adopting more robust color gamuts but the time isn’t here yet. It will be soon, but not yet. Simply put, currently your best bet is to shoot and process in sRGB unless you are planning on making some really high end prints. Doing this will cover you in most situations.



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