Color Management: Picking the Right Working Space

As simple as digital photography has made taking pictures, obtaining the perfect end result much more complex. As images are taken by cameras, uploaded to computers with monitors, converted to jpegs for the internet, and printed with a wide variety of output technology, keeping color consistent becomes more and more involved.

Using ICC profiles is the most direct way to manage color across platforms, but within an ICC workflow lie many options and combinations, and depending on where the image will end up, it is important to understand what the ideal settings are.

When editing an image, there will be a color profile that the image is currently in. This is called your "working profile" or "working color space." There are three primary working spaces when editing images in Adobe Photoshop: ProfotoRGB, AdobeRGB, and sRGB. These are ICC profiles designed to be assigned to out-of-camera image files. When shooting in RAW mode, the color space setting on your camera is essentially an afterthought, since you will be selecting your working space when converting the RAW to an editable file. However, if you are shooting jpeg, it is important to set the ideal setting for color space in your camera.

The dialogue box within Adobe Camera Raw 4 where working space is selected.

As a rule, setting to AdobeRGB is the way to go, as most cameras will not have an option for ProfotoRGB. The primary difference between these three working spaces is the "size" of the color gamut. In short, ProfotoRGB is capable of rendering the largest amount of colors possible, whereas AdobeRGB is less, and sRGB is the smallest color gamut of the three. However, even sRGB contains a significant amount of the colors that you will encounter in most images.

Many professionals prefer to work in ProfotoRGB, since it is considered the "widest" of the color spaces. However, there is a critical requirement when working in this color space. The image must be in 16 bit mode. This means that ProfotoRGB should never be used on jpeg images, or any 8 bit file. When opening an image in Adobe Camera Raw, and selecting ProfotoRGB as the working space, be sure to also set the bit depth to 16 bits. When it comes time to save the image as any type of 8 bit file, be sure to first change the color space to AdobeRGB or sRGB before down converting to 8 bits. Do this by going to Edit - Convert to Profile and selecting either AdobeRGB or sRGB. If this is not done, you run the risk of strange color posterization, banding, or other unusual issues in an image file.

AdobeRGB is by far the most used color space among working photographers. It represents a compromise between ProfotoRGB and sRGB. It is perfectly acceptable to use this color space when working in either 8 bit or 16 bit mode. Jpeg files can also be saved with the AdobeRGB color space attached.

Often, photographers will scoff at ever using sRGB, but there is at least one critical time to use this color space. The entire internet is based around the sRGB space. If you have ever uploaded an image to any picture-hosting website, Facebook, etc, and it appears washed out, or completely different in color than your original file, this is because the image was not in the sRGB color space. When putting any kind of photography on the internet, converting it to sRGB will assure that it matches your original file as closely as possible. Be aware that any kind of conversion within Photoshop by using Edit-Convert to Profile will flatten the image, removing any and all layers.

Another great time to use sRGB is when submitting files to photo contests, for projections during lectures or presentations, or when sending out files to friends and family. Since it is the most compact and compatible color space, it assures that no matter where the images end up, the odds of them looking as you originally intended go up significantly if they are in the sRGB color space.

All three of these working spaces offer benefits and pitfalls to photographers working digitally, and those who are able to seamlessly use all three to their benefit will obtain the best results no matter where their images end up. Color management is completely unique to digital photography, on every level from consumer to professional. By using it to your advantage, not only will your images look their best when hanging on your wall, but also when displayed on poorly calibrated monitors or broken projectors wherever your work ends up.

Joshua Lehrer
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Josh is a recent graduate of the Advertising Photography program at the Rochester Institute of Technology. His career started in the NJ/NYC area where he worked as a freelance photographer, writer, and consultant. He also worked as marketing coordinator for a large photography retailer. He currently resides in South Florida, where he continues to be heavily involved in the photography industry.