While this is a beginner’s guide, it might get a bit technical at times, so you’ll have to forgive us for that. Colour profiles are a fairly technical subject and there’s no real way around that, but we’ll do our best to make it as simple and practical as possible, while still giving you a bit of background so you understand exactly what’s going on with them.
If you’re wondering what a colour profile is at all, don’t worry, you’re not alone. A colour profile’s job is to make sure that what you see on your monitor is going to be the same as what another person will see if you’re both looking at the same file on different monitors. In the most basic form, a colour profile is a way of telling your image editor how to interpret the information contained in your image file.
During the development of digital imaging technology, there were several competing standards for how to display image information, and more than one of them are still around today. The ones you’re most likely to run into are named “sRGB” and “AdobeRGB”, but AdobeRGB is typically used by extremely exacting image professionals.
sRGB has become the more popular choice, simply due to its widespread availability and less exacting standards. There are others as you can see below, but they’re definitely not something a beginner is likely to run into, and definitely not something you need to mess around with yet.
Despite the popularity of sRGB, there are still many people who swear by the AdobeRGB colour profile, and with good reason. The Adobe RGB colour profile covers a much wider range of colours, with some estimates putting the difference as high as 35% compared to sRGB. In plain English, this means that pictures taken using the AdobeRGB colour space will have richer, more vibrant colours.
(Note that ‘colour space’ and ‘colour profile’ are more or less the same thing, for practical purposes. A colour profile just tells Photoshop what colour space is being used in the image file.)
Unfortunately, not all devices are capable of displaying the range of colours in the AdobeRGB colour space. Even some of the best monitors currently available are still limited to roughly 95% of the available colours, and even those can be quite expensive.
OK, phew, that’s enough technical background. Still with us? Let’s look at some of the more practical ways to make use of colour profiles in Photoshop.
For people who work primarily in the digital world, it’s usually simplest to stick with sRGB colour profiles the whole way through the shooting and editing process. Configure your camera to use sRGB and you’ll be set, as that’s Photoshop’s default setting.
For exacting photographers who care most about printing their work, the optimal workflow is to shoot in AdobeRGB and then convert to sRGB only when necessary, once you finish any edits or adjustments in Photoshop.
You can always convert from AdobeRGB to sRGB, but you can’t convert sRGB into AdobeRGB. If you convert to sRGB, you’re essentially getting rid of all the extra colour information that was contained in the file, and you can’t get it back. Think about it the way you do scaling and transforming pixels: you can always shrink an object and keep it high quality, but as soon as you start expanding it, things get messy fast.
The spot where you’re most likely to run into trouble is when something called a ‘Profile Mismatch’ happens. This rather confusing dialog box means that the file you’re opening has a colour profile attached to it, and it doesn’t match the current way that Photoshop is configured to display colours (known as a ‘working space’). If you know that the file has come from a properly colour-managed workflow, it’s safe to convert it to your current working space.
If you are preparing files to send to a print shop, double-check with them to see what colour space they use. You may have to convert your files to a certain colour profile in order to get the proper results. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting a print back from the shop only to find out that there’s been a huge colour mismatch and it’s all ruined!
As you begin to understand more about how colour profiles work, one of the most important things to understand is that every device has a slightly different way of displaying colours. This means, unfortunately that it’s almost impossible to tell how an image will appear on someone else’s monitor, or how another printer will print it, unless the device has been properly colour calibrated.
To stop this problem from happening on your own monitor, you need a device that is known as a colourimeter. Essentially, it’s a small camera that sits on the front of your monitor and measures what your monitor displays. A piece of software that comes with the colourimeter displays a series of different colours on the screen, and measures the difference between what the software says it is displaying and what the camera is actually seeing. This difference is then used to create a custom calibration profile for your unique monitor setup.
In order to have a properly colour-managed workflow, you need to have a calibration performed on each piece of your equipment. The only exception is your camera, since it’s been calibrated at the factory and there isn’t much you can do about how it’s set up other than choosing between between sRGB and AdobeRGB. We may dig deeper into colour management more later on, but it’s a pretty complicated bit of work and definitely outside the scope of this post.
Hopefully this didn’t confuse you too much, and you’ve come away with a better understanding of colour profiles. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments and we’ll do our best to clear things up!