Adobe RGB Versus sRGB Color Space - Which Should You Choose?

Adobe RGB Versus sRGB Color Space – Which Should You Choose?

When you set up your camera, at some point you will have to reach a decision on which color space to use. Take a look at your camera’s menu and you will see an item labeled Color Space. The two options will be sRGB and Adobe RGB.

Like a lot of people, I started out using sRGB because that is what the camera defaults to using. After a while, however, I learned that Adobe RGB was a larger color space, so I started using that. Doing so led to some occasional problems when I posted pictures to the web though, so I went back to sRGB.

Adobe RGB Versus sRGB Color Space - Which Should You Choose?

The Color Space menu item as it may appear in your camera.

Now, having been asked again which color space one should choose on their camera, I am revisiting this issue. In this article, I will take a look at this option and help you choose which one may be right for you.

About the Color Space Options

Let’s start from the beginning. What is a Color Space anyway? It is just the range of colors that are available to your camera. The ones generally used in the digital world are some form of RGB color spaces, which stands for Red Green Blue. That means that all the colors in that space are created by some combination of those three colors.

Adobe RGB Versus sRGB Colorspace - Which Should You Choose?

The two Color Space options: sRGB and Adobe RGB.

sRGB is safe

Your camera will default to sRGB, so if you haven’t given this setting any thought, that is what you are using. This is a color space jointly created by HP and Microsoft back in 1996. Pretty much everything on a computer is built around sRGB. Therefore, if you are posting a picture online, it will be sRGB. Always! So using sRGB is a pretty safe option.

Adobe RGB

The other option available in your camera is Adobe RGB. It was created in 1998 by Adobe Systems with the idea of encompassing most of the colors achievable with CMYK printers. (Commercial printers typically use an entirely different color space called CMYK, which stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black.)  Adobe RGB is actually a larger color space – most say it is about 35% larger than sRGB. Upon learning this, many photographers switch to Adobe RGB. I did, with the simple rationale that bigger must be better.

After a while, however, you might find that you run into occasional problems if you set your camera to Adobe RGB. In particular, sometimes when you post pictures to the internet, the colors will look compressed and strange. In my case, I discovered that sometimes a picture that was supposed to look like the one on the right would get posted to the internet looking like the one on the left:

Adobe RGB Versus sRGB Colorspace - Which Should You Choose?

If you post an Adobe RGB picture online, it will automatically be converted to sRGB. When that happens, the colors can be compressed, ending up looking like the picture on the left. I should note that this problem can be corrected. If you convert your photo to sRGB prior to posting to the internet, the problem should disappear.

Pros and cons of Adobe RGB

The advantage of the increased size of Adobe RGB is not as clear cut as it might first appear either. For instance, most monitors only display the colors of the sRGB Color Space (usually around 97% of those colors). Even when it comes to printing, you may not be able to take advantage of the additional colors of Adobe RGB. Some online printing labs assume you are uploading sRGB files for your prints.

As a result of all these issues, I ended up with the following pros and cons list for each color space:

We’ll come back to the pros and cons, but first, let’s move along to how this same issue comes up in post-processing.

Choosing the Color Space in Post-Processing

You will face the same question over Color Space in your post-processing. You can set up Photoshop and Lightroom to process your photos in sRGB or Adobe RGB. In fact, if you are shooting in RAW (and you should be), this will be where you actually assign the Color Space in the first place. When you take a RAW file, the camera captures all the colors it can and no color profile is assigned. Instead, you do that in Photoshop or Lightroom. I should note that there are other Color Space options available as well, but for simplicity’s sake, I would use the same option you picked for your camera.

Photoshop

To set the Color Space of an image in Photoshop, click on the Edit drop-down menu and choose Color Settings (or press Shift+Cmd/Ctrl+K). When you do so, a dialog box will pop up (see below). It will have a lot of options but don’t worry, you’ll only be changing one setting. That is the RGB setting under Working Spaces in the top left. Just change it to either sRGB or Adobe RGB.

Adobe RGB Versus sRGB Colorspace - Which Should You Choose?

Color settings dialog box in Photoshop.

Now when you save your files as JPEGs or whatever file format you choose, the color space you chose will be used.

Lightroom

Lightroom works differently. You don’t choose the Color Space that you want Lightroom to use when your photos are edited. Lightroom uses a very large Color Space called ProPhoto RGB (it’s even larger than Adobe RGB). You cannot change it. Instead, you choose the Color Space when you export your photos from Lightroom.

If you are familiar with Lightroom, you know that it does not actually modify your photos, but stores the changes elsewhere. When it is time to bake your changes into the photo and create a JPEG or some other file type, you go through the export process. Just right-click and choose Export. When you do, a dialog box will appear with a lot of options (see below).

Adobe RGB Versus sRGB Colorspace - Which Should You Choose?

Lightroom’s export dialog box.

One of the options under the File Settings section is Color Space. Just choose the one you want. When you have made all the settings, click Export and Lightroom will create a file. Lightroom will also remember your choice for your next photo.

Sometimes you will send a file from Lightroom to another software application such as Photoshop. Lightroom allows you to set the Color Space you assign to the photo when you do so. To do that, go to the Edit drop-down menu, and click on Preferences, a dialog box will appear. There will be several tabs on the top. Click on the one labeled External Editing. Then a number of choices will appear, one of which is Color Space. Just pick either sRGB or Adobe RGB.

Adobe RGB Versus sRGB Colorspace - Which Should You Choose?

Some Possible Strategies

So at the end of the day, which should you choose, sRGB or Adobe RGB?  I can’t answer that for you since it depends on the factors set forth above. I can merely answer it for myself and hope my answer and these factors will be helpful for you.  That said, there are basically three strategies, but only two of them are really viable.  Here is how I see it:

  • Option 1 – sRGB:  Your first option is just to stick with sRGB. It is safe, and you will never have problems with color compression. If you post most or all of your photos online, this is probably the best choice. Even when it comes to printing, it will do a fine job and you will probably never notice any difference. Yes, it is a smaller color space, but it still works really well for both online photos and prints. Think about it this way; Have you ever looked at a picture in an online gallery that had incredible, eye-popping color? Well, since it was online you know it was in sRGB. It is good enough.
  • Option 2 – Try to use both:  The second option is to try and use both. In particular, there are those that recommend using sRGB if you plan to publish to the web and Adobe RGB if you plan to print. That makes some sense, but if like me, you sometimes post to the web and sometimes print depending on how the picture turns out, then this advice isn’t very helpful. When it comes to the setting on your camera, you would need to choose Adobe RGB to preserve the larger gamut (setting aside the RAW file for the moment). Then you would either keep it in Adobe RGB if you were going to print or else convert to sRGB for digital display. That is basically the same workflow as just using Adobe RGB all the time, which is our third option, so we might as well ignore this option.
  • Option 3 – Adobe RGB:  The third option is to use Adobe RGB all the way through, and just remember to convert to sRGB as a final step for any photos that you post to the web. That preserves the largest color gamut for your photo. As mentioned previously, Adobe RGB is pretty much designed for printing, and most agree that it is the better option for doing so, so there is a benefit there. The only downside is that you have to remember to convert to sRGB when posting to the web. But, honestly, how hard is that? Not every. If you are interested in getting the very best images possible, shouldn’t you be doing this and giving ourselves the largest color gamut?

I think there are pretty compelling arguments for both sRGB and Adobe RGB.

The Answer for Me

So, we return to the original question, which for all my talking, still boils down to sRGB or Adobe RGB. What’s it going to be?

I think there are excellent arguments for both, but I’ve gone back to using sRGB across the board. Even though it is technically the smaller color space, I’ve just never noticed an actual real world difference between the two color spaces. It isn’t like my pictures are being ruined because I chose a smaller Color Space. No one has ever noticed.

Perhaps if I ever notice a difference in my pictures related to Color Space, I’ll start working in Adobe RGB. Of course, I still have all my RAW files so I can always go back and assign whichever one I want.  But until then it is sRGB across the board for me. You?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Jim Hamel shows aspiring photographers simple, practical steps for improving their photos. Check out his free photography guides and photography tutorials at Outdoor Photo Academy. The free tips, explanations, and video tutorials he provides are sure to take your photography to the next level. In addition, check out his brand new Lightroom Course where Digital Photography School readers can use the Promo Code "DPS25" to get 25% off!