sRGB vs Adobe RGB: The Truth

sRGB vs Adobe RGB: The Truth
by Will Crockett last updated - January of 2006

Controversy, arguments, name calling, forum flaming.
Over world politics? Taxes? paper or plastic?
Nope, over color spaces for professional photography. Isn't it crazy? Three years ago when we came forward as one of the few voices in the digital revolution to tell folks "your lab is right, sRGB really is the right space for lab workflow" we got pummeled in the photo forums and in the photo conventions as being the "digital dummies". It was great entertainment! : )
Because of our extensive research into the topic, along with the ability to go to the manufacturers and get real answers to real questions, we knew that the truth would eventually surface. And it has. In late 2005 we saw the rest of the labs, including large labs who were afraid to actually make a stand by defining proper workflow to their customers (I know, that's hard to beleive), reveal to their masses that sRGB works fine, you need to profile your monitor, and it's OK to shoot in JPEG.
Basically, we're proud to present this smArticle to you because it has been adopted as the truth by the mainstream pro lab community, and because we went waaaay out on a limb to give this to our readers back in early 2004. Oh, and to all those forum folks, seminar presenters and even Photoshop book writers who enjoyed launching ugly personal attacks on smart folks like us who said sRGB was really good for wedding, portrait and seniors shooters... we know who you are and no, you cannot teach at our school now that you've hit the "anti-sRGB" skids and reversed your message. ; )

Should you use the sRGB color space or the Adobe RGB color space?
The answer is... both! Shootsmarter.com is dedicated to helping you shoot smarter and to do that you need to use the right tool for the job.
If you're shooting for an editorial client or an Annual Report job, ask the client which color space they would like their images delivered in and most likely they will tell you the Adobe RGB space. It's the graphical standard. Then guess what? Shoot / process / deliver the images in Adobe RGB.
Simple.

But say you want to create images to make photographs (prints), THEN what's the right answer?
In most cases (not all), it's sRGB. Here's why.
You need to place the digitally captured photos you create in a digital container to move them properly from the camera, through Photoshop, or directly to a lab for printing. This digital container is described in great detail by the ICC profile you select as your color space. sRGB as you probably know, is the name of an ICC profile (also called a color tag) that describes the sRGB color space. That's all it is, just a digital container to hold a digital file.
Well, for most portrait, wedding, senior, even commercial and advertising "people shots" created with small format digital (35mm style) the actual data that your digital camera collects will look something like this:

A typical portrait captured digitally.


Here's the pixel data of the photo at the left. Cool huh!

 

There's all the highlight and light colored pixel info at the top, the mid tone info in the center, and the dark toned and shadow pixel info on the bottom. We can't just send this file to a printer or into Photoshop without putting it in a container, if we do it will cause the printer or PS to guess at the real color values of the data. Instead, we'll use a container that not only hold the data in place, but helps to describe the color values that we have captured. The choice for most photographers is to either use the AdobeRGB container or use the sRGB container selected inside the camera at time of capture, or later as the working space in Photoshop.

Let's try them both and see how they fit...
Here's the photo enclosed inside the Adobe RGB color space container. All the data fits inside just fine.

The example portrait pixel data inside the AdobeRGB "container".

Ok, well let's try the sRGB space. Fits just fine in this one too.

The same example portrait pixel data inside the sRGB "container".

Hmmm, what's the difference. Let's see. The Adobe RGB space is the same height as sRGB, but it is considerably wider and holds more volume of color, much more in fact. So if you had a camera or scanner that could capture more color info than this portrait example image, you might just need the added space that the Adobe RGB space can provide for you. In fact, our high end scanner in the Crockett Studios can gather so much color info that the Adobe space is too small, so we use one even bigger to hold the data. Remember - use the right tool for the job.

What about sending files to a lab for printing, is sRGB or Adobe RGB better?

Both can be fine. Just about all commercial photo labs, and some portrait labs can take data in any space you throw at them, but most quality-minded portrait labs are very specific on how the data is to be sent in for proper printing. Let's take a look at three facts regarding digital workflow:

FACT ONE: there are no printers with a color space (aka output space) that is larger (holding more volume of data) than sRGB.

Take a look here, this is the Adobe RGB color space with my Epson 2200 color space nestled inside...

The Adobe RGB space is much larger than my Epson 2200's output space.

...and here's sRGB with my Pictrography 4500 space placed inside.

The sRGB space is much larger than my Pictrography 4500's output space.

Sure parts of the printers space is outside the reach of both sRGB and Adobe RGB, but with proper color management we can easily remap the captured data and let it flow into the "protrusion" of the output space. Even if we put up your labs Frontier, Lambda, Lightjet, etc. printer spaces - all would be smaller than sRGB. This doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the printers, we can just capture more color volume with our cameras than they can print on paper. The same was true with film, did you ever try to make a print from a transparency? There's plenty of data in the trans or neg for that matter that could not be reproduced on paper but the prints still looked great right? Right.

FACT TWO: Just about all portrait labs want you to to send them files that are in the sRGB color space for printing. Why? Because their big expensive digital printers have an "input space" that allows them to print any pixel data as long as it fits inside this input space. Any data that is outside of this input space (called out of gamut data) will simply not be printed - it just disappears. Think of this input space as the mouth to the printer and your data is a big ole meatball sandwich. If the sandwich is no taller or wider than the mouth of the printer, it will fit in the mouth and be reproduced by the printer and look terrific on the print. But if the sandwich is taller than the mouth of the printer, the bread gets knocked off and only the meatballs get shoved into the printers mouth. The result is not a print of a meatball sandwich, but of only the meatballs and maybe a little cheese and some nice hot peppers. mmmm.
The input space or "mouth" of the lab grade printers is defined by a specific color space. That space is usually sRGB. So if your meatball sandwich is larger than sRGB, say it's the size of the wider AdobeRGB space, you or your lab will need to convert that sandwich down to the sRGB size before sending it over to the printer. If not...it's meatballs for you pal. ; )

FACT THREE: The gamut, or color space of your monitor is very close to the sRGB space, and there are no monitors (yet) that can accurately reproduce the colors that are beyond the sRGB boundary - yet still inside the Adobe RGB boundary. That means if you have some colors accurately described by the Adobe RGB space that are beyond the monitors boundary - they don't show up on-screen. In some instances, this can cause trouble. Shooting and working in the sRGB space prevents all of this and streamlines your workflow. Most wedding / portrait shooters may never need to capture and print any pixel that's outside sRGB which is why so many sucessful wedding / portrait shooters just set up for sRGB workflow and forget about it.

What about printing in-house to my printer?

You can start off with data in any space you want to, but you need to realize that the data needs to be remapped (compressed) into your printers output space to be able to reproduce all that pixel data you capture. Some printer drivers do a great job of compressing the data for you automatically, and some printer drivers are more "manual" about it.
So if you capture an image in RAW, process into a 16 bit, Adobe RGB TIFF file, then convert to your printers output space in Photoshop, you will get the most data (color, tone and texture) from your camera and produce a terrific looking print. But this process took forever! Now if you've captured that same image as a standard 8 bit JPEG in the sRGB space, then converted it to your printers output space in Photoshop, you will produce a great looking print. Notice I didn't say a terrific print, only a great print. These great looking prints took much less time and much less effort to produce (ever custom process 350 RAW files?) and can make you just as much money as the terrific ones if you catch my drift.
Now let's take it a step further... Let's capture that same image as a standard 8 bit JPEG in the sRGB space, then skip Photoshop all together, load it into StudioMaster Pro or ProShots or Pictage and send it off to your lab for printing. The result? A great, or maybe even a terrific looking print with no hassle at all and a "per print" cost much lower than doing it yourself. In fact, the presentation function of those lab-printer software packages may even boost your print sales. But don't load an image into these lab software packages when you photo file is in the AdobeRGB space. This will get you a nasty looking print. Why? Because labs want your image in sRGB - so give them what the ask for. Right tool for the job remember.

Why not use Adobe RGB for my working space being as it's the graphical standard?

Go right ahead. If your output is to a graphic client it's a terrific idea. Capturing images in the sRGB color space, then setting Adobe RGB as your working space in Photoshop is a perfect way to properly move small format capture files into Adobe RGB. In fact, it's a better way than shooting in Adobe RGB. Photoshop will place your files data into the Adobe RGB space better than your camera will put the pixels Adobe RGB on-the-fly. This is how we do it here in Crockett Studios when we need to work in the Adobe RGB space using small format digital cameras - we get great color.
Please note that with your files coming out of the camera in the sRGB space, and Photoshop set to a working space of Adobe RGB, you'll get a "profile mismatch" warning with every file you open a file. Simply choose the "convert into working space" option and let 'er rip.. assuming you client has requested the file to be delivered in Adobe RGB.
But wait... if you shoot in sRGB and you plan to print it on an in-house printer, or you will be sending it to a portrait lab for printing, there's no need to ever convert the file into the Adobe RGB space. In fact, it's a waste of valuable time. If you shoot in sRGB, open in Photoshop in sRGB (assuming sRGB is your Photoshop RGB working space) then print in a space that's smaller than sRGB, why force the file into the larger Adobe RGB space in the process?

Don't forget these two facts:
1) every time you convert your data - you lose some data and distort more, and
2) quality portrait labs want files in sRGB, not Adobe RGB.

The choice is yours and only YOU can decide the right workflow:
If you scan transparencies on a high end scanner, then scan into a custom input color space created by your scanner itself to hold the data properly, then open it in Photoshop by "honoring" it's embedded profile.
That's proper digital workflow.
And if you want to move portrait or wedding type files in and out of your studio to get consistently great looking prints, set your digital capture camera to work in the sRGB space and set your Photoshop working space to your cameras sRGB space.
That's proper digital workflow.
There's lots of photographers making lots of great looking prints (and money!) right now with this simple sRGB workflow.
That's proper digital workflow.
Skeptical? GOOD! I was too. Try it and see?

But if you want the best possible image you can squeeze out of your digital camera, especially if you're shooting landscape, fine art, or commercial work, then shoot RAW, process to 16 bit AdobeRGB, then convert to your specific printers 8 bit output space (we recommend getting a custom profile for your printer) in Photoshop and send it to your printer.
That's proper digital workflow.
But if you're shooting senior portraits, or weddings, or corporate headshots why spend hours and hours processing all these 16 bit RAW files? Why not shoot film instead - it's faster.
Set up a portrait and shoot it RAW, and shoot it again in sRGB. Process to a print from each file and compare. You'll see that the simple sRGB workflow is faster, easier and creates a print than both you and your customers will be proud of.

Just remember that no data outside of the sRGB space can be printed by the big portrait labs (without a custom printing fee or re-profiling) so if you shoot in Adobe RGB be sure to convert it to sRGB before submission.

The Bottom line:

So if your client wants images in Adobe RGB, give them Adobe RGB.
And if the lab you work with wants images in sRGB, give them sRGB.
What's there to argue about?

-Will Crockett