Which Color Space Do I Use? Color Spaces Simplified.

There are basically 3 rules for choosing a color space to work within, no matter what device we are talking about – camera, computer, web, print. Here they are…

  1. Choose the widest color space available when working in anything less than the final output. This will give you the most colors to work with.
  2. Calibrate your equipment to display it properly so you don’t fool yourself and soft-proof if possible in the color space you’ll use for output. You want to correctly see what you are working with.
  3. Make your final output in the color space that is possible for that media whatever it may be, using the widest color space available. You’re going to have limited choices based on the materials or medium so choose the widest that is possible in order to get the most color.

Here are some commonly-known color spaces in order of highest to lowest amount of colors represented:

  • (Highest) Your eyes. [look around, you’re already working in this color space (color-blind persons excepted)]
  • Pro-photo RGB
  • Adobe 1998
  • (Lowest) sRGB

Here’s how it works as an example:

I go out looking for something to take a photo of, and I look around (using the widest color space available, my eyes). I find something and set up my camera to shoot it.

I set my camera to record in RAW (the most information recorded, widest amount of color space) where it works in the ProPhotoRGB color space (widest possible color-space in camera), and I take the shot.

I find I want to shoot the scene again with some in-camera special effect that only works if I shoot as a JPEG. I make sure my camera is set to shoot in Adobe1998 color space as this is the widest I can get when I shoot JPEGs with my Canon camera (widest possible color-space available for the medium I’m working in), and I take the shot.

I take these back to my office where I put them into my computer using Lightroom. I’ve got Lightroom set-up to work in ProPhotoRGB by default (widest possible color space in Lightroom software), and I start my post processing. The RAW file I shot comes in in ProPhotoRGB and I can see it on my screen in that color space because I first calibrated my monitor using an EyeOne product by Xrite (calibrated my equipment to display properly). In the case of the JPEG, I can see the Adobe1998 color space because that is what it was shot in and the monitor is calibrated to display a wider color space (ProPhoto as just mentioned), so it shows the Adobe1998 colors just fine.

I’m going to publish one of these to the web on my site where it can be printed or viewed. I know that to view on the web, the image is going to have to be in sRGB color space (widest possible color-space for the media I’ll be using, the web). I check with my printing house, Bay Photo Lab, and they say they want the image in sRGB color space also. Great! The same color space can be used for both media.

I ask Bay Photo what the final product printed on metal will look like, and they send me an ICC file (bayphotoviewing.icc). The ICC file is a profile of a color space specific to the media I’ll be using, in this case a metal print. I load this ICC profile into Lightroom and use Lightroom’s soft proofing feature where I select this particular profile. I can now see what the final output will look like – the print on metal is faithfully displayed on my screen.

The Soft Proof Window in Lightroom 4. Note the profile I chose here was “BayViewing…” as this was the ICC profile for their printed output.

This above is a very typical example of what I do.

I hope that by my simple three item list and this example, that I’ve convinced you that when it comes to choosing a color space, it is not that hard and that color spaces need not be so confusing.

To know all there is to know about color spaces, you can search further on the web. The topic has been widely published.

Lightroom 4 and the Soft Proof check box at bottom right-of-center. Click to enlarge.