Everything You Need to Know About Lightroom and Colour Space

Everything You Need to Know About Lightroom and Colour Space

Lightroom and colour space

This diagram shows the three colour spaces that Lightroom works with. Photo from Wikipedia

One of the key differences between Lightroom and Photoshop is their approach to colour management. In Photoshop, once out of Adobe Camera Raw, you can go to the Colour Settings menu option and tell Photoshop in which colour space you want it to work.

How Lightroom works

Lightroom works differently. When processing Raw files, Lightroom uses the ProPhotoRGB colour space the whole time, and there’s nothing you can do to change it. The benefits of this method are:

  • Less colour information is lost during the processing stage. ProPhotoRGB is the largest colour space, so it is the optimum one to work in.
  • You can export multiple versions of the same photo, each with a different colour space, if you have need to do so.
  • If future output devices (monitors, printers etc.) support ProPhotoRGB (they don’t at the moment) then your photos will be ready for them.
  • Colour management is greatly simplified. You don’t have to make any decisions about what colour space to work in until you export your photos. This is the biggest advantage of all.

How Lightroom manages colour

When processing Raw files, Lightroom (and Adobe Camera Raw in Photoshop) uses its own colour space based on ProPhoto RGB. It provides a large colour gamut to work with the wide range of colours that digital sensors are capable of recording.

Note: Gamut is the term used to describe the range of colour values that fit in a colour space.

Exporting photos in Lightroom

When you export a photo in Lightroom it gives you the choice of three colour spaces.

ProPhotoRGB: ProPhoto RGB is the largest of the three. It roughly matches the range of colours that a digital camera sensor can capture.

Adobe RGB (1998): Adobe RGB (1998) is smaller than ProPhoto RGB, but larger than the next choice, sRGB. It roughly matches the colour gamut of CMYK printers used to print books and magazines.

sRGB: sRGB is the smallest colour space of the three. It represents the colour space that most monitors are able to display.

Comparing colour spaces

These two graphs show how the colours my monitor is capable of displaying, compared to the sRGB and Adobe RGB colour spaces.

Lightroom and colour space

The green triangle shows the sRGB colour space, the red one shows my monitor’s colour gamut. The two are nearly identical.

Lightroom and colour space

The purple triangle shows the Adobe RGB (1998) colour space, the red one shows my monitor’s colour gamut. My monitor can’t display all the colours within this colour space. Only a select few high end monitors can display all the colours within the Adobe RGB (1998) colour space.

This diagram compares the ProPhoto RGB, Adobe RGB (1998) and sRGB colour spaces. You can see that ProPhoto RGB is the largest.

Lightroom and colour space

Photo from Wikipedia 

Keeping it simple

Armed with this knowledge, here’s a guide to which colour space you should select when exporting your photos:

sRGB: Use when exporting photos to be displayed online, printed at most commercial labs, or printed with most inkjet printers. In short, if in doubt, use sRGB.

Note: Lightroom’s Web module automatically sets the colour space of exported files to sRGB.

Adobe RGB (1998): Use only if requested. If you’re not sure, ask. If you’ve been asked to submit photos to a magazine, for example, then ask them which colour space is required. It will probably be Adobe RGB (1998). Submitting photos to a stock library? Again, it will probably be Adobe RGB (1998). It’s the colour space most likely to be used for commercial purposes.

You would also use this colour space if you have an inkjet printer that utilizes the Adobe RGB (1998) colour space, or you are using a lab that accepts and prints photos with that profile.

ProPhoto RGB: Use when exporting a photo file to be edited in another program such as Photoshop or a plug-in. The file should be exported as a 16-bit TIFF or PSD file. There is little point in using the ProPhoto RGB colour space with 8 bit files, as they don’t contain enough bit depth to utilize the full colour range.

Note: If you import a JPEG or TIFF file into Lightroom, it uses the file’s embedded colour profile. If there is no colour profile attached, it assumes that it’s an sRGB file. If you choose an alternate colour space when you export the file, Lightroom converts it.

Colour spaces and compression

The reason that Lightroom uses a version of the ProPhoto RGB colour space, is that it is doesn’t compress the colours captured by your camera’s sensor.

When you export a photo, if you select either the Adobe RGB (1998) or sRGB colour space, Lightroom compresses the photo’s colours to match the chosen profile. That’s why selecting colour space is best left for as close to the end of the post-processing workflow as possible.

While Lightroom does its work within its version of the ProPhoto RGB colour space, your monitor isn’t capable of displaying all those colours. Instead, your computer’s operating system uses the monitor profile to convert the colours to ones that your monitor is capable of displaying.

Note: All monitors have a colour profile, regardless of whether they have been calibrated. But your monitor will only display colour accurately if it has been properly calibrated. You can learn more about the calibration process in my article How to Calibrate Your Monitor With the Spyder 4 Express.

Exporting photos with Lightroom

To export a photo in Lightroom, select the photo (or photos) you want to export, then go to File > Export. You can do this from any module (use the Film Strip to select multiple photos if you are not in the Library module’s Grid View).

Go to the File Settings section of the Export window and set the required colour space. If you select the ProPhoto RGB colour space set Bit Depth to 16 bits/component.

Lightroom and colour space

Transferring photos to Photoshop

To open a photo in Photoshop, right-click on the photo and select Edit In > Edit In Adobe Photoshop. Photoshop opens the photo using the colour space indicated in Lightroom’s preferences.

To adjust this setting, go to the External Editing tab in preferences, and set Color Space to ProPhoto RGB. You can choose another colour space if you wish, but ProPhoto RGB is definitely the best one to use.

Lightroom and colour space

Opening photos in plug-ins

To export a photo to a plug-in, right-click on the photo, go to Edit In and select the plug-in you want to use to open the photo.

In the Edit Photo window, if you select Edit a Copy with Lightroom Adjustments (the only option available if you are exporting a Raw file) you will be able to select which colour space you want to use. Again, go with ProPhoto RGB for the best results.

Lightroom and colour space

If you are exporting a JPEG or TIFF file, Lightroom gives you the option of selecting Edit a Copy or Edit Original in the Edit Photo window. If you do so, the option to select a colour space is greyed out and Lightroom opens the photo in the plug-in using the embedded colour profile.

Lightroom and colour space

But if you select Edit a Copy with Lightroom Adjustments, you can select any colour space and Lightroom will convert the photo to that colour space when it opens the photo in the plug-in.


Confused? I hope not, because colour management in Lightroom is really very simple. It’s essential to calibrate your monitor, but after you’ve done that Lightroom takes care of all colour related issues for you until you export your photos. Then, it’s just a matter of selecting the appropriate colour space.

If you have anything to add to the article, or any questions, please post it in the comments.

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

  • Ryh

    Soooo which color space use in camera: sRGB or Adobe?

  • Bill Bentley

    Does it matter if you shoot raw? If you shoot .jpeg then I suppose the answer lies in the intent of what you will do with the image after post processing.

  • If you shoot Raw it doesn’t matter, as you select colour space when you convert your file to JPEG or TIFF format.

    If you’re shooting JPEG then go with sRGB if you want to print your photos or put them online. Only go with Adobe RGB (1998) if you’re shooting for something that requires that colour space.

    Just as Bill said!

  • Doc Pixel

    A small correction to your very good article.

    All Offset or Web printing color spaces are drastically smaller in color gamut than Adobe RGB. They are also slightly smaller in color gamut than sRGB, which also doesn’t correctly overlap to afford the best color separations for CMYK.

    Because the Adobe RGB profile gives you the most color information and has been a standard for so many years, it is always best to deliver Adobe RGB files or (PDFs). This affords the greatest color fidelity when converting at RIP time to be separated into CMYK, or digitally printed on calibrated CMYK machines like a Xerox.

    For more info: “Color Management in Practice – Advantages of the Adobe RGB Color Space”. http://www.eizo.com/global/library/management/management/03.html

  • jb91361

    Would this explain why I get a pink or red color cast when printing from LR, but correct colors when I print from PS?

  • Armando

    If you use sRGB for printing, would of been the same if you print with epson 3800 or 4800 printer. If u want to make large professional prints?

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    My understanding of color space is like this:
    a) sRGB has wider tone 0-255 while adobe RGB may have less dynamic range in tone : 50-200 (assumptions). However, adobe RGB has more dynamic range in color compared to sRGB.; ProRGB have both advantages.

    b) How to use those color space? For me.
    for single snap: High contrast scene (mid day) use sRGB; otherwise use AdobeRGB
    for multiple exposure: use AdobeRGB since you capture multiple exposure photos for same scene, so you could capture the color range as well as the dynamic tone.

    c) For me, i start using AdobeRGB to ensure the match of what you see is what you get from the Fujifilm Chemical printers, in JPEG.. Otherwise, the printing guy will always need to adjust every of your photos.. I don’t have time to wait.

    I don’t know what you all think

  • Thanks for the tip. I will read the article you linked to.

  • Possibly. The cause of printing issues can be hard to track down. For example, in this thread, the cause turned out to be an incorrectly installed printer driver:


    What colour profile have you set in the Print Job panel?

  • If someone is making the prints for you, then ask them what colour space is required. Most printers use sRGB, some use Adobe RGB, so it depends on the model used.

  • Article is very informative.

  • This is the first article, that I have read, to get it right. The others? They were of the “only use ProPhoto”, and “sRGB stands for stupid RGB”, variety. personally I don’t want to use colors that I can’t see, but even that opinion is nowhere near as meaningful as your post here. Great job!

  • Isaac Mutebe

    hi thanks am thinking of talk of exporting wont it take long would it be much easier if u saved as a jpeg file then u open photoshop then u open da file that u want thanks for your options its been great learning how to use lightrooom.

  • Inita Bite

    After exporting Jepg from Lightroom, image loses its quality! Colors getting more bland and image darkens! How to avoid this issue? I’m using standard Adobe RGB because there was no difference in images if I would use ProPhoto RGB …

  • Hi Inita, sRGB is the best colour space to use for most purposes. For example, if you use Adobe RGB and upload the photo to a website the browser won’t recognise the Adobe RGB colour space and it doesn’t look like it should. Does that help?

  • Inita Bite

    Cool and thank you for reply! Helpful 🙂

  • Kate

    I’ve browsed through the other threads relating to this but I can’t seem to make heads or tails of it with regards to my specific situation!

    So I use lightroom 5.6 on my laptop, but plug in an external monitor via HDMI to use lightroom for better quality. Essentially, viewing an image on chrome, windows photo gallery etc all give very similar views, but when imported to lightroom the colours go blander and the blacks aren’t as, well, black, but then when exporting, the blacks get much darker, so the image I see in lightroom is not the same as the exported file.
    What I’d like to know is:

    1) how can I see in lightroom what I will get if I export it, rather than having this difference in the blacks?

    2) would this issue exist if I’d shot in RAW rather than JPEG?

    3) will upgrading to a newer version of lightroom affect this?

  • skysi

    If your files are in AdobeRGB export them to jpgs using sRGB in export menu. Then your AdobeRGB file will be correctly converted to sRGB and will not lose any of the color info.

  • Mujahid Ur Rehman

    Thank you. This is nice, short and simple article. A lot of my questions got answered….

  • Simon Tull

    i use Topaz clarity as a plug-in to LR6….if I use ProPhotoRGB on export (converting from RAW to Tiff when doing so) then when I re-import the colours looks flat and washed out…this isn’t the case if I use either SRGB or AdobeRGB…why would this be?

  • Dilek Ozler

    Thank you very much for this very useful article. I am not very savvy in these matters and this certainly raised my understanding. I am currently in the process of submitting my photos to a stock photography website and they are asking for RGB profile photos. I had taken my photos in jpeg and imported them into Lightroom. And when I export them, I am choosing the RGB option, but somehow they are ending up as sRGB files. How can I convert my files into RGB?

  • TFajfar

    Can someone help me please? I have read the article, but I am still stuck.

    I post-processed raw photos with lightroom (in ProPhoto space ofcourse) but how do I now get such colors to web and other devices? When I opened them in default photo viewer or on web colors were totally washed out. I tried exporting them in all three color spaces, always the same.

    I mean, should I change a color space before post-processing? Here is where I get lost… –> “Lightroom works differently. When processing Raw files, Lightroom uses the ProPhotoRGB colour space the whole time, and there’s nothing you can do to change it.”

    It is seems meaningless to export in ProPhoto since any program(other than “pro” software) can’t display it, so please tell me how do i post-process photos with losing colors when exporting?

  • When you export photos to view online, use the sRGB colour space. In fact, you can use the sRGB colour space for just about everything, including post-processing in other applications. The other options are more specialised and are usually used by people who know precisely why they need that particular option.

    Have you calibrated your monitor? Are you viewing photos on a different monitor to the one you processed them on? Are you using a Windows PC with a calibrated monitor? You could be coming up against it’s colour management system. Lightroom uses the calibrated profile, but the default photo viewer doesn’t, so the colours are displayed differently.

  • Hi Dilke, RGB and sRGB are the same thing. sRGB files will be fine for the stock photography website.

  • Hi Simon, I checked the Topaz Labs website and they recommend using the Adobe RGB colour space.


    The best people to answer your question would be Topaz Labs support. They will be able to give you the exact answer where I can only guess.

  • Hi Kate, the answer may be something to do with the colour space you are shooting in. Are you using sRGB or Adobe RGB on your camera?

    The steps to good colour management are:

    1. Calibrate your monitor with a calibration device.

    2. Shoot Raw (much better quality than JPEG plus you can change colour space to what is required).

    3. Only use apps to process and view photo files that recognise and use the profile created in step 1. On a Windows PC, some apps don’t recognise the profile and therefore won’t display colours accurately. The easiest way around this is to buy a Mac, which has better colour management.

    Hope that helps.

  • Simon Tull

    Hi Andrew thanks for this … I will check with Topaz…..

  • Esther

    thank you for this very helpful article! I do wonder though: why is there no possibility to see in LR how the image will be displayed in sRGB…online the photo will be compressed to sRGB anyway, so while editing i´d rather know, how the majority of people will see the photo…

  • Con O Doherty

    Yahoo!!!(in its original sense-meaning ‘Great’ &/or ‘Eureka’!!!).
    Thank you for such a well balanced & thorough overview of Colour Space.
    It’s rare that a technical article like yours is enjoyable while still getting the essential message across.
    You’ve managed, in 1 short article, to explain Clour Space that l’ve been trying to understand for the last few years.
    I’ll be purchasing 1 of your Books as a sign of appreciation.
    Thank you very much.
    Ciao, Con O Doherty

  • Thanks Con, glad it was useful!

  • Randy Levine

    Great article, thanks! … I have a question: Wouldn’t it make more sense to edit in sRGB if the final destination will be viewed in sRGB? … If I edit in Photo Pro, aren’t I editing for a different color gamut which wont look right later when converted to sRGB? Why not just use sRGB from the start? … Very confused. 🙂

  • Lightroom only gives you the option to edit in ProPhoto RGB. It’s not like Photoshop where you can choose which colour space to work in, and where it might make sense to work in sRGB.

    Bear in mind that your monitor most likely only displays the sRGB colour space, so the larger colour space that Lightroom works in is compressed down to what your monitor display can see anyway.

    If you think about it too much it will play tricks with your mind. Best thing to do is just have faith that the way Lightroom handles colour space works and that all you need to do is select the appropriate colour space when you export your photos.

  • Randy Levine

    Thanks Andrew! I needed that reality check. 🙂 … Yes, I have decided to set Photoshop and ACR to match Lightroom to Pro Photo, then save the image to the colorspace of it’s intended use.

  • Pete L.

    Does anyone know why an exported JPG looks different on my monitor than how the photo appears in Lightroom or PS when my monitor can only display sRGB (and not even 100% of sRGB)?

    Exports (100% quality and size) always look like they have added contrast (compared to how they look in LR and PS) and it ends up losing detail in the shadows. Very frustrating.

  • Ludo

    “have faith that the way Lightroom handles colour space works”

    It doesn’t – at least not in my case. When I’m editing and viewing files in LR and then exporting them as sRGB, the color shades in shadows looks noticeably different – I’m guessing due to the color profiles conversion.

    Also don’t be fooled when you open the extracted sRGB file in LR – it seems to change it – for whatever reason – for it to look like the one with the adjustments.

    You can do your reality check though if you “Edit in” > “Adobe Photoshop” > “Edit a copy with LR adjustments” and then open in PS the file extracted as sRGB and the chances are, you will see noticeable differences in colors.

    So if you’re doing some complex adjustments in LR with the aim for white balance to be as neutral as possible (for commercial photos for example), with lots of shadows present and with the goal for the image to be exported as sRGB, then it seems the LR’s ProPhoto RGB will do you more harm than good.

  • pete guaron

    Confused? Your article has had quite the opposite effect on me, Andrew. Thanks very much for your explanation, and I only wish I’d read it years ago!

  • Hi Andrew,

    Congratulations for your excelent article !

    In Adobe Bridge I have the option of displaying the color profile of an image.
    When I am editing other formats than RAW, I would like to know what color profile is embeded.

    This should be possible in View / View Options…
    But there no no such option.

    Does someone know where can I visualize that information (the color profile) in LR ?

  • I’m having the same issue and can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong. I’m coming from the very old Photoshop 7 / ImageReady that I’ve been using for far too long, and am having trouble wrapping my head around how to properly use Lightroom. In ImageReady, which is where I have been doing most of my photo cropping and adjustments for photos for my business’ website (yes, ImageReady … I have a fantastic process down pat that has worked extremely well for the past 13 years or so). But I know I need to use a more modern program and have been making myself use Lightroom the past couple of months, which I purchased two years ago.

    ImageReady is a what you see is what you get program … in all browsers, in all photo viewing programs in Windows, etc. This is very important for me since 99% of what I do ends up on the web for my business. However, with Lightroom, the color profiles of the exported JPEGs from the ARW (Raw Sony files) throw me off because some programs utilize the color profiles and some don’t. ImageReady, which I still use for additional image tools, and Google Chrome are two of the programs I use that do not read the color profiles of the JPEGs created by Lightroom. Chrome is the bigger concern because I use it for the web, as do many other people on my website.

    I just want to flatten the color profile or discard it (or whatever the term is) so that it’s like the final images I get out of ImageReady. I don’t care about color profiles and just want the WYSIWYG experience I’ve had from ImageReady for the past 13 years.

    While I’m thrilled with what I’ve been able to accomplish with Lightroom on my computer, it accomplishes nothing if all of that work in Lightroom doesn’t display properly in Chrome when viewing images from my website. Confused and frustrated!

  • MajesticBeardsman

    How does one overcome the issue of ‘images looking different/too dark’ in windows(10) image viewer? My images look perfect in Lr but as others have said, look bad or just different in windows. They seem to look ok when uploaded to facebook etc but still, it would be nice if they look correct in windows too.

  • Deborah R.

    I have been having similar issues as well! This article has been extremely helpful in better understanding color management, but I’m still not sure how best to edit my photos so that what I see in LR is what I will get in my export (instead, I end up doing several test exports when I almost done w/ my editing). My computer’s color space is “Color LCD” (the default on my mac), and it does show Adobe RGB and ProPhoto RGB display profiles, but when I select those it changes the tone of the display very drastically (a significant pale blue tint), so I don’t use them. I’d love to speed up my editing time by knowing that what I’m seeing as my final edit is what my clients will receive instead of having to do so many (or any!) test exports.

    Also, I wanted to put together a small photo book for a friend for the holidays, and I’m pretty confused as to how to make sure it looks like what I’ve edited. If my monitor/the display profile my computer uses is sRGB, I’m editing the photos in ProPhoto RGB (LR/PS), and I’m not sure if an online vendor (like Shutterfly) may be more likely to do the printing in Adobe RGB or sRGB, is it still best to edit in ProPhoto RGB and export to sRGB?

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