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Making Sense of Colour Space

by Bethany (follow)
Blog (332)      Articles (155)     

When you were setting up your camera you may have noticed an option to choose the 'colour space' and wondered what it was and how it would affect your photographs.

Colour space is the term used to describe the way colours are organised in your images and the devices you view them on. It tells you the range of colours that your camera, printer, or monitor can display or produce, and what you have to work with when you edit. Think of it as a digital painting palette.

Each colour space is a mathematical model that reduces the range of colours into three or four values, and displays all possible colour combinations that can be made from them.

The most common colour spaces used in our everyday lives are:
- RGB (Red/Green/Blue) for all computers, cameras and scanners
- CMYK (Cyan/Magenta/Yellow/Black) for colour printing
- YUV for TV and video

Photographs are viewed on cameras and computers, which use RGB colour space, and contains all possible colours that can be made from a combination of red, green and blue:

Image from ArcSoft.com

Within RGB colour space there are two different types:
- sRGB
- AdobeRGB

Where can you find the colour space setting in your camera? It really depends on the camera you use, but mine is located in the Set Up menu. You’ll see a Colour Space option, and will be able to choose between the two types.

Colour Space setting

But first, let’s talk about the difference between these two types of colour spaces.

sRGB is the one that is used across almost all computer-related devices. The ‘s’ literally means ‘standard’, and it displays a limited range of colours, but since it does the best approximation of how another monitor would produce colour (even on old blocky computer monitors and television sets) it is taken as the ‘standard’.

AdobeRGB was designed by Adobe to display sRGB and most of the CYMK colour ranges, using only RGB primary colours. This means AdobeRGB can display richer and more complex colours, such as oranges, yellows and magentas for sunsets, and an extended cyan-green range, which is good for foliage and nature shots. This means the colours are more vibrant, which is better for printing and that they will appear the same on screen as when they are printed (as long as the printer you are using or sending your files to is set up for the correct AdobeRGB colour space - most professional printing companies are but you should always check).

So which should I use?

It really depends on what you want to do with your photos. Do you want to print them, or just upload them to the Internet? And are you going to edit them first?

sRGB is fine for everyday use, if you aren’t planning on editing your photos all that much. AdobeRGB's wider range of colours is better for editing, but it's more complicated, requiring you to select it as the colour space in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom before you start editing and then converting any images you want to display online to sRGB before saving them (which adds time to your editing workflow process). You may also need to calibrate your monitor to make sure the colours are accurate before you start editing.

sRGB is simpler to use, but limited in its printing capability. Photos can also be converted to sRGB at any time (although sRGB cannot be converted to AdobeRGB). Note that, if you don't convert to sRGB before uploading to the Internet, it will be done automatically — and the results are usually not as great (see the image below).

An AdobeRGB image uploaded without conversion. Image from dpbestflow.org


Basically, it would probably be best to stick to sRGB while practising, and only use AdobeRGB if you’re planning on editing and printing.

Check your camera to see which colour space it's currently set to and change it if necessary. Make sure your computer editing software and printer are set to the same one.

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