When I first started using Adobe Camera Raw, one of the options I experimented with was which color space the resulting JPEG should be in. Not thinking it mattered, I selected “Adobe RGB (1998)”. However, a few days later I suddenly realized that the images looked different in a browser than when I had saved them in Photoshop. The once rich and vibrant colors were gone, and what I saw were images that were washed out and desaturated. After looking into why this happened, I found out that the problem had to do with color space.
So what is a color space anyway? Basically, it’s a specific range of colors that can be represented. JPEG images offer the same number colors no matter what color space you use, with the difference being the range of the colors that can be represented. In other words, sRGB can represent the same number of colors as Adobe RGB, but the range of colors that it represents is narrower. Adobe RGB has a wider range of possible colors, but the difference between individual colors is bigger than in sRGB.
To illustrate this, I’ll use a simplified example. Suppose my color space consisted only of blue, and I could have a total of 3 possible colors. Lets say I chose to use the following “color space”:
Now, maybe I would like a wider range of colors to work with for one reason or another. Though I can’t increase the number of colors I can represent, I can increase the range by spreading the colors farther apart. The resulting color space might look something like this:
Notice how I was able to capture a wider range (or gamut) of possible colors without increasing the number of colors. In both “color spaces”, I’m limited to 3 colors.
In the same way, Adobe RGB captures the same number of colors as sRGB but offers a wider range of colors by spreading the colors out more.
sRGB is pretty much the default color space everywhere you look. This means that most browsers, applications, and devices are designed to work with sRGB, and assume that images are in the sRGB color space. In fact, most browser simply ignore the embedded color space information in images and render them as sRGB images.
- Displayed consistently across all programs
- Simplifies workflow
- Suitable for normal prints
- Most people can’t tell the difference anyway
- Narrower range of colors than Adobe RGB
- Can’t obtain benefits of Adobe RGB later down the road
Adobe RGB (1998)
As I explained earlier, Adobe RGB represents a wider range of possible colors using the same amount of information as sRGB by making the colors more spaced out. Since sRGB has a narrower range of colors than Adobe RGB, it cannot display certain highly saturated colors that could still be useful in certain applications, such as professional-grade printing. Thus, photographers and graphic artists that need this extra color range for specific purposes would choose Adobe RGB over sRGB.
- Wider range of colors than sRGB
- Better for professional prints
- Can always obtain benefits of sRGB later down the road
- Will be displayed incorrectly by most browsers
- Complicates workflow
Which to Use
First of all, if you publish your images on the web, you should always save and publish them as sRGB. This is because most browsers will render images as sRGB regardless of what you save it as, causing Adobe RGB images to appear desaturated and washed out (the problem I was experiencing). Thus, if you want your images to look the same regardless of where it’s being displayed, you should always publish them as sRGB. This makes it so what you see when you save is what you get when it’s displayed.
Thus, the question becomes, “what color space should I work with and save images as?”. This is more tricky, and generally depends on your workflow and what you use your images for.
If you work with 16-bit images and need the extra color range (or gamut) for professional-grade printing, then you should save your images in Adobe RGB. This preserves the extra color information that would be lost if you saved as sRGB, just like the extra information in RAW files is lost if you save them as JPEGs. In this case, it’s not the amount of data that’s lost, but the range of colors.
If you might need the wider range offered by Adobe RGB anytime in the future, then you should work with and save your images in Adobe RGB. If you save your images as sRGB, you cannot convert it to Adobe RGB in the future to obtain the wider range of colors.
However, the advantage of working in sRGB is that it simplifies your workflow. You don’t need to worry about color spaces at all if you’re only going to publish your images to your Flickr or personal photoblog. All you need to do is save the sRGB images and upload them to the web, and they will look fine.
Unless you know specifically you want to work in Adobe RGB, make sure all your devices and programs are set to work in sRGB. Otherwise, you might find out one day that your images look horrible on other people’s browsers! I found this out the hard way.
Image credit: Clock Study #4 by David H-W (Extrajection).