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Understanding Digital Camera Color Space Choices

November 30, 2010 | | Comments 9

Adobe RGB vs sRGB color space gamut diagramMost digital SLR cameras allow the photographer to choose a color space for images captured in the Jpeg file format. Photographer’s with these cameras face two color space choices—sRGB and Adobe RGB. You need to know that the camera’s sensor is able to record a tremendous variety of colors that could never be printed out or displayed on a computer monitor to understand this important setting.

The camera’s processing engine will automatically shift an unprintable shade over to the closest acceptable alternative when shooting in Jpeg. The color space parameter controls this color shift process. Camera geeks and digital experts can go on for days about the theoretical advantages of one color space over another but the important part to me is the goal. The color space parameter sets your file’s “gamut limit.” The color space defines the range of theoretical colors that the file can utilize.

The sRGB gamut is a close match to the range of colors that the average computer monitor can display. sRGB is an excellent color space choice for photographers whose work will only appear on the screen and on the web. It’s also the color space that most photo labs are expecting. Adobe RGB offers a larger gamut meaning a wider range of colors. Bigger is better but you must understand that some of the theoretical colors in the Adobe RGB bubble cannot be reproduced accurately unless you are using the best computer monitors and the highest-end inkjet printers.

I define the term “direct to print photographer” as someone who prints photographs directly off their digital camera’s memory card. My mother, for example, takes her digital camera memory cards to the local photo lab for quick and easy printing. There is no Photoshop and no post-processing involved in my mother’s photographic workflow.

The local lab prints her Jpeg files right off the memory card. For a direct to print photographer, the color space choice is critical but easy. sRGB makes sense for photographers like my mother because it is the color space that her photo lab is expecting. Most commercial photo labs, and almost all of the direct to print inkjet printers on the market today, are designed for use with sRGB files. If you try to print out an Adobe RGB file then your colors – particularly your reds – will appear flat and dull.

My mother and I have very different photographic needs and routines. I’m a professional photographer and an Adobe Photoshop Lightroom expert. I am proud to say that my photography has achieved a level of sophistication where color gamut decisions are of critical importance. For professionals, and serious photo enthusiasts, shooting in a Raw rather than Jpeg makes the most sense because Raw files do not have a fixed color space. With digital camera Raw files, we get to make all of our color conversion decisions after the image has been captured!

Digital camera raw files do not have a fixed color space because these file’s do not yet contain pixels. Raw files are a record of the unprocessed “sensel” data which exceeds all gamut limits. Flexibility of color, and of color space, is one of the greatest advantages to digital camera raw files. Serious photographers often shoot in raw so that they can pick the appropriate color space for each processed copy of their original capture using post-processing software. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom makes this process completely painless since color space is one of the parameters that we can control, and automate, inside of the Export dialog.

My advice is to keep life simple. I suggest that photographer’s of any level shoot Jpeg images using the sRGB color space. Using sRGB in camera will give you files that can be printed directly off the memory card. If you need more control over color, if a wider gamut will help with your work, then bring home Raw files and learn to use post-processing software like Lightroom or Photoshop CS5.

For more information on the significant advantages that larger color spaces offer please watch this insightful video tutorial from Adobe Photoshop master John Paul Caponigro.

If you liked the video then please click here for excellent articles on color management from John Paul Caponigro. John Paul’s articles are free but you will need to register with his website. For those seeking more insight on this topic, I also recommend reading Tim Grey’s Color Confidence: The Digital Photographer’s Guide to Color Management (Tim Grey Guides). You can download one of the book’sbest chapters for free here.

Those seeking the most technical information about the whole science of color management need to read Bruce Fraser’s definitive book on Real World Color Management.

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About the Author: David Marx is a digital photography instructor whose engaging teaching style inspires photographers of all skill levels. David is an Adobe Certified Lightroom Expert. To learn more about David's Adobe Photoshop Lightroom software training seminars and digital photography field workshops please visit www.davidmarx.com or follow David Marx on Google+.