Recently I met a photographer on one of the big photo communities. His profile was full of excellent shots, many of them done on a set for a music video. He used the excellent Canon 1D mark II N, a camera model I had been using until 2008. Despite his skills to actually compose the image and find the right moments, something was not right.
I noticed a lot of subdued colors in all of the shots. The blue of the sky was rather a light purple instead of the clear blue sky I would have expected. The finish of the car was also not really bright and catchy, but looked dull and not saturated. At first I thought that this look might be intentional, to give the images that very specific subdued look. But then I looked at some of the EXIF details of the file, and there it was…
Record Mode: JPEG
Color Space: Adobe RGB
The photographer had been using Adobe RGB while saving the image files as JPEGs.
Before I start to discuss the color space issue, I’d like to recommend to you to always shoot RAW. This will enable you to change a lot of stuff at post-processing time. With essential shots for clients, I always go for the risk-free option – which is RAW. Be aware that once the JPEG has been saved, you have virtually no chance of recovering any of the details contained in the shot (that have not been processed correctly by the camera’s JPEG algo). If it can’t been seen in the JPEG, that specific detail is often lost. A RAW on my high end cameras stores 14 bits of color for each channel, that’s 16,384 individual values per color. The JPEG squeezes these 14 bits into 8 bits per channel, i.e. 256 individual values. That’s just about 1.5% of the theoretically available data for each pixel. Now you understand why saving images as JPEGs on high-end cameras is a bad idea.
But in this case, the colors are the problem, and JPEG is the cause, because only when you save an image as JPEG you need to assign a color space at shooting time. A JPEG needs to carry an information on the color space for the image so that other devices (screens) can properly display that image. That’s why there is an entry for “color space” in your camera menu, typically offering both Adobe RGB and sRGB. I know there are photographers out there who like to shoot JPEG, often because they know that they are not going to need the leeway that RAW offers. In these cases, you have to know what you are doing, or your shots turn out wrong, color-wise.
You see, the Adobe RGB space contains basically “more” colors than the plain sRGB colorspace. While the amount of data in the picture stays the same, the colors represented by the colorspace on the monitor look different! If a Adobe RGB photo is displayed through sRGB on a monitor, the colors are basically “made fit” for the smaller sRGB space. The result: bright colors look less saturated, i.e. grey-ish and dull and somewhat off.
Here is an example for this phenomenon, a photo of a hangglider at Izana mountain in Tenerife, Spain. Please note the difference in the colors. Have a look at the blue skies, the red backpack, and the brown soil. I think the difference is quite significant. But please be aware that the difference is NOT visible in a color-managed browser like Firefox. (Thanks to Wes for pointing that out in the comments!)
Here is another example, this time from a slide that was scanned using Adobe RGB. Again, the first image has kept its original Adobe RGB color profile while the second image was converted to sRGB prior to saving as JPEG. Do you notice any difference? I do. The pink finish of the car is much brighter, and the logo looks actually like gold, the blue sky is blue, and the number plate has better contrasts.
Saved as JPEG using the original AdobeRGB color space
Converted from AdobeRGB to sRGB prior to saving as JPEG
I don’t know how you post-process your images. Chances are high that you’re using Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop, or Apple Aperture. These are all capable of handling color spaces correctly, but you still need to know about color spaces, especially if you are shooting AdobeRGB with JPEGs (with RAWs you only have to care about the color space when you save the image to JPEG, see below). Lightroom and Aperture automatically recognize the correct color space from the image profile and assign the correct color space to the image.
So, you have to watch out when you open an image with Adobe Photoshop. You typically have set up your Photoshop installation to operate in a specific color space. I have set mine to use Adobe RGB. Whenever Photoshop is instructed to open an image with an assigned color profile that deviates from the standard color space, it will ask you which color space to use? None, or the Photoshop default (in my case Adobe RGB), or the assigned color space (usually sRGB). It does not matter which setting you use, because Photoshop will automatically convert the image into the selected color space (which is good).
But you always have to keep the selected color space in mind when finally saving the photo file as JPEG from Photoshop. Clients usually don’t want RAWs, TIFF is also quite rare these days. They want a JPEG, and now you know that you need a color space assigned to that JPEG. And most printers and screens are calibrated for sRGB, not AdobeRGB. That’s why you should always convert the color space from Adobe RGB to sRGB prior to handing out the photos, or publishing them on the web. Please pay attention that you should convert the photo and not just assign the sRGB color profile to the photo.
Then you and your customers get the brillant colors your high-end camera actually delivers.