Color Space Wars

Successful use of digital photography sometimes means challenging the conventional wisdom

ColorSpace Wars

I heard a new Hollywood movie is coming from George Lucas, The Color Space Wars. It will be filled with drama, innuendo and a lot of fighting about ultimate right and wrong—something in which all nature photog-raphers will be interested. Or not. Maybe there’s no war after all and Adobe RGB (1998) has won. Color space is an important concept for digital photography, but discussion about it has taken a direction that’s distinctly not helpful for photographers. You’ll deal with color space as you set your camera, if you process RAW files, and whenever you use Photoshop.

To be clear from the start, I’m not promoting either sRGB or Adobe RGB as color spaces that everyone must use. There’s often a tendency to attribute endorsement of a particular subject when an author talks about it a lot, and in this column, I’ll discuss sRGB. That’s not to arbitrarily promote it over Adobe RGB, however, but simply to offer possibilities that may make processing digital image files easier for many photographers.

Color space is how color is defined by the computer so it can be displayed consistently from camera to print (note that I didn’t say “displayed identically”; different media will never display colors identically). The two main, overriding color spaces are RGB (which most photographers work with on the computer) and CMYK (which is used by publications such as Outdoor Photographer for preparing images for the printed page). You’d rarely want to work in CMYK until you had to because it has some severe color limitations for its space.

The two most common subsets of RGB are sRGB and Adobe RGB. The difference is that sRGB is a somewhat smaller color space than Adobe RGB. You’ll read a lot of articles where experts say to never use sRGB and always use Adobe RGB because of that. Does this mean that you should always buy and use a big car because it has more cargo space? It all depends on what you need.

Many Photoshop experts say that sRGB was originally developed for display purposes (correct); therefore, it’s only useful for the web and screen display (wrong conclusion). That’s like saying you can only use a pickup truck for hauling loads because that’s what it was developed for.

There’s no question that using Adobe RGB can lead to excellent results with more flexibility than sRGB (and when dealing with precise colors in a specific color range, nothing can beat it). So why bother challenging the status quo of Adobe RGB for everything? Workflow and getting photographers to a print they like faster is one big reason. Another is that sRGB offers high-quality results, too. A third is that many small cameras only allow shooting sRGB for JPEG files.

Like most photographers, I followed the conventional wisdom that Adobe RGB was arbitrarily best for quite some time. Several things got me thinking:

More satisfaction with prints. As I worked with students in classes and workshops, I found that they often got a more satisfying print faster with sRGB. This is because the slightly more limited color space can be easier to work with.

Faster printing. I also found that I often could get a print that I liked faster with sRGB. That doesn’t mean that the Adobe RGB color space gave anything but the best in prints, too; it just affected the workflow.

New digital photographers. Photographers new to digital were disappointed in what they saw on the screen with Adobe RGB. This is because this color space spreads out the colors and tones more, sometimes making the image look dull. When they started using sRGB, they were much happier.

Experiments. I did my own experiments, trying the same camera, with sRGB and Adobe RGB, for example. I also tried processing RAW files both ways (RAW isn’t sRGB, Adobe RGB or anything else until you set that parameter during processing). As I worked with these different files, they got all mixed up until I couldn’t tell the difference among any of them once processed.

This was very interesting to me and counter to everything the Photoshop experts were saying. I even had some friendly arguments with folks in the industry who were convinced that Adobe RGB was the best way to go, period, no questions asked, war over and won. Their arguments were never about the photography, however, but about numbers, i.e., how much bigger the Adobe RGB color space was.

What always threw a big challenge into those arguments was fairly simple, however. In all the years I’ve been with OP, I’ve never once heard any photographer complain about the limited “color space” of Velvia. Yet if you were to scan a Velvia slide and any color negative with a high-quality, high-density range scanner, you’d find a huge range of color in the color negative that simply can’t be had from the Velvia slide. This is far, far greater than the difference between sRGB and Adobe RGB.

I’ve known a few photographers who carried some color print film with them because of the added tonal and color range it provided them, but very few. While there were some workflow issues between slide and print film before digital, with the advent of low-priced scanners, that disappeared. Still, Velvia was preferred, and photographers always gave photographic reasons, not math (the amount of color or tones), for using it. They liked its colors and tonal rendition.

Now I find it curious that some of these same photographers claim they must use Adobe RGB not for photographic reasons, but for the math (bigger space)! None of them ever said they had to shoot print film in order to be sure they had more colors and tones to work with when they needed that.

This is really what the sRGB and Adobe RGB choice is about: personal preferences. If you like the results that sRGB gives you, then use it. If you like the different results you get from Adobe RGB, then use it and make great images, too.

What I want to do is offer options for photographers. I want digital photographers to be successful and to enjoy this new technology. I’ve found that too often forcing an sRGB person into an Adobe RGB hole just causes problems and disappointment. I feel sad when people come to me and say they just can’t get images they like from digital work, and then I find out one reason why is that they have been struggling with a color space they don’t need to use.

I had to learn the digital technologies early on because I needed to know how they affected photography. I’ve never been interested in the technology for its own sake. What we have are tools to help us make better images. Those tools are only valuable if they help us do that. Color space choices are only tools, and while arbitrarily saying one is best makes things easier, it doesn’t always make things better for all photographers.

Nature photography never has been a one-size-fits-all sort of avocation; digital photography doesn’t need to be either.

OP editor Rob Sheppard‘s latest book is the PCPhoto Digital Zoom Camera Handbook, a guide to getting the most from advanced compact digital cameras.