Color management guide by Arnaud Frich

Generalites about colors Monitor calibration Printer calibration Manage colors with Photoshop Resources on Color Management

Updated on September 08, 2016
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Color management on your camera?

Color management starts at shooting. But depending on whether you're using a very simple compact camera, your smartphone or an advanced digital camera, you won't manage colors in the same way or with the same options. Let's see this now...     


Key points if you're a beginner...

Here are the key points to remember about color management for your camera. The rest of this page is aimed at those who want to learn more.

Point-and-shoot cameraColor management on your camera will often be very easy because you won't have anything to do on the simplest cameras: numerous point-and-shoots or our smartphones. ICC profile assignment and conversion to a neutral color space sRGB will be done automatically. You won't have to make any choice but it works very well in most cases.

VERY IMPORTANT: Choosing between sRGB and Adobe98, why? What is it about?

Watch this video to start well...

How to choose your color space between sRGB and Adobe RGB (beginners): 17'28

Free video!

So these are color spaces, also called work spaces for your images. Firstly, it is a set of neutral colors, that don't contain the defects of your camera. Secondly, it doesn't represent exactly the whole range of colors in your photo unless you shot a rainbow in close-up and with super high contrast and saturation but the set of colors that you can potentially edit. It's like you're buying a 24 pencils box. It doesn't mean that all of your drawings will have these 24 colors. But you have the full potential. Well let's say that sRGB represents 18 pencils and Adobe RGB 98 24 pencils. And interesting detail, you have the same red and blue pencils but you have more green shades in Adobe RGB 98.
So if you're drawing colors of the woods, you'd better choose the 24 pencils but if you're shooting arctic colors, 18 will be enough!

This is for colors photographed. But what about future edits? What happends if you want to saturate your photos more afterwards? What color space should you choose from the beginning, foreseeing these saturation edits?
For example: say you shot a nice house with colored walls in Alsace. The colors of the wall, quite saturated, can fit the sRGB space. So if you're not going to saturate these colors more afterwards, you can keep sRGB as color space, but if you're planning on increasing the saturation of your images, because you're doing HDR for instance, then you'd better choose Adobe RGB 98. This way, if you compare both photos when they're just out of the camera (still in JPEG) on your screen, you'll see two identical photos, but since the "potential" color space of Adobe RGB 98 is broader than sRGB (especially for greens), you'll have more space to saturate your images without risks of tone breakings.

Choice of file format: JPEG or RAWOn amateur and of course professional cameras, you'll have to make a choice between two options if you work in JPEG or in RAW + JPEG: sRGB or Adobe RGB 98 color space. It is the color space for JPEG images. If you're not sure, leave sRGB by default.

However, if you work in RAW format, you'll have more choices to make and they'll be more interesting. Indeed, depending on the subject you'll have shot or more accurately on the saturation of some of its colors, either sRGB will be completely satisfying or you'll have to choose a broad space like ProPhoto in order not to waste a bit of the lavishness of your beautiful colors!

Key points to go further: Choosing your work space suivre

If you're shooting in JPEG, especially with your smartphone or a basic point-and-shoot camera, your camera completely takes care of color management. You don't have to worry about ir. However, if you're starting to be comfortable with color management, you'll want to go further than this automatic settings to choose a few determining options, either directly on the camera if you shot in JPEG format, either in your demosaicing program if you used RAW format.

How to choose between sRGB and Adobe RGB?

To choose between sRGB and Adobe RGB when your camera enables it, I recommend you to read, if you haven't yet, the introduction of this page or my page: choosing your workspace

Watch this video to make the best choice...

How to choose between sRGB and Adobe RGB (beginners): 28'54

Free video!





If you shot in JPEG format...

Two situations can occur: a situation where the camera, very basic, doesn't permit to choose any option (it is the case of low-range point-and-shoot cameras, of our smartphones) and the situation where the camera enables to choose your color space. It is the case for almost all the other cameras on the market, for amateurs of professionals.

With a very simple camera or a smartphone...  

The camera of the iPhoneYou have nothing to do or choose because the camera takes care of everything! As I wrote earlier in this guide, the camera still takes a photo in RAW format (a raw file) because it can't do otherwise but this file is directly interpreted with a sort of mini Photoshop inside the camera to give you a "wonderful" photo in JPEG format.
As we saw in this guide in the page dedicated to the assignment of an ICC profile to a file, the camera automatically assigns the ICC profile of the camera body and converts it just as automatically to a neutral color space, sRGB. I'll let you read my two pages if you want to learn more...

With a more advanced camera...

Choice of the color space for the cameraSince you're always shooting in JPEG, the camera always takes care of assigning the ICC profile to the file automatically but you have the possibility to choose the color space (neutral colorimetric space) of conversion that works for you from its menus:

  • sRGB (default),
  • Adobe RGB (Adobe RGB 98).

As in smartphones, a "Mini Photoshop" will develop the RAW file in accordance with a few options that you'll have chosen from the optimization menus of your images and convert your photo in a neutral color space. Your JPEG image file will thus have an sRGB or Adobe RGB "profile".
I'll let you read my page "choosing your workspace" if you're debating about the assets of each. With that said, at this step, you'd better work in RAW format now in order to increase the possibilities even more. That's what we'll see now...

Important note! If you shot in RAW+JPEG then this choice only applies to the JPEG file. For the RAW file, it will all be set in the demosaicing program.   



If you shot in RAW format...

Here, it will depend a lot on your demosaicing program. A demosaicing program is a program for the development of RAW files. It replaces the one implemented in your camera to provide you JPEG files directly, but with a lot more possibilities and subtleties... especially in terms of color management.

I'll take Photoshop's Camera Raw as example in a first time because it is very famous and you can then adapt the workflow to your own program like Lightroom, DXO, Capture One, Nikon NX, etc.

First step: assignment of an ICC profile

Any color file needs to be assigned an ICC profile to display the "right" colors and whenever possible, its own ICC profile! Since the file is opened out of the camera body, this assignment can only take place in the demosaicing program. But for that, it needs to identify it. Here's the reason why the program must be updated regularly: every time a new camera body is released, Adobe engineers (in our example) create a new ICC profile for the newcomer and add it to the program's database.

So if your RAW file automatically opens in Camera Raw, it means that it identified it and that it can assign it ITS ICC profile to display the right colors, hence the one that were shot. All of this automatically of course! At the top of the title bar in Camera Raw, you'll see the name of your camera body appear:

Assignment of ICC profile to a RAW file in Camera Raw

When you see the name of your body in the title bar of Camera Raw, it means that it assigned your body's ICC profile to your photo.

Note! If your body isn't registered in the database of Adobe Camera Raw, because it is too recent or you didn't update your program, you just won't be able to open it in the application!

Second step: conversion to a neutral color space...

Once you applied your optimizations and settings to your RAW file, you'll be able to open it in Photoshop or any other program thanks to the button "Open an image". But before, you'll have to choose your destination color space. It can be done at the bottom of the window in Camera Raw (figure below):

Interface of Camera RAW

I won't get into the details of the choice here and I recommend you to read, among others, my page "Choosing your workspace", but you'll also have to make a choice between four possibilities in this program, from the standard sRGB to the very broad ProPhoto:

Options of the workflow in Camera Raw

Several notes!

- It is thus possible to develop the same RAW file several times with different color spaces, really as if you'd shot the photo in sRGB or ProPhoto. It is thus very easy to adapt your color flow to each photo depending on its needs. If you open a photo for the web, shot on a foggy day or to be printed on matt paper, sRGB will perfectly do the trick. However, if shot a poppy in full sunshine and you want to make a nice print of it on glossy paper, ProPhoto is compulsory if you don't want to desaturate part of the bright red petals!

- It is possible to choose between more color spaces than the classic sRGB and Adobe RGB you'll find on your bodies, even the pro ones. Even in Adobe RGB 98 was interesting in 1998 (it was then the common space to all offset american printers), it is now really small compared to the gamuts of bubble jet printers on glossy paper. Spread the word!


To be remembered!

If you're shooting in JPEG, color management is very simple and even very, very simple! Profile assignment and conversion to a neutral color space are done automatically. 

If your camera is really basic, this conversion is only done in sRGB. It is perfectly adapted to this case, by the way.

If your camera is more advanced or even very advanced, but you always shoot in JPEG, you'll be able to choose between classic sRGB that works in very numerous situations or broader Adobe RGB 98 that can help you lose less saturation for the most saturated colors of your shot or in case of saturation in post-production (while keeping in mind that Adobe RGB 98 is broader than sRGB but essentially for greens).

My opinion is that when you choose JPEG, it is to save time to the possible detriment of an optimal quality and I think it is smarter to choose sRGB. We're in the same logic and everything is in its right place. 
However, if you want to optimize your photos when you shoot quite or very saturated colors, that you want to saturate your photos even more afterwards, I recommend you to shoot in RAW in order to have access to color spaces even broader than Adobe RGB 98 but only accessible from a RAW file, like ProPhoto for instance.


If you want to learn more about color management in Camera Raw, I recommend you to read the next page. Color management also means white balance, so easy to perform on a RAW file, and also the calibration of your camera - Color management in Camera Raw Suivre


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