sRGB, Adobe RGB, ProPhoto RGB: Which to Use and Why?

Have you ever been confused about which color space you should use and wondered what the differences are? This video will help you understand, and most importantly, choose the correct one. 

When you're working in software such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop, you may have seen different color profile options you can choose (also known as working spaces or color spaces). In fact, when you create a new document in Photoshop or click Edit > Color Settings > Working Spaces > RGB, there are actually 16 options you can choose from. However, the three most common choices are:

  1. sRGB
  2. Adobe RGB (1998)
  3. ProPhoto RGB

However, which one you choose will depend on a number of variables and understanding those options is vital in order to get the best color representation of your image for the eyes of your viewers. In this video by Phlearn, Aaron Nace walks you through the three main color profiles and breaks down their nuances and which might be most suitable for you, depending on your circumstances. 

An example of what you'll learn through this video is that it's best for you to use sRGB if you're planning on uploading your images to social media or online apps. That's because apps and internet browsers use the sRGB color profile as their default setting, and using other color profiles could compromise the true representation of your image as you wish to show it. 

This is a very helpful video, as it clearly allows you to get your head around which color space you should use in any given situation. What about you? Which color space do you prefer and what has been your experience tinkering with different options? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. 

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49 Comments

I would mention that given a fixed number of Color Bit Depth larger color means more quantization error (Banding).
So I think unless you have 10 Bit Video Card and Monitor, sticking to sRGB is a good idea.

Using 16 bit per channel reduces quantization errors in process and a 8 bit display can show a large part of adobe 1998 if its capable of it. Most pro printers have a larger colour space/ability to print more than SRGB so using SRGB could result in a poor image print

Bit Depth of the Monitor and Color Space has almost nothing to do with each other. Color Space means the volume of the space. Bit Depth means how many slices you divide this volume into. Once you use larger volume with less slices it means each slice represent more colors and you can see the difference (This is quantization or Banding in Photography lingo).

I'm not talking about computational errors (Which can indeed can be reduced in 16 Bit Mode in Photoshop) I'm talking about the output on the screen.

I will still contend a 8bit source can supply to a monitor more than SRGB as long as the monitor and can display it. The display signalling is relevant and the prophoto space is likely to be bigger than a 8 bit capabilities. Monitor profiles have a lot to do with the non linear response across the 256 shades of the channel or 1024 of 10 bit monitors. Often in cheaper monitors or on laptops these number of shades can be reduced due to software colour adjustments. In higher end monitors the adjustments normally in colour calibration are applied within the monitor itself (LLT) The worse the monitor the more the monitor profile has to push or pull the sign to get a linear response. I use a NEC Spectraview which has 10bit LLT with a 8 bit input (had it for 10 years) and is very capable of showing more than SRGB and banding in adobe 1998 has never been a problem.

LCD Monitors are pretty linear.
Actually we're left with this silly Gamma Correction as a baggage carried from the past.

Regarding your argument, we are talking about different things.
You're talking about what the user sees, which is subjective, I'm talking about what the Math tells us.

Quantization error is proportional to the ratio between color space volume and number of shades (Bit Depth).

Blake Aghili's picture

My short way:
ProPhoto ? Over-kill , not all of its colors are even recognizable by human eye.
Adobe RGB: Using this when working on a photo.
sRGB: Web export.
+ 16 bit and saving as TIFF

R. P.'s picture

If they are not recognizable, then they are not colors ;-)

Spy Black's picture

What's your target? Web? Print? Now you know what colorspace you need to work in...

Davor Ergo's picture

Does it make sense to edit in ProPhoto RGB when your monitor can display only about 70% of Adobe RGB?

There is the file profile and then there is your monitor profile which the file is interpreted through. In my view using Prophoto is a bad Idea and im using a 100% adobe 1998 screen...

Daniel Medley's picture

It depends on your target. Are your images only going to be viewed on your monitor or other screen? Then ProPhoto may not make since? Is there a possibility that your images may be viewed in other targets? Say, printed?

Once data is gone it's gone. If your photos may be destined for different or a variety of targets then editing and saving your files in ProPhoto is the way to go. Then you can export to various targets in whatever color space the intended target requires.

Laughing Cow's picture

ProPhoto RGB contains more colors, it also contains all the colors contained in the other profiles.
As your images can be used on different supports (print, offset, web, monitor, etc.) I think that it is better to edit the images using the largest color profile (ProPhoto RGB), and then to export the images using the color profiles fitting better the final use.

Lee Christiansen's picture

It is a mistake to edit with a colour range where we can't see the colours we're working with and ProPhoto is too big for monitors and too big for some of our vision.

So we work in sRGB or aRGB, depending on the monitor we have.

But we should also consider the end use. How many people who work in aRGB for an sRGB use will double check each and every file after conversion to be sure things are what we expect.

I much prefer to work / edit in the colourspace for intended use and so I retouch and adjust with those limitations to squeeze the best I can within those parameters.

Davor Ergo's picture

Makes sense. Thanks. My workflow is: editing RAW in Lightroom then sending my photos to Photoshop and do some more editing, than I save them back to Lightroom and export from there. Question: Because Lightroom works only in ProPhoto RGB, is it better to edit the photos in Adobe RGB when editing in Photoshop and export the photos from Photoshop instead of sending them back to Lightroom?

Lee Christiansen's picture

Lightroom can display in any profile you like.

I work with Capture One, so it's been a while since I worked with LR - but if memory serves, go to LR Preferences and choose External Editing. In the top box of selections choose sRGB or aRGB. I seem to remember that choosing either of these will have LR display with that colour gamut.

I used to choose the soft proofing option at the base of LR under the image in "Display" and selecting the soft proof type in the panel under the histogram, but then found making the change in Preferences did the job all the time for me.

In early days of LR I used to find there was a difference between LR images and their exported versions (which I had PS convert to sRGB on import by default). Clearly this was because of a colourspace difference with LR displaying in ProPhoto which I wasn't aware of. After lengthy conversations with Adobe who were scratching their heads, the next version of LR miraculously came out with a softproof option. After that I discovered the Preferences change which sorted things nicely.

Davor Ergo's picture

I think Lightroom is always in ProPhoto RGB and can't be changed. But what you say makes sense. If I work on an image in Photoshop in aRGB it should look the same when I bring it back to Lightroom. Because aRGB is "contained" in Pro Photo RGB which is what Lightroom uses. But working in Photoshop using aRGB is beneficial for me because my monitor can't display ProPhoto RGB. Right?

Lee Christiansen's picture

Essentially RAW processing software just deals with the RAW data, but what we see is the profile that is selected.

So LR doesn't really "work" in ProPhoto. The important thing is the softproofing (ie how we view the image as it is intended). If we work on an image in LR or C-1 with softproofing sleceted by default to sRGB and then change that viewing to aRGB or ProPhoto, the actual data is not changed, just our viewing pleasure.

I set up C-1 in much the same way with either SRGB or aRGB as my default viewing option so I know what it will look like whe it is converted to that colourspace as a JPEG / TIFF etc.

There are actually different options as to how that conversion is made which can effect the output or softproofed image, but can't remember if LR offers you that choice.

Daniel Medley's picture

You're correct, LR's only color space when developing is ProPhoto. Workflows vary, but I do global edits in LR then move to PS, finish editing in ProPhoto. I save the layered file (either TFF or PSD) and it saves to the LR catalog from which I can access it later if need be. That's where my finished edits live forever; right next to the raw file. Later, if I want to do some more edits in PS, I just locate the file in LR > right click > Edit in Photoshop > select edit original. I can then either take up where I left off or amend and change edits. It's all a layered file. But the key is to KEEP it all in ProPhoto.

I export from PS by flattening the file > convert to whatever color space needed for the intended target > Save as or Export.

The idea is to keep your processed "master" file with the largest color space available and convert it as needed. It's less about editing and more about the intended target.

Daniel Medley's picture

A good read to explain why, generally, processing in ProPhoto is the way to go: https://photographylife.com/srgb-vs-adobe-rgb-vs-prophoto-rgb

If you don't mind doing a lot of reading and really getting into the minutia this site is great: http://www.digitaldog.net/

Andrew Rodney is quite possibly the best source for all things color, color spaces, and general color management.

Daniel Medley's picture

"Lightroom can display in any profile you like."

As I understand it, Lightroom ONLY displays in ProPhoto in the Develop module. You can proof in an approximation of other color spaces, but you're always working in ProPhoto. The reason Lightroom uses ONLY ProPhoto in the Develop Module is to retain as much data as possible. You can export from LR in different color spaces, but when in LR's Develop Module, it's ProPhoto. The previews and most other areas are displayed in aRGB.

https://helpx.adobe.com/lightroom/help/color-management.html can provide more information:

The idea is to retain as much data as possible and then export to the color space your intended target requires.

Daniel Medley's picture

Here is a good rundown of why a ProPhoto working space is advantageous in most circumstances:

https://www.color-management-guide.co.uk/how-to-choose-between-srgb-adob...

Lee Christiansen's picture

This is why I say "can display in any profile you like"

i.e. You can softproof in any profile you like.

Everything else in under the bonnet to retain as much flexibility and quality whilst making those adjustments. That's the point of RAW of course, so we can bash the image around and not have it being destructive from a data or colourspace point of view. :)

Daniel Medley's picture

You also said, "So LR doesn't really "work" in ProPhoto." Which like most of everything else you've said is just flat out wrong.

Daniel Medley's picture

"My workflow is: editing RAW in Lightroom then sending my photos to Photoshop and do some more editing, than I save them back to Lightroom and export from there. Question: Because Lightroom works only in ProPhoto RGB, is it better to edit the photos in Adobe RGB when editing in Photoshop and export the photos from Photoshop instead of sending them back to Lightroom?"

In my view, it's best to keep everything in ProPhoto. When you've completed your PS edits, just save it and it will be indicated in your LR catalog. You can open it up from there. This would be the home of your final "developed" images.You would then convert it to whatever color space is needed for the intended target. That way you have ALL the data available to be able to accommodate whatever target you may need.

Your workflow is similar to mine. Dump images into LR > global edits as needed in LR > Send to PS to finish edits > save layered TFF in ProPhoto. I then move on to the next image.

That way I have all master "developed" images accessible from my LR catalog. If I'm going to provide a given image to a client for printing I'll open up the developed file from my LR catalog in PS > flatten it > convert it to aRGB (or whatever color space is required by the printer)> save it as a separate file> hand off to client.

If I'm going to use it as a web image/social, etc.I do the same thing but convert it to sRGB. But I always retain the master developed file in ProPhoto to retain ALL of the data because once data is gone it's gone forever.

Laughing Cow's picture

"It is a mistake to edit with a colour range where we can't see the colours"
Sorry Lee, but this is one of the biggest foolishness (sorry if it offends but I don't find a softer word) that I have heard in all my life of graphic design and color correction…
No, it is not a mistake. You are the one mistaking here. Apparently your experience with the print industry, and its necessities, is close to zero if you think that sRGB is the best profile to use (I am hearing all my friends color correctors and typographers laughing out loud in the background…)

"I much prefer to work / edit in the colour space for intended use"
The point is that very often there is not only ONE use for ONE image, they could be several. Several uses, several supports/materials, several printing methods, etc. and the sRGB profile is not the most adapted profile to obtain the best results on a wide range of uses.

If like me you had 45 years of experience with color correction for hexachrome (discontinued process today), cmyk and rgb prints, and uses for one single image going from pad printing, to serigraphy, to billboard, to magazines, to packaging, to fine art, etc. you would have a different vision of what profiles to use and how to use these profiles, and you would understand that it is always better to have the more possible colors in your original, so ProPhoto RGB …
You can convert from ProPhoto RGB to sRGB and you will get a sRGB image
You can also convert from sRGB to ProPhoto RGB, but the result will be a a ProPhoto RGB with only the sRGB colors, so no more than your original sRGB

Lee Christiansen's picture

OK Maxal, I'll try not to be offended - but it isn't foolish to work in a colour range that we can see.

You don't make any mention of softproofing to see the available colours, so we'll have to assume that if you're working in ProPhoto you can't see everything you're working on. Feel free to clarify but without that info we can only go by what you write.

And I didn't say that sRGB is the best profile to use. (Please try to read what I say, not what you think I say). The best colourspace to use is the format of the intended use.

So when I talk about working in the colourspace for intended use, then I'll work in the biggest colourspace for intended use. I'll talk to my clients first. If they're needing aRGB, and also using for web, then I'll process and do post in aRGB, and I'll check each and every image with a conversion which I will do for them to be sure each and every image works after conversion.

Feel free to spend countless hours retouching and processing images where you are guessing what the colours might be - if only you could see them. I'll work with what can be displayed because at no point are we going to see anything else.

My original has oodles of colour range, because my original is the RAW file. After that I'm needing to make intelligent decisions in post and I can't do that iof I can't see what I'm working with. Yes we'd all love to work with a huge gamut of colours for perfection, but at present aRGB is all we can cope with and ProPhoto is actually outside the range of what many can see with their eyes.

So I start with my big range of colours and I process my RAW files within the confines of what can be seen. I make the image the best it can be within the confines of what can be viewed. Such is life and we deal with it. But as part of that process I can push the maximum of what can be seen and be confident that my hours are well spent - not being dashed later when I realise all that work was for naught because of surprises down the way.

And I view all this in the colourspace that is deemed best for the end product. If it is for an aRGB workflow later then Ill set C-1 to view as aRGB. If the images have that need and also web, then I'll set C-1 to aRGB. And if the end product is only ever to be used on web, then I'll set C-1 to an sRGB workflow and do the best I can within that limitation - but at least I'll spend my hours productively.
And yes we all know that sRGB converted to ProPhotos will only give an sRGB range - sheesh.

I'd prefer to spend my hours retouching an image and not have a bunch of big surprises when I eventually convert a massive colour space to a little one. Oops - look at all those colour artifacts and changes, I'd better go back and spend another few hours altering those colours that I still can't actually see. I make the best of what I can deliver and I'll retouch with that in mind.

If you are processing and retouching in ProPhoto, please tell me what amazing monitor you are using to see this colour range. I need to buy one. Nope... I didn't think you had one. Or are you just retouching blindly and hoping it won't mean more hours when you get a nasty surprise later?

45 years of experience is all lovely. But don't mistake that experience with being right all the time.

I've got nearly 15 years of retouching experience, so I'm no slouch. And I've spent those years working with a variety of colourspaces and printing types. Before retouching I was dealing with print requirements before we had the convenience of computer screens and PS. Yes I'm old enough to remember the bad old days too.

Now maybe your "editing" experience is not what mine is. I talk (as many here do) of processing RAW files and retouching images. Both of these disciplines require us to see what we're doing before making any judgements.

Otherwise we may as well be working with ProPhoto files on a bad monitor that can't even display sRGB - because if we're going to work blind, what does it matter how blind. And NONE of us are going to champion that way of working.

For anyone who actually processes / retouches in ProPhoto (ie viewing a ProPhoto colourspace embedded image), then I'm asking - what monitors do you use to be able to see those colours. Perhaps you can ask all those friends of yours to stop laughing and teel us what amazing monitors they are using that they can clearly see what they're doing.

How can we truly see a ProPhoto image without the technolgy to display it? How do you know what you are working with?

Then I'll ask a number of well respected printing companies if they'd like the files in ProPhoto to print directly from and see what they think. (Not found any yet who want that format).

I'll say it again. Biggest is not always best. Delivering the best WITHIN a project's limitation is the better way to work. It may pain us to do so, (because we're perfectionists at heart), but btter to deliver the best final image than hope an image would look great if only we could show it.

And how many photographers when producing perhaps a large number of images (for a wedding etc) will work in aRGB but deliver in web friendly aRGB, will actually check each image carefully to be sure the conversion is great, and I wonder which form of conversion they will choose?

I don't deny ProPhoto is a lovely thing. I'd love it when monitors everywhere can display it and printers can cope and paper stock will deliver it. For now we need to work with what we can actually work and see with.

Daniel Medley's picture

I won't be as harsh as you :) But one thing that people seem to not realize is that editing in sRGB, you actually throw out data that you can see; most notably color transitions and gradations. By editing in ProPhoto, you can better retain those transitions and gradations that will absolutely be visible in an sRGB color space.

Lee Christiansen's picture

This is very true. And it depends of course how much pushing and pulling we're intending. Something that requires quite a bit of retouching would warrant exporting to aRGB, then post in PS and conversion to sRGB if that is the intended target.

Remembering that I have NEVER said that sRGB is the best profile to use whilst editing / retouching.

Many times any further post work doesn't tax an image and if the intended target is sRGB there is no harm in maintaining that workflow throughout.

(Although I'd hope the majority of the big adjustments that would push/pull colours/exposures etc would be done wit the RAW file befgore exporting and that process is essentially what the above refers to).

We can softproof in aRGB and work with a ProPhoto file whilst in PS and this is a pure way to work. But it also requires an extra stage and the advantage is only really gained if we're revisiting the image for further work or 20 years when maybe the monitoring world has caught up. If we're doing that then I have the RAW file and how many times does that happen?

But yes you point out a very valid point. I'd certainly champion an aRGB workflow and conversion to lesser if needed at the end, but ProPhoto throughout with softproofing throughout is (for me), pushing things a little too far.

Each to his own, and whatever works for us all. :)

Daniel Medley's picture

"As your images can be used on different supports (print, offset, web, monitor, etc.) I think that it is better to edit the images using the largest color profile (ProPhoto RGB), and then to export the images using the color profiles fitting better the final use."

This. The old adage with a different twist; it's better to have the data and not need it than to need the data and not have it.

Lee Christiansen's picture

A point worth considering is whether files delivery is JPEG or TIFF / PSD and whether those images will receive extra work / processing down the line.

JPEG is only 8-bit and is better suited to sRGB. There's a lot of colour information for 8-bit and there's a trade off between range of clours and the ability to display them smoothly across the spectrum with only 8 bits of data. An 8-bit JPEG in aRGB can fall apart pretty quickly with some post production pushing and pulling, whereas an 8-bit sRGB image will survive somewhat better.

Bigger is not always better.

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