Understanding Color Space

Included in Seth Resnick’s response to our email questions was a long discussion of color space. It’s a topic that, Seth said, photographers fail to understand. The result can be a permanent loss of color in images that could be sharper, more beautiful and have better contrast.

Most photographers, Seth pointed out, use Adobe 98 to translate the light the camera’s sensors see into color codes that can be read and displayed by monitors and printers. But Adobe 98 has a smaller “color space” than that included in most good digital cameras; it can read fewer colors than the camera’s sensors can detect. When the program tells monitors and printers how to display the photo’s colors, it has to “clip” out any colors it can’t understand. Red tones are the first to go.

“If we left these lost colors unattended, then our final image would come out looking flat, due to the missing hues,” Seth warned.

The solution, Seth recommends, is to switch Adobe 98 for Kodak’s ProPhoto, a much larger working space that can recognize and translate all the colors the camera’s sensors can see.

Luminous-Landscape.com has a graphic (and technical) description of the different color spaces available to digital photographers, and also explains how to change your color space. If you’re using Capture One, you can output files into Photoshop tagged with your camera’s profile; if you’re using Camera Raw for your Raw images, then you can simply tag them within ProPhoto. (Camera Raw automatically uses ProPhoto as its color space). Other Raw converters might require different steps.

Photoshop should also be set to ProPhoto RGB and you should be careful that the image isn’t accidentally turned into a sRGB or Adobe RGB while working with it.

So far so good, but Adobe 98 isn’t the only thing that struggles to see all the images that your camera and ProPhoto can record. Few monitors and printers have such large color spaces too. That’s one of the reasons that so few photographers work with ProPhoto: why bother to record colors no one can see? That’s especially true when the compression used in attempting to display those “invisible” colors can actually leave big gaps in the color spaces displayed, creating horrible distortions.

The answer though is that you might be able to see them one day. Monitors and printers are getting better all the time, and even if a printer can’t print all the colors in the image, many can already print colors that are outside the Adobe 98 color space.

The best strategy according to Seth then, is to record and store images in ProPhoto, send them to clients in Adobe 98 — and wait for the day all of your colors can see the light.

[tags] seth resnick, color space, prophoto rgb, srgb [/tags]

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