Do you know the difference between sRGB and AdobeRGB color spaces and how you should use them in your photography? This detailed guide explains all...

Intermediate

If you have ever viewed your photos and noticed that the color looks off, something called 'color space' could be to blame for the issue. A knowledge of the difference between the two main digital color spaces - sRGB and AdobeRGB will help you ensure that your images look great whether they are seen on screen or in print.

What is color space?


The simplest explanation of color space is that it is the range of colors that can be shown in a photo. And there are two main color spaces used in digital photography, which both have their advantages and disadvantages, depending on where and how an image is used.

The two main color spaces are sRGB and AdobeRGB. Here are some key points:

- RGB in both sRGB and AdobeRGB stands for 'red, green and blue'

- All the colors seen in an image in these color spaces are made from a combination of these colors

- AdobeRGB represents around 35% more colors than sRGB

- All digital displays such as monitors, and smartphones use sRGB color space

- When printing, AdobeRGB is a closer match to the CMYK colors which are used for printing

- You can convert an AdobeRGB color space to sRGB without any loss of color but not vice versa

Again, color space is simply used to describe the range of colors that are in a photograph. But does this mean one is better than the other? I'll come back to this later, but first it is important to understand what each color space is in a bit more detail.

What is sRGB?


This term is used for a color space of RGB developed by HP and Microsoft in 1996 for digital purposes. This is generally the default option used by any computer device and many cameras, and is considered the standard option, hence the 's' in front of RGB.

Cameras might automatically default the sRGB option, but it's worth knowing with many cameras that you have the option to change the color space in the camera settings accessed from the LCD screen.

sRGB is also the default for digital screens. This is because digital monitors can show considerably more colors from this color space compared to AdobeRGB. Most digital monitors can show around 97% of colors in the sRGB color space, whereas only 76% of colors in the AdobeRGB color space can be shown. In other words, if you look at an image that has been saved in an Adobe RGB color space on a digital screen, you might find that some colors are different.

An easier way to understand this is to think of color spaces as pallets of watercolors. AdobeRGB being one set with 10 colors on it and sRGB being another with 5 colors. To create one of the colors on the Adobe RGB pallet using the sRGB pallet you will need to mix colors. You may get a very close match, but it probably won’t be a replica. So even though the colors are close they won’t look exactly the same. This is of course a very simplified example, but it explains the difference in colors in different color spaces.

The colors in sRGB are less vibrant compared to AdobeRGB (I'll explain why later), however with sRGB your images will look the same no matter what device you are using to view them. So, the most important thing this option offers is consistency in colors - your images will look the same no matter where they are being viewed.

What is AdobeRGB?


The other color space option is AdobeRGB. And the important thing to understand with this option is its relationship with the color model of CMYK. This is regarded as a subtractive color model comprised of the colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and key or in other words, black.

In simple terms the subtractive model is basically the way that our eyes see anything that doesn’t have its own light source (i.e., the sun, a light bulb etc). So, when the colors are added to a light background (usually white) they absorb certain colors and allow others to be reflected. For example, blue ink absorbs green and red wavelengths and reflects blue. Hence how we see the color blue on things.

The colors of the CYMK color mode. Clockwise: cyan, yellow, magenta and center: key (black)

An additive color model such as sRGB, works the opposite way. To create colors, different gradients need to be mixed. For example, an equal amount of red and blue light will create purple (or magenta). This is why, if you mix red, green and blue paint you don’t end up with white paint but rather a dark brown. If you combine the same color lights you get white light.

This is the reason why printers use CMYK, as the product (i.e. paper) doesn’t have its own light source. CMYK offers a better translation of digital photos to physical print. Essentially, CMYK offers consistency for every print, in the same manner as sRGB does for digital screens.

As mentioned above sRGB is a color space that excels in the digital world where light can be mixed. However, when images are printed, it will be the CMYK subtractive color model that shows the colors best.

Venice at dusk in color space: AdobeRGB
Venice at dusk in color space: sRGB. Notice how the colors in the sky more muted compared to the same image in the AdobeRGB color space?

The concept of CMYK color space is what inspired Adobe to create their color space in 1998, to allow photographers to have a different option when shooting and presenting their photos. It also helped expand on the visible colors that can be captured while being photographed. AdobeRGB can capture a broader gamut of colors, which means that it can have more potential than sRGB.

This is not to say that your photos will be better with AdobeRGB, but simply that your photo will show a broader range of colors in print (around 35% more). So, for example you may notice a bigger difference in the vibrancy of colors (i.e., dark blues looking darker and light blues being lighter). The same colors will seem more muted in sRGB with less differentiation between its shades. But remember, the vibrancy of color with AdobeRGB will only be reflected in print not on digital screens.

Here you can see a comparison between the RGB and CMYK color models and the difference of colours represented on screen (RGB) vs in print (CMYK).

The other added benefit of AdobeRGB is that you can convert to an sRGB color space without any color loss. But unfortunately, you cannot convert from sRGB to AdobeRGB without losing some colors. This is simply because AdobeRGB contains a larger range of colors than sRGB. So, when you convert from sRGB to Adobe RGB there just isn’t enough colors to be able to replicate it in AdobeRGB.

When you work exclusively with AdobeRGB, it can be more time and resource-consuming, particularly in the post-processing phase of your work as you may have to edit and subsequently convert to sRGB for digital use. Image by Ikostudio.

Which is Better?


All this might sound like AdobeRGB is the better option as you're working with a much broader range of colors. However, it is important to remember that we live in a digital world. Your images are far more likely to be seen and used online than they are in print. This is the reason that sRGB is commonly the more popular color space choice when displaying and selling your images in an online environment.

It is also worth knowing that most publishers and clients who print photos are likely to have their own color correction practices in place despite you using sRGB or AdobeRGB. So, don’t rule out sRGB completely.

Whether sRGB or AdobeRGB is the best option for you, will ultimately depend on you. It depends on the context of your work and where and how the audience will view your photography.

If you are offering your photos predominantly as prints, then it might be better to work in an AdobeRGB color space. This color space is a much closer match to printers which work in CMYK. Image by Deyan Georgiev.

How to view, select and change color space


Photo editing software makes it incredibly quick and easy to switch between color spaces. But before I go through how you would change color space on a photo, keep in mind this important fact that I mentioned earlier:

Converting an AdobeRGB color space to sRGB is lossless. But converting sRGB to AdobeRGB results in some color loss.

With this in mind, my advice would be that if you are planning on using AdobeRGB color space at any time, take your photo in this color space and convert it to sRGB when needed.

Here is how to check, change and save your image in a different color space using Photoshop:

1 With your image open in photoshop click Edit => Convert to profile
2 The popup box will show you what color space the image is in
3 To change the color space, click the “Profile” drop-down menu in “Destination Space”. You will then see the “Destination Space” profile change to the new color space

You will also see another dropdown menu called “Intent”. This is how the switch in color space will happen and is known as “Rendering Intent”. For simplicity you can leave this on “Relative Colorimetric”.

Note:

Relative colormetric compares the whites of both color spaces (your current one and the one you want to convert to) and changes the colors accordingly. Any out of gamut colors are reproduced to the closest possible color in that color space.

4 Click OK to covert to your new color space
5 The changes in color might be subtle and barely noticeable. So, if you want to check that the color space has change simply repeat step 1
6 You can then save your image in whatever file format (i.e. JPEG, TIFF etc) you need

Color space in Lightroom


Lightroom works slightly differently to Photoshop in that images are shown in ProPhoto RGB in the “Develop” module and Adobe RGB in other modules such as “Library”. You don’t really need to worry too much about these whilst using Lightroom. The important part is when you are exporting photos.

1 With your image (or images) selected, click “Export” on the bottom left of the Lightroom interface
2 The pop-up box is where you can set the desired color profile of the exported image. In the “File Setting” section, click the drop-down menu and you will be able to select the color space that you want
3 Click export and the image will be saved in the color space that you set

Next steps


As you can see from above, there are a few things to consider before determining which is the best option for your specific needs:

- For photographers who want to capture the color spectrum as vividly as possible, you will be better off going with the AdobeRGB. This is especially so, if you regularly print your work or wish for clients to do so.

- However, if you want consistency in the colors of the photographs, sRGB is the best choice. You get consistency across the digital platforms when people view the images. The compromise will be that when they are printed out some colors will not look as vibrant.

Tower bridge at dusk in sRGB color space.
Tower bridge at dusk in AdobeRGB color space.


Next steps

Hopefully, this demystifies the whole “color space” dilemma and you can select your color space accordingly. I personally always shoot in AdobeRGB color space as it offers a wider range of colors and I can always save images in sRGB very easily using editing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop. But ultimately the decision will come down to you.

All images by Kav Dadfar unless otherwise stated.