I get involved in a lot of discussions about the finer points of photography both online and in person. One of the most common this year has been the about choosing which RGB colour space we should all be working in. The truth is that there are a number of variables which, between them, should point you in one direction or another. There are plenty of RGB colour spaces but the main two are Adobe RGB and sRGB – mainly because these are the options you have when shooting with most DSLR cameras. There are a couple of others (Colormatch and ProPhoto) that offer wide gamuts and some real technical advantages but, as I hope to explain, this isn’t necessarily helpful. More isn’t just a waste, it’s a potential problem.
In an ideal world we would have cameras, viewing and reproduction systems that gave us every tiny subtle variation in colour that the human eye can see on a good day in great light. We don’t. Yet.
What we have to work with in the Spring of 2017 is a range of different types of screens, projections and printing systems and those printing systems rely on an almost infinite variety of inks, pigments and papers. That’s before we even start to discuss all of the other materials onto which we can now print. So basically we, as photographers, have a series of moving targets to aim at and it’s almost always been the case in my career to date that I have no control over those targets. The same picture may be used for social media, newspapers, magazines and Powerpoint presentations and it is my job to supply those pictures in a format (or series of formats) that will enable the client to get consistently high quality results from them.
Bringing that back to the topic of RGB colour spaces means that I and my clients have choices to make. Those choices almost always involve compromise. Compromise almost always means that nothing is perfect for anyone or anything. In a version of the ideal world as it exists today I should be shooting, editing and supplying my pictures in the colour space providing the widest possible gamut of colours and tones providing the most vivid yet subtle renditions of the colours that match the brief and my vision for that brief. Maybe the client could pay for enough post-production time for me to provide two, three or more versions of each photograph suitable for each type of use. They don’t have the budgets in 999 cases out of 1,000. Maybe those pictures would then be taken by colour technicians and modified for each and every use and converted to the relevant colour space using the best equipment and software available. It doesn’t work that way very often.
What actually happens is that after I have supplied them the pictures are viewed and judged on a range of un-calibrated monitors in less than ideal viewing conditions before being sent to the web or to reproduction that doesn’t make any allowances for the kinds of screens, inks, pigments or papers that are going to effect how the pictures look. Because of this it has become sensible to make some compromises.
Adobe RGB is better isn’t it?
Yes but no… There’s no denying that in every single way Adobe RGB is superior to sRGB. It has a wider gamut meaning that the differences between colours and tones can be more subtle. There’s a case that says if you want wide gamuts and subtle gradations why stop at Adobe RGB? Why not go the whole way and work in ProPhoto or Colormatch? Good questions and here’s where we get to my reasoning about why I don’t bother.
The first is that most of us rely on what we see on our screens to make decisions about colour and tone during post production. If you work on anything but the highest of high end monitors which have been calibrated to the most exacting standards under ideal viewing conditions then you won’t be able to see the whole Adobe RGB gamut let alone the ProPhoto or Colormatch ones. Forget working on a laptop – unless you have your monitor and your colour management down to a fine art then you will be using guesswork and approximations on your images. Worse still, very few browsers, applications and viewing systems are smart when it comes to colour management. You might, through a combination of skill, judgement and good luck, get your pictures to be as good as they possibly can be only to experience the heartbreak that is seeing those perfect pictures displayed on dumb systems and looking like the flattest and most inept renditions of your images making you feel that you have not only wasted your time but that you may have done something wrong.
Sadly, all of those systems that make your images look awful will also make the Jpegs straight from your mobile phone look pretty good. Not to put too fine a point on it, the phones, tablets and screens that the vast majority of our images are now viewed on are not au fait with Adobe RGB but they love sRGB. Most of the printing systems and most of the automated systems for converting RGB to CMYK for printing work just as well with sRGB as they do with Adobe RGB because almost every CMYK colour space has a narrower gamut than sRGB does and that’s important.
What do you do with the spare reds?
Imagine a photograph of a red telephone box on a street in London with a red car next to it and two people walking past wearing their bright red Manchester United shirts swigging from cans of regular Coca Cola. Got the picture in your mind? How many variations of red are there in your picture? It’s a sunny day, there are hundreds and the differences are often very subtle. You’ve shot the picture in RAW (of course) and you are going back to your high end workstation to process the pictures. Your have a monitor capable of viewing the whole Adobe RGB gamut and you get to work. A short time later you have an edit of ten great pictures with all of those subtle reds looking as good as they possibly could and as good as you hoped they would. Save them as Adobe RGB Jpegs and whizz them off to the client. Two things can then happen:
- The client understands photography and has a completely colour managed work environment with decent screens and runs applications that can see Adobe RGB files properly.
- The client doesn’t work in a wholly colour managed environment and their monitors show your photographs as dull flat pictures that look worse than their own phone pictures.
If there’s any chance of getting option 2 instead of option 1 you have a problem and you can do a few different things:
- Work in Adobe RGB, saving the photographs in that space but then doing a batch convert to sRGB to supply to clients who they suspect cannot handle the wider gamuts.
- Ignore the issue and continue to supply in Adobe RGB and then complain when the work dries up or when the client comments on the flat files.
- Supply two sets of pictures; a “viewing” set of medium sized sRGB files and “printing” set in Adobe RGB
- Move to an sRGB workflow and supply everything in sRGB.
- Become a campaigning photographer, strive for ultimate quality and educate every one of your clients encouraging them to invest in perfect workflows.
The same goes for every colour. Purples and magentas can easily get mashed up when reducing the colour gamut and greens are famous for moving to mush really quickly in many CMYK spaces.
Why I’m a type 4 photographer
Several years ago now I realised that I wasn’t supplying any of my pictures to clients with workflows that could actively take advantage of Adobe RGB files and so I started to convert my carefully worked Adobe RGB pictures into sRGB before getting them to the clients. Most of the time I was working in decent conditions on my Eizo monitors and the rest of the time I was making educated guesses about how the pictures looked on my laptop.
It worked OK but I started to wonder what happened to those colours that were inside the Adobe RGB gamut but outside the sRGB range. How did an automated batch conversion deal with those subtleties? Photoshop offers several options for rendering those out-of-gamut colours ranging from shifting everything by the same amount down the scale to employing seriously sophisticated mathematics to translate the colours using what it calls “perceptual intent” which keeps the balance of tones without damaging the safest colours to accommodate those either side of the line. I asked myself why I was doing this when I had a RAW file to go back to should I need a more nuanced version of an image. The clients wanted (even if they didn’t know it) and usually needed sRGB files so why did I need Adobe RGB ones? Logic dictated that I try working the images within the sRGB gamut to start with. No more wondering which rendering option would do the best job (if I had a choice) and a lot less reliance on guesswork when I was editing on the laptop. Where, I asked myself, was the disadvantage to working solely in sRGB? I couldn’t find it then and I still can’t find it now.
The clients are happy. I’m happy. Win/win.
Based on a pragmatic and professionally sound set of reasons I now set my cameras, my computers and my whole workflow to sRGB. Having done that there are two further advantages that I had never considered (but really appreciate).
Here in the UK you would struggle to buy a decent monitor with a genuine 100% of the Adobe RGB gamut for under £1,000.00. You can buy a quality monitor that handles 100% (and more) of the sRGB gamut for under £600.00 and have considerably more choice. Money saved on buying kit is always something that you should consider when you do this for a living.
There’s something else that always bugged me. Canon and Nikon’s higher end cameras always change the leading character in the filenames to an underscore when you were shooting in Adobe RGB. Clearly someone, somewhere thought that this was a very useful thing to do and both of the major manufacturers still adhere to it. It really annoys me – in an almost irrational way. Moving over to sRGB has cleared this daily annoyance from my life (unless I’m editing other photographers’ work) but I’d love to know why Canon (and Nikon) cannot make this a custom function in their cameras rather than imposing it on us whether it suits us or not. This isn’t a reason to switch to an sRGB workflow but it is a side effect that I appreciate. Of course by the time most of my pictures arrive with the clients the files have been renamed anyway but one or two clients like to keep the original camera filenames too.
I shoot RAW anyway
All of this is a matter of opinion and logic for me and I always have the RAW file to go back to should I need it to create Adobe RGB versions. In the last two years or so since I went all the way to sRGB nobody has said “please supply us Adobe RGB files” (all of my clients are polite and always say please by the way). This is probably a case for my favourite piece of advice
“if anyone ever tells you that there’s only one way to do something in photography, don’t listen to them, they’re a fool.”
I’m convinced that, for now, I have it right for me. Want to tell me how and why I’m wrong?