Colour Space and Profile Settings
Many photographers are perplexed by the colour space/profile settings in both their camera and editing software. In this article I want to clarify some common misconceptions about the use of these settings. First I’ll address what the settings in the camera represent and then discuss the settings in editing software, concluding with a brief explanation of the importance of calibration of your monitor.
Within your camera you will find a “colour space” setting which usually gives you the option of selecting either Adobe sRGB or Adobe RGB colour space.
To explain these settings a little better, I’ll have to divert off topic a little bit. Firstly I would strongly recommend that as nature photographers you should be shooting in the RAW format as opposed to the JPEG format.
In broad general terms, if shooting JPEG format you would need to get everything right in camera. With the RAW format you have the ability to work on your images after the fact in a none destructive way.
Let me explain this a little further.
- If you are shooting with RAW, the information that the sensor gathers is not pixel based but a set of instructions which it stores on your memory card on how the software used for post processing should interpret the information you captured and then render an image. It’s not until after you have process the RAW file do you actually make a pixel based image. So with the assumption that you are shooting in RAW, the colour space you choose in camera really doesn’t make any difference to the quality of your image as you captured it.
- When capturing in JPEG the colour space is important as it’s the cameras software being used to process the information the sensor has captured to produce a pixel based image straight from the camera.
But I hear you say, “Hang on! How come I see an image in the LCD screen when I shoot RAW, if RAW doesn’t make an image unless I process it?”
Good question! The reason is that when you select image preview on the camera, you are asking the cameras software to create a JPEG rendition of the information the sensor captured and it will use any of the settings you set up in the camera to determine how it should present that JPEG preview.
In essence you are seeing an embedded JPEG rendition of what your image might look like with the in camera settings including the sRGB colour profile. As an example, it will use the colour space, white balance, sharpening etc. that would have been applied if you were shooting a JPEG file. This has no effect on the final image when processed as a RAW file, as all settings can be adjusted during the initial processing and any in camera settings are generally ignored.
Now back to the question of colour space.
“If I’m shooting RAW why does it matter what setting I use?”
Well, there are some things to consider when choosing which colour space to use. If you want to see a “somewhat corrected” image when you look at the LCD on your camera, then you might find sRGB is the best choice but there is a downside. Your histogram may not be as accurate because it will be showing you information based on a processed JPEG and not the RAW file.
If on the other hand you use Adobe RGB in your settings, your preview image may look washed out, over exposed etc., because generally the RAW format will ignore all the “in camera” settings. But when using the Adobe RGB colour space setting the histogram will generally be more accurate and give a better guide to exposure. I would recommend using Adobe RGB in the camera and using the more accurate histogram to guide you in selecting exposure settings.
Depending on what software you use to process your images there might be different settings to consider but many photographers will use an Adobe product such as Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe Elements so I will use these programs in this discussion. If you don’t use one of these programs the principles will be the same whichever program you use.
There are three colour spaces to consider; sRGB, Adobe RGB and ProPhoto RGB. Each provides a different amount of variation of colours it can render.
- sRGB has the least ability to render finer graduations between colours and is the default profile for the Internet. (Browsers will render your images as if you were using sRGB)
- Adobe RGB is by far the most commonly used by editing software and has been the standard for many years when working on images.
- ProPhoto RGB has the widest gamut and is the default in Adobe Lightroom (in fact you can’t change this setting in Lightroom).
I generally use Lightroom to manage and process my images, given that the default setting is ProPhoto RGB, I also set ProPhoto RGB in Photoshop, so images I send from Lightroom to Photoshop and back will remain in the ProPhoto RGB colour space. This gives me the widest colour gamut whilst working on my images.
The only issue is that if in Photoshop I convert the images from ProPhoto RGB to something else, in which case the images aren’t in the ProPhoto RGB colour space any more.
When uploading images to the web I use sRGB and ensure I have embedded this profile into the image. This ensures that browsers have the best information to display my image.
Adobe products are colour managed programs, so if there is an embedded profile in any image you open then you will be able to see accurate colour for that image when you open it providing you are using a properly profiled and calibrated monitor.
Monitor Profiling and Calibration
As photographers we want our images to look their very best and one of the best ways to ensure we are able to achieve this after having captured our vision is to profile and calibrate our monitors.
Using a common analogy, have you ever walked into a store that sells televisions and they all have different colours even though they are all showing the exact same television show? This is because television aren’t calibrated to any set standard, in fact if you look in the menu of many televisions you will find settings you can adjust which will change the colour etc.
So imagine if you work hard with your images on your computer and then view those same images on a different monitor, your images would most likely look different. So how would you prepare an image to ensure that a viewer looking at your image displayed on any monitor will see an accurate view of your image? The short answer is you can’t!
There are some things you can do to help improve your chances that your image will be shown as you intended.
The first is to make sure you are profiling and calibrating your monitor so that any adjustments you apply are based on an accurate representation of the image data.
Next, convert your images to the sRGB by using either the Edit > Convert to Profile command in Photoshop or via the Export command in Lightroom when intending to upload your images to the web. Be sure you’ve embedded this profile in your images.
When we profile and calibrate our monitors to a “standard” and use the right colour space for our intended purpose we are helping to ensure our images are seen as we intended by as many people as possible.