Or: Why you must work in sRGB

I’m writing this post in hopes of preventing some of the recent damage from yet another CreativeLive disaster. I despair when I think of the thousands of workflows that are complicated, and the countless images that are ruined, by persistent advice to edit in large color spaces.

It’s terribly sad that so many prominent photographers sabotage the workflows of emerging photographers by advocating Adobe RGB or even ProPhoto RGB as the working space of choice. I don’t think this sabotage is deliberate (although it certainly might be in some cases). I think these photographers simply enjoy the false impression of “expertise” that such advice gives them. “Oh, that guy works in Adobe RGB – he must be an expert!” WRONG.

What shall we call a group of photographers who talk crap? Why, the “Craparazzi”, of course.

The Craparazzi will tell you that you shouldn’t work in sRGB. They’ll probably tell you that sRGB is for consumers – people with camera phones and point-and-shoot cameras. They’ll try to make you believe that sRGB has a tiny gamut, with very few colors in it. They’ll tell you that it’s only for web, whereas Adobe RGB is for printing.

These things are not true. sRGB is for almost everyone. sRGB is a lot bigger than you think, and it easily contains most of the colors that you need in your images. And anyway, even as I write this, there is still only a very small percentage of screens in the world that can show a greater range of color than sRGB. So there aren’t many people in the world whose screens can show them the colors of Adobe RGB, and none at all which can show ProPhoto RGB.

And even if your screen can show the greater range of colors, you have to be one of the lucky few who prints on an expensive high-end wide-gamut printer. Such printers exist, of course, but not many of us use them. (More info)

See where I’m going with this? It’s true that a tiny number of people in the world, with the right screen and the right printer, really can use Adobe RGB. But I’m not in that number, and chances are you’re not either. We work on screens that can show us no more colors than sRGB, and we print at labs who can’t print any more colors than sRGB. In some areas of the spectrum, quite a deal less, in fact.

In short: sRGB is our end goal.  (Important analogy)

So how do the Craparazzi validate their bad advice? They say that it’s best to work with as many colors as possible, then use sRGB for the final output if necessary. Well, here’s the funny thing – they’re right, in a way.

They’re right that it’s best to work with as many colors as possible. They’re right if they tell you to convert to sRGB for the final output. And they will probably tell you to shoot raw, and they’re definitely right about that. What they’re wrong about is where the changeover happens.

Of course you should begin with a huge range of colors. As many as your camera can capture. That’s why we shoot raw. Raw data is amazing – so many colors and tones in those ones and zeros.

The Craparazzi will tell you to process your raw files in a large color space (Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB), then continue to edit your photos in that space, even in Photoshop. “Work with all the colors” they’ll say. Of course, we know this is nonsense, because you can’t see all those colors on your screen. Only the sRGB-ish portion of them.

Then they’ll tell you to convert to sRGB when you’re ready to save for web, or print. They might even point out the handy “Convert to sRGB” checkbox in the Save For Web dialog. Or the handy sRGB selector when exporting from Lightroom. What they won’t tell you is the clipping this will cause. colors you thought were safe, suddenly get clipped (blown out) and lose detail. A very nasty surprise. Who likes nasty surprises?

Or even worse, they’ll neglect to tell you to convert at all. They’ll leave you to wonder why your web images look dull and lifeless, and why your prints have lost detail. Sabotage, as I said. If you’re lucky, you’ll quickly find your way to a forum of good folk who will explain the problem and show you how to fix it. But not everyone is so lucky – I’ve known some people to buy new equipment and go to considerable expense of repeated printing, trying to figure out the problem on their own.

The “s” in sRGB stands for “standard”; but it could equally stand for “safe”. As long as you work in sRGB, you’re safe. sRGB colors are usable colors.

So the key to the whole issue is where you change from “Huge color range” to “Usable color range”. And this is the crux of the Craparazzi’s mistake. You mustn’t change to sRGB at the end, you must do it at the beginning, when you’re processing your raw file.

Here’s the simple truth – the core purpose of raw processing is to convert from “Huge color range” to “Usable color range”. Never mind what amazing creative functions your raw software has. When you boil it down, this one role is at the heart of it all. Manipulating the camera’s enormous data into a form you can use.

(Astonishingly, Adobe lost sight of this truth when they designed Lightroom. By not providing the user with an sRGB histogram, they created a program which did everything except the one thing it needed to do. By Lightroom 4, thank goodness, they realized their error and partially corrected it with the introduction of soft-proofing, but it’s a clumsy workaround. I yearn for Adobe to rebuild Lightroom from the ground up to fix this problem, but that seems very unlikely.)

Once you’ve processed your raw file into sRGB, the rest is plain sailing, you see? You can confidently work on your photo in the knowledge that you can both see and reproduce all the colors you’re editing. That is so important.

So please, ignore the Craparazzi. They are not helping you, they’re inflating their own egos. Ain’t nobody got time fo dat.

FOOTNOTES:

1. If you shoot raw (and you should) the color space setting in your camera is irrelevant.  Your photos’ color space is designated by your raw software.

  • If you use Photoshop Elements, make sure its Color Settings are on “Always Optimize for Computer Screens”.
  • If you use Photoshop/Bridge, make sure you click on the blue link at the bottom of the Adobe Camera Raw screen to set sRGB as your color space.
  • If you use Lightroom 4 or above, make sure you turn on the Soft Proofing checkbox in the Develop module, and set it to sRGB.  (Always choose “Make this a proof”. Do not allow it to create a proof copy.)  Also set your export and external editing preferences to sRGB.
  • If you use Lightroom 3 or below, switch to one of the above-listed programs.  Your software is completely useless.

2. For heaven’s sake keep the Document Profile switched on. If something has gone wrong, you need to know about it right away.

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3. Remember that sRGB is vital if you’re selling digital files to clients.  Please read this if you haven’t already: Selling Digital Images

4. Likewise, sRGB is the only color space for web photos.  Info

5. Needless to say, sometimes you’ll encounter vivid colors in your photos (such as clothing or flowers) that naturally exceed the sRGB or printable gamut.  As much as we’d love to be able to wave a wand and magically use those colors, we can’t.  So we have to manage them within our limitations.  I’ve written about these issues here and here.

6. Even when colors are safely within sRGB, some of them still might not be printable.  If you have Photoshop (not Elements, sorry) you can check them before printing.