Color is one of the most important components to modern day photography, something that we all interact with yet almost always don’t understand. I get questions constantly about color space – “What is it?”, “How do I match my monitor’s color to my printer’s color?”, “What is color calibration?”, or “Why are my images different on all of my digital devices?”. Thanks to an Ask-Liz email from David Erickson all about color calibration, I thought I’d help y’all out and hopefully demystify what our computers are doing under the hood!
Digital photography works with color by translating them into numbers. Think of it as an extremely intricate and very extensive ‘paint-by-numbers’ – every time we take a picture and the colors are recorded, they’re being changed into corresponding numbers. There are two popular color models that we work with, RGB (red, green, blue) and CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black), which just translate the world around us a little bit differently. Just like how you would mix paints together, both of these two models mix in unique ways, but with a similar result.
We work mostly with RGB, which many of you have heard of. It’s an enormous color model, containing so much information that even we can’t see all of the colors it can produce. Inside the color model are multiple color spaces, which translate into smaller subsets of color information. If our human eye can’t perceive all those mixes of colors, we obviously don’t need them all in our digital photos, they’re just taking up extra space that won’t be used. A color space trims off the fat of a larger color model.
Whew! Y’all confused yet?
Now we delve just a bit deeper – color profiles. Each digital device you own requires something called a color profile. This tells all of those devices how to interpret the colors they’re being given in an image. These are extremely important in digital photography, because every gadget you have perceives color in a disparate manner. So when you go from your camera, to your computer, to your printer, have you ever wondered why the colors on your print don’t look like the ones from your original image? Typically, it’s because the color information hasn’t been managed correctly and too much data has been trimmed off.
There are two important color profiles to know: Adobe RGB and sRGB. I’ll talk about those in just a bit!
Managing all of this sounds exhausting, but it’s not, I promise. Once you have the general concept down, it’s pretty easy to figure out how to control all of these colors. So quickly, let’s go back to that ‘paint-by-numbers’ analogy:
Let’s say the real world has 100 colors, all numbered 1 through 100. Our camera can record at least 80 of those colors, inside a RGB color model. Since our digital devices and our human eyes can’t perceive all 80 colors, it wouldn’t make sense to keep them around. So, when we place them on our computer, these 80 colors are translated to a smaller subset of 50-60, a color space. Now down to around 50, each computer monitor, printer and tablet we own can only translate those colors accurately by using a specific color profile, which can lessen the amount down even more. Some devices can handle more information, like a nice photo printer, and others can barely handle any, like your typical computer screen.
See now, that wasn’t so bad!
So what does all this nerdy mumbo-jumbo mean? Color is an integral part of your imagery and how it’s being translated plays a huge part in how your photos look. Optimizing those colors is something Elements and I can help you with and we’ve made it extremely easy.
There are two tools to work with inside Elements to make this color management easier. For the first, if you go to the Edit menu and select Color Settings, you’ll get this dialog box:
There are four options to work with:
- No Color Management: Every time you open a new image into Elements, straight from your camera, no specific color profile will be applied until you tell it otherwise. This lets you rely on a well-calibrated monitor and wait until you know what you’ll be using your image for.
- Always Optimize Colors for Computer Screens: Our computers can only truly ‘see’ a tiny subset of colors, so there’s a special smaller color profile called sRGB just for computer and web-based viewing. This option automatically sets all images you open to sRGB, which prepares all images for the web or to be seen on iPads, iPhones, etc.
- Always Optimize for Printing: Printers can access a larger amount of colors, so there is a larger color profile called Adobe RGB that is typically used. This option automatically sets all images you open to Adobe RGB, which prepares your images for print. I typically use this choice as I always like to have the option to print.
- Allow Me to Choose: Every time you open a new image, Elements will ask you what color profile you’d like to use. This can be very helpful if you want to specifically choose your color profile for every photo.
The second tool can be accessed through the Image menu, then through Convert Color Profile:
Most images have a color profile attached to it, but what happens if you want to change it? You can always go through this menu and select which profile to use. Let’s say I have a photo open that is using Adobe RGB, but I want to place it on my website, which requires the sRGB color profile. All I would do is go to the Convert Color Profile menu, then select Convert to sRGB Profile.
It’s extremely important to note that these are the ONLY two options inside Elements for color profiles. You can’t upload your own color profile and use them (which is a long conversation in itself!).
When you go to the File menu and select Save For Web, this will automatically save your image with the sRGB profile. Elements knows that the profile has to change for your newly saved image. That’s why I love using this Save option – I don’t have to worry about remembering to swap it over to sRGB, Elements does the work for me! If you’ve ever seen one of your images look ‘wrong’ on your website or on Facebook, it’s due to using the wrong color space:
The top image, which looks great, was placed on my website with the sRGB profile. The bottom image, which looks flat and bland, is the Adobe RGB profile. The website couldn’t translate the color, so it doesn’t look at all like what I wanted. I would definitely go with my top image and make sure I remember to use the sRGB color profile next time!
Hopefully I haven’t completely confused you all, but this information is GREAT to have on hand. The next time you print an image and it looks flat, you’ll know to first check which color profile is attached to your image and the same goes for your website.
Thanks for tuning in and feel free to let me know if you have any questions about color and color management in the Comments below!