Photo color management is one of those subjects that can quickly get head-spinningly complicated. This isn’t the place for a deep dive into the topic. For that, I recommend some of the excellent resources already on the web or a book on the topic.
As much fun as rabbit holes can be, what I’m trying to provide here are some simple, practical recommendations on which colorspace to use when. These recommendations aren’t designed as definitive–there are always exceptions, and there’s room for alternative approaches. But they’re reliable starting points. Because chances are, if you’ve found this page, that’s what you’re after.
But first, it’s worth cutting through some of the jargon.
Color space (or colorspace) and color profile are often used interchangeably. They’re technically different things. One refers to a color model and how it’s implemented, while the other refers to a numerical translation. If you’re embedding or downloading, it’s usually referred to as a color profile. But the distinction isn’t that important here, and I’m going to use both to mean basically the same thing.
ICC Color Profile refers to a standardized system put in place by the International Color Consortium.
And where things get extra complicated is that in digital photography color management, there are several different places and ways to use a color profile. You might have one for your display that has been created by a colorimeter. Or one for a specific combination of printer, paper, and ink. Or you might have one downloaded from a print lab for soft proofing, to give you a more accurate depiction of how the image should look when it’s printed.
There are many different color models. Two common ones are RGB and CMYK. Another, YUV, is typically used in video production. In digital photography, RGB is by far the most important and is the one I’m focusing on here.
Some of the most common RGB ICC profiles you’ll come across for photography are sRGB IEC61966-2.1 (I’m going to refer to it here simply as sRGB), Adobe RGB (1998), and ProPhoto RGB. There are many others–and there can be an infinite number because you can create custom profiles–but those are the most common in digital photography these days.
Which Color Space to Use For . . .
Safest Choice: sRGB
The safest option in most uses is sRGB. While it’s not the largest color space and isn’t ideal for high-quality imaging applications, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a device or app that doesn’t handle files embedded with the sRGB colorspace as you’d expect.
So a good real of thumb is: if in doubt, use sRGB.
Sharing Images on the Web
Best choice: sRGB
Alternate: Untagged (most browsers and web applications will assume sRGB)
sRGB has become the defacto standard for displaying images on the web. It’s the safest bet if you want to share your photos on the web in any way. And I’m taking a broad view of that–it includes social media and websites. It also includes sending photos to friends via email if they’re just going to view the photos or share them online. If you’re uploading to Facebook or Instagram, stick with sRGB–it’s hard enough to make the images look good on social media sites without making it more complicated.
Adobe RGB isn’t as bad of a choice as it used to be. Back in the day, browsers didn’t know how to translate the Adobe RGB colorspace and the images, therefore, display as flat, dull, and unsaturated. For the most part, that’s no longer true. Modern browsers also deal just fine with the AdobeRGB, but there’s still an element of risk that your viewer might be using a device or app that doesn’t know how to use Adobe RGB. And browsers’ ICC support is inconsistent. But there are some situations where you might want to choose Adobe RGB. I often use Adobe RGB, for example, for uploading my images to galleries that will be displayed on the web but that the images can also be downloaded and licensed for publication use. But for regular web or social media use, I use sRGB or strip out the color profile completely.
In some instances, you might want to remove the colorspace information completely. This is something that comes up particularly in optimizing images for the web to make them as small as possible by stripping out non-essential metadata. Most web applications assume that an image file without en embedded ICC profile should be treated as though it’s sRGB.
Best Choices: ProPhoto RGB or Adobe RGB
In a controlled, closed editing workflow, you may as well use the widest gamut you practically can. For a long time, that meant Adobe RGB. Thanks to Lightroom, ProPhoto RGB is now a popular choice (and what I use) and has an even wider gamut.
sRGB isn’t a bad choice for image editing, and if that’s all your software supports, then there’s no harm in using that. But if you have the wider gamuts available, you may as well make the most of them.
Sending Photos to Clients
Best Choice: sRGB
If you want to save yourself the headache of having clients complain that their images are flat, dull, and washed out, send them in sRGB. Unless your client is an imaging professional, in which case, see below.
Sending Files to a Graphic Designer or Magazine Photo Editor
Good Option: Adobe RGB
Another Good option: sRGB
Imaging professionals such as graphic designers and photo editors should have no trouble at all dealing with color profiles and will convert them to their working profile of choice (print magazines, for instance, might well be using CMYK rather than RGB). They probably have (or should) have a color-managed setup and workflow as good or better than yours.
AdobeRGB used to be the defacto standard for this kind of work years ago, but it’s much less important now. Part of that is because the diversity of image sources that imaging professionals receive from is now huge. It used to mainly professional photographers or stock agencies; now it could be anyone with a smartphone. So, in short, send them whatever you have–they’ll almost certainly be able to convert it if need be.
Sending Photos to a Print Lab
Safest Choice: sRGB
Better Choice: Adobe RGB (but only if the specific print lab supports and recommends it—some only include sRGB in their recommendations).
Better print labs will have a recommendation on their website as to what specific colorspace you should embed in your file (note that this is different from the soft proofing profiles that some labs provide). For instance, here are direct links to the recommendations from some popular print labs: White House Custom Colour | BayPhoto | Shutterfly | Nations Photo Lab |
Most will start with Adobe RGB or sRGB, and it’s a safer bet to stick with one of the commonly used colorspaces. As a technical matter, their high-end imaging equipment and software should be able to translate any colorspace that’s embedded into the file—even if their equipment can’t necessarily reproduce the full gamut—but there’s an element of risk in that until you’ve had a chance to test with a specific lab.
sRGB is safe, but for many print labs it means you won’t be taking full advantage of the capabilities of those fancy printers they use. Aside from some specialist labs where I’ve had the chance to test the results, I generally use Adobe RGB. It’s still a safe option but has better potential than sRGB.
It’s always highly recommended to embed an ICC profile into your images that you’re sending to a print lab. If you don’t embed an ICC profile in the images you send, most labs’ software will treat it as sRGB. If that’s an incorrect assumption, you can end up with unexpected color shifts and inconsistent results.
Another thing to watch is that your image is properly saved as RGB and not CMYK.
Setting Up Your Camera
Many cameras these days give you a choice in the options of using sRGB or Adobe RGB. These apply to JPGs created in the camera. They’re not applied to RAW files (but might show up in the embedded JPG thumbnails).
The same sorts of considerations apply in choosing which to use. The safest and simplest is sRGB. And that’s what the camera will almost certainly have set as the default. Especially if you’re sharing directly to the web, stick with sRGB.
Adobe RGB potentially gives you a wider set of colors to work with (obviously, the scene you’re shooting matters here too). So you can make the argument that it gives you higher potential quality, especially for editing the image. But editing JPGs is inherently less than ideal, and if you’re shooting for maximum quality, you’re usually better off shooting in RAW on those cameras that support it.