Color Management Tips for Photographers

Stairs from Point Reyes LighthousePreserve the Colors of your Images Recently Ron sent me an email and hinted me towards the fact that I missed the last mile on my workflow tutorials.
I was asked to give some more insight into the process of preparing images for web viewing and/or printing.
In this tutorial I am going to cover some of the basics of color profiling and in the next tutorial I am going to talk a bit about resizing and compression of images. After all you want your images to look good without annoying your viewers (and your wallet) by large data transfers. As you can see this site has a reasonable amount of graphics, but (hopefully) still loads fairly quickly. Part of the reason (besides a good host) is that I optimize my images for online viewing. Since I have automated the process, I forgot to cover this subject. You can use the same technique to send your pictures via email.

Color Profiles and Management

I am by no means an expert in color profiling, nor do I understand all of it. But I can give you some tips on what worked for me without drifting too much into technical jargon.
Color Management should be part of your digital workflow and it is tightly interwoven with all the applications.
Since different devices use different technology (an LCD uses light and color filters to render pixels while an inkjet puts ink onto a paper), you need color management to make the picture look the same on either of them. You want the picture to be printed the same way it looks on your screen. Today's consumer grade LCD screens are often too bright and too cold (blue/green tint). I guess the reason behind this is that manufacturers want them to look brighter in the show room. Unfortunately, this really messes up your color management, so if you are serious about getting the best quality from your pictures, check out my short article on LCD Color Calibration.

Color Proofing

Even after you calibrated your monitor, you still need an application like Photoshop that supports color management. As far as I understand the process, the monitor profile consists of two parts. One part is loaded in the operating system (the one that converts a standard color space to the color space of your monitor) and another part is used by the application.
All you need to worry about is that your application supports color management. On some LCDs (like my laptop screen) I can see a visible difference between an image that I open in Photoshop on the calibrated monitor and one I open with the Windows picture viewer.
In order to color proof your image for your printing service, you need an ICC Profile. Since EZPrints offers good prices and a color profile (EZPrints Profile), I am going to use them as an example. Simply download the profile and right click on the file. Select "Install Profile" and start (or restart) Photoshop.
In Photoshop open the picture you wish to color proof.
Go to View -> Proof Setup -> Custom
Under Device to Simulate select ezprints.icc (or whatever printer you want to use) and leave the rendering intent on Relative Colorimetric.
Now you can do two things:
1) You can go to View -> Gamut Warning and let Photoshop highlight the areas in your picture that are out of Gamut (that have levels of saturation your printer cannot reproduce). If you have a lot of those areas and if the color range is wide, you will see posterization effects. That usually happens when you try to boost the saturation too much.
2) Or you can go to View -> Proof Colors. Provided your Monitor is calibrated and able to reproduce the entire color range (that's usually the case, as a monitor has a wider color space than prints), you will be able to preview exactly how the final print colors will look like. Don't even try this with an uncalibrated screen.
I have also set up Photoshop to use ProPhoto RGB as my working color space (Edit -> Color Settings). For some reason, Photoshop only lets you select ProPhoto RGB after clicking the "More Options Tab" (which cost me quite some time to find out).
Set Photoshopw Working Color Space

Color Spaces

Ron asked: "The instructors for Photoshop at the UC ext. courses there in Cupertino always said to use Adobe RGB color space. Now I see that people say sRGB might be better."

Color Profiling, Color Space, Color Management: if all of this sounds confusing to you, let me assure you that you are not alone.
For the past years I have been using ProPhoto RGB for editing and sRGB for printing and web publishing with good results. The only reason I can use ProPhoto RGB is the fact that I shoot mostly RAW images and do the conversion myself. When I "develop" the RAW file I can choose whatever color space I wish (RAW files do not contain color, only luminance) and I can use 16-bit color. If you are shooting JPG, you should set your camera to Adobe RGB color space (Most cameras offer sRGB and Adobe RGB).
Although my final goal is to produce a picture in sRGB, my entire workflow is based on ProPhoto RGB since it offers a much larger color space than sRGB does. As my camera does also record more colors than the sRGB color space can reproduce, I know that I will preserve all colors by choosing ProPhoto RGB, which is one of the widest color spaces available. sRGB and even Adobe RGB will not be able to reproduce ALL the colors my camera can record and might end up looking a bit flat.
When you work with ProPhoto RGB (or even with Adobe RGB), you should work with 16-bit files in order to avoid banding effects (since the color space is that much bigger, you need more bits).
In the picture below, I put 3 screenshots next to each other, showing how much highlight clipping one can expect when selecting different color space profiles (the red areas are indications of clipped highlights in Adobe Camera RAW). Those colors might be washed out in the final result.

Comparing Color Space Highlight Clipping
So obviously ProPhoto RGB gives us a lot less clipping (or a wider gamut range).
That is the reason for me to choose ProPhoto RGB for photo editing.

One has to be careful though, since the color range is so wide, that it is arguable what is still visible. The color space of most monitors is usually close to sRGB and that of most printers is even less (they cannot reproduce those extremely high saturated colors).

Therefore, after I have done all my editing, I convert all my images to sRGB for printing and web viewing.
The reason is that EZPrints and most other printing companies expect images to be uploaded in sRGB and that they have set up their equipment this way. I still color proof everything, but I convert to sRGB before sending it out.

For web viewing you also have to choose sRGB, since web browsers do not make use of color management profiles. And since color information may not be stored in your optimized jpg (see next tutorial), most browsers and operating systems assume sRGB per default.

To convert to sRGB simply go to:
Edit -> Convert to Profile
Chose:
Profile: sRGB
Conversion Options: Engine: Adobe, Intent: Perceptual, Black Point Compensation, Dither

Since web browsers usually ignore color profiles or have no use for them, most people don't even save them for images to be uploaded online.
What happens if an image is in ProPhoto RGB but the browser assumes it is sRGB, can be seen below (the images will look identical in Photoshop if we tell it that the image on the right is actually in ProPhoto RGB color space).
Depending on your monitor, the results might look more or less dramatic.

sRGB
Image converted to sRGB and then saved
ProPhoto RGB
Image saved in ProPhoto RGB


Basically the Browser simply remaps misinterprets the colors of the much wider color space. But since the image didn't fill the entire color space, it now looks flat.

So finally we are able to answer Ron's question:
For editing we should use a color space with a wider Gamut range such as ProPhoto RGB or Adobe RGB, but for printing and displaying we should always convert to sRGB (after you have made all your image adjustments). I usually make the conversion to sRGB followed by the conversion to 8-bit the last steps of my image processing actions.

Creating a Profile for your own Printer

Colorvision also offers a product to create a profile for your own printer. I have never done it, since I don't produce my own prints (SmugMug handles that so nicely for me and I can use their profile). I own a Canon printer that produces a reddish hue on my pictures, but it is sufficient for some cards and small prints. If you are planning to produce your own high quality prints, you should probably check out the PrintFIX from Colorvision. It works similar to the Spyder for your prints and lets you create a profile for your printer in order to match up the results to your screen.

Windows vs. Mac

Ron: Also what I find is a problem is ...doing all the work on one platform ...say a Mac and then find out that when viewed on a "PC" the data looks very different, dull or washed out. Black backgrounds (my site) also can look great on a Mac but maybe not so good on a "wintel" machine.
Apple displays are among the best you can get. Unfortunately I am running Windows myself.
My best guess would actually be that Ron's Mac displays the the colors more accurate while the "wintel" machines need to be calibrated (doesn't hurt to calibrate the Apple display, but some have this feature already built in!).
This is a huge problem, since customers with uncalibrated screens are sometimes surprised how the print looks like. Especially laptop screens are very bad when it comes to color rendition.
A calibrated Windows Machine and a calibrated Macintosh will render the image exactly the same !
The calibration process on my LCD Display has resulted in a reduced brightness.

Windows vs. Mac

From what I understand, the Safari web browser respects color profile information in images it renders, whereas other browsers such as Firefox and IE don't. This might be one reason why some images look good on a Mac but not so good on a Windows box.

Color Management Tips

Hi Ron, great article about color management workflow for photographers!
I would like to let you know that there are new tools for basic ICC color profiling for photographers:
PerfX Shots™ and PerfX Prints™ from TGLC inc.

PerfX Shots™ for scanner and digital camera ICC profiling.
PerfX Prints™ for color printer ICC profiling.

Take a look at it at
www.perfxshots.com
www.perfxprints.com

Hope you will like it!

Safari

Thanks Marc,

I am not sure how that is handled on a Mac, I just know that most browsers render sRGB and don't read profiles. That might explain the difference Ron is seeing when comparing his pictures on his friends computers.
Since we want our images to look good on most of our visitors computers, you really should aim for sRGB output.
I am a bit surprised though. Wasn't Safari based on Konqueror?

Safari

I don't know about the history of Safari - but I agree that converting to sRGB is definitely the way to go for output on the web or photo processing.

More questions about digital workflows

Hello
Ron here.
Andre thanks for your response on your web site. About the “final mile” dealing with images for the web or for printing. This is a real issue for people like me that have web sites and also do occasional printing.

It seems to me that pro-am photographers have a dilemma of sorts. That dilemma is “what do we want to do with our photos? My point here is I do not make my living selling my photography, however it is a serious hobby, and many of us have substantial investments in our equipment and time we spend.

The question is then what “Work Flow” would be the best for someone that puts together Photo Web Sites. A complicated print proofing procedure with printing profiles etc. might be a waste of time if that result would not be required or even desirable if all you want is a good presentable sRGB image to upload to a web site.

You say your workspace for editing is in Adobe ProPhoto RGB. This gives you a large color working space but requires you to convert to sRGB for any uploading to your web sites. My question is this: If I assume my photos final destination is a website… why shouldn’t I edit in the final color space (sRGB) I am going to use in the “final mile” when I upload to my web site? Seems right that I then would be editing my images in a similar workspace that the majority of people would be viewing the photos on their Browser. (I note the interesting note from Marc about Safari respecting color profiles.)

The issue of doing work on a photo in one color space say (ProPhoto RGB) then doing a conversion to another is problematic. I can see the same issue when going to print, especially when the printers have a reduced color capability. I agree that you certainly can make better edits in the largest color space but it seems that a final convert to a smaller color space (sRGB) could go either way when viewed in a Browser.
Ron

Questions about converting Adobe RGB to sRGB

Hi Ron,
I am using CS3 here. The "covert to profile" is abit different then what you showed above. By default
Source Space Profile : ProPhoto RGB
Destination Space Profile : "Working CMYK-US Web Coated (SWOP) V2"
So should I change this one to "Working RGB- sRGB IEC61966-2.1" or "sRGB IEC61966-2.1"? Since I can only see these 2 sRGB selection on the list.
Engine :Adobe (ACE)
Intent: "Relative Colorimetric"
And I need to change this to "Perceptual" right?

And I used to work with Adobe RGB by default from raw and in PhotoMatrix without changing back to sRGB in the final process. Will Adobe RGB affects the printing and displaying result on the monitor as well or just ProPhoto RGB?

Thank you for all of your tutorials which are really really usefully to me.

Sun

Hi Sun,

I guess I should clarify that Ron was the person asking the questions and that I (Andre) wrote the tutorial and answered all the questions so far.
sRGB IEC61966-2.1 is the sRGB color space I was talking about. I think the IEC number is just the standard definition of the sRGB color space (the one implemented in Photoshop).
My Tutorial was written for CS2 (I have not yet updated).
If you use Perceptual, the image will "look the same" after the conversion.
If you submit your picture to an online printing shop, they always assume your image is in sRGB color space. If you send them a Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB file, they might be smart enough to read the metadata (if its included) and change the color space, but I wouldn't bet on it. It is better to convert to sRGB for printing, or your risk that your pictures look flat (like in the example of the mission above).
You won't notice a difference in Photoshop (compare the pictures of the couple), since Photoshop reads the color information and displays your image correctly. However if you open the "save for web" dialog on an image that is either in ProPhoto RGB or in Adobe RGB, you get an idea, since images for the Internet are saved without color information.

Color Gamut

One reason it's a good idea to edit in a color space with a larger gamut than your target space is that your color adjustments will have greater fidelity. If you limit your working space early, your color adjustments and retouching work will be artificially limited, and in some cases this can cause banding. For example, if you adjust contrast by stretching the colours in a small range out to a larger range (as in Levels) then using 16-bit with ProPhoto gives you more information to stretch out, and therefore better quality. Think of color fidelity as similar to image resolution, but for color.

Working with a larger gamut up-front also gives you more options later. In ten years, when we have better quality monitors, all the sRGB images will look flat compared to ProPhoto RGB images. The same applies now if you print to a higher-quality printer. Many layout artists have historically worked directly in CMYK (even less gamut than sRGB) space, but again, this is a device space, not a working space. If you try to print a CMYK image on a 6-color printer or show it on screen, it looks flat. Stick with at least Adobe RGB as long as you can and convert to a target color space at the end.

Web Standards

I'm not sure it was mentioned already, but the internet's one and only color space is sRGB: http://www.w3.org/Graphics/Color/sRGB

All images uploaded to the web are supposed to be converted to sRGB beforehand. The fact that some browsers supports non-standard extensions does not change anything to that and failing to properly convert to sRGB before upload will cause about 90% of the viewers to see improper renditions of the pictures.

Think of the web as an output device working (only) in sRGB. Capture, edit, archive and print in whatever color space that suits your needs, but when rendering for the web, sRGB is the only option.

>Basically the Browser simply remaps the colors of the much wider color space

This is precisely the opposite :-) The browser does not remap anything and the wide-gamut ProPhoto RGB image is misinterpreted as sRGB (since it's supposed to be in that space) and the colors look all wrong.

Color managed application actually remap every pixels to make them "fit" within the color space of the target device. Very few apps do that properly, outside of the well known big-name applications, especially when the target is a custom-profiled wider-gamut monitor.

-- Axel (author of the fastest color-managed image viewer on earth :-)

Same

Hello Axel, author of the fastest color-managed image viewer.

thank you very much for your very insightful comment, and also for making me aware of your fast color managed viewer.
I think we basically meant to say the same thing, only that I didn't get the technical terms right. The browser gets an image that is not in sRGB and treats it as sRGB. That means that the wide color space is misinterpreted (as you said) or mapped (as I said) as/into a smaller color space, thus compressing the colors closer together. Its as if we lose saturation, since all colors are now closer to grey (neutral). That is how I interpret the situation from the photographers (users) perspective. I am sure in technical terms its slightly more complicated.
My reference to remapping was too ambiguous. Thanks for pointing this out to me. I will make the necessary adjustments to the article.
I used to refer to the process of recalculating the image for a new color space as color space transformation, a term that is used inside Photoshop.

Camera Setting sRGB or Adobe RGB

From the contents of the tutorial and the comments, it apears that it is best to set the camera to Adobe RGB if
1. One shoots in RAW
2. Want to do further processing later

Is my assumption correct or are there other factors to consider?

Not really

Actually since RAW doesn't have any color information, the color space doesn't matter either. The RAW file comes out exactly the same, regardless of your picture settings like sharpening, color profile and whatnot.
You can select whatever color profile you want when you convert the RAW file. Choosing a wide color profile like Adobe RGB or better yet, Pro Photo RGB, gives you a wider range of possible adjustments without artifacts. I use this to add pop to some of my images.

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