Picture It Right: An Introduction to Colour Management for Photographers

Printmaker James Tan compares a metal dye sublimation print of a sunset to the photo on a monitor.

In the digital age of photography, the quest for accurate colour representation has become a top concern for photographers. Have you ever marveled at an image on your screen, only to be disappointed by its different appearance in print? Or experienced the frustration of editing photos that don’t quite capture the vividness you envisioned? In this guide, I’ll unravel the intricacies of colour management and its pivotal role in professional photo editing.

Why is colour management so important for photographers?

I often say this in my workshops: You can’t edit what you can’t see. At its core, colour management is about ensuring that the colours you see on your monitor accurately translate to your final work – be it screen or print.

Imagine a scenario where a photograph’s colours are rendered inaccurately due to an uncalibrated monitor, a mismatched printer profile, or a flawed colour workflow. These discrepancies can lead to disappointment and frustration, undermining the photographer’s creative intent. Colour management strives to bridge the gap between the digital and physical realms, making certain that the vibrancy and richness of your images are preserved throughout the editing and printing processes.

What does colour management entail?

The journey of colour management begins the moment an image is captured and saved as a file. Whether in RAW or JPEG format, a colour profile is attached to the image. Understanding the distinctions between these formats is crucial: RAW captures a broader spectrum of colours, enabling more flexibility during editing.

Next, your computer workspace and monitor have their respective colour profiles, impacting the way you perceive and edit images. The type of monitor you use further influences your colour editing capabilities, as not all monitors can reproduce the full range of colours. This is what is known as the device’s gamut.

Finally, to complicate matters, each printer and paper combination boasts its own unique colour profile, demanding meticulous alignment to achieve accurate results if you’re printing your work. Colour management involves harmonizing these profiles to maintain consistent colour fidelity from start to finish.

The science of colour and gamut

The gamut is the defined boundary of colours that a device can reproduce. The human eye’s colour gamut is captured within a horseshoe-shaped diagram, encompassing all perceivable colours. Monitors and devices adhere to colour spaces like SRGB or Adobe RGB, which can reproduce a strictly limited range of colour.

A comparison of the larger Adobe RGB (grey) vs sRGB colour space

Straying beyond a monitor’s colour reproduction capacity can result in colours that cannot be accurately displayed, leading to clipping and print discrepancies. How do you know this? By calibrating your monitor.

Note: If you’re undertaking colour management for videography, you’ll work with a different set of standard colour spaces.

ICC profiles: the digital passport for colours

Think of ICC profiles as the passports of the digital colour world. Just as a passport verifies your identity and origin, ICC profiles identify the colour space and characteristics of your images. These profiles ensure that your editing software and devices interpret colours accurately, facilitating seamless translation between different devices and applications.

Whether it’s a camera, scanner, monitor, or printer, ICC profiles play a pivotal role in maintaining colour fidelity throughout the editing and printing processes.

Navigating the colour managed workflow: the steps


Monitor Calibration

Before proceeding further, ensure that your monitor is properly calibrated. This step guarantees that your edits align with industry standards and your creative intent.


Importing and Editing

Import your RAW files into a capable editing software like Lightroom or Capture One. Edit your images in the appropriate colour space (Adobe RGB or sRGB) and bit depth (16-bit) to ensure optimal colour accuracy. Do not resize your images smaller while editing or you’ll lose detail.


Exporting Edited Files

After meticulous editing, export your files in PSD or TIFF format, maintaining the chosen colour space and bit depth. This step preserves the depth and vibrancy of your colours.


Sharing Digitally

When sharing your images digitally, convert them to SRGB 8-bit and save as JPEG files. This format is widely supported by browsers and most devices, ensuring that your images appear as intended across various platforms.


Preparing for Printing

If you intend to print your images, maintain the PSD or TIFF format and adhere to the chosen colour space and bit depth. This step ensures that your printer receives the necessary colour information for accurate reproduction.


Collaborating with Printers

When collaborating with professional printmakers or labs, communicate your preferences and provide them with the appropriately formatted files. Discussing your requirements ensures that your prints accurately reflect your artistic vision.

1. Calibrating your monitor: the foundation of accurate colour

Put your phone next to your computer monitor and open the same image on each one. You’ll likely see that the image looks different on each screen. Which screen do you trust to show the right colours?

Calibrating your monitor is crucial for photographers who seek consistent and reliable results, whether editing for personal satisfaction or professional endeavors. This step establishes a baseline for accurate colour representation, ensuring that the colours you perceive closely align with industry standards. Learn how to calibrate your monitor with our detailed guide.

2. Importing and editing images

Capturing images in RAW empowers photographers to preserve a vast spectrum of colours from the real-world scene, enhancing the richness of their images. However, the challenge arises when choosing the appropriate colour space: how do you strike a balance between the device’s capabilities and the intended output?

In the realm of colour management, the right colour space and bit depth serve as the building blocks of accurate image editing. By choosing a colour space that suits your creative intent and output, you pave the way for consistent colour representation. Similarly, a higher bit depth, such as 16-bit, enhances the smoothness of colour gradients in your images, preserving details and nuances that contribute to visual richness.

Choosing the right colour space and bit depth is essential for colour management when editing photos like this vivid dusk in Kawasaki Industrial Area (Japan).

This is why the general advice is to use the SRGB colour space when editing photos for screens, and Adobe RGB when editing photos for print – assuming your monitor is capable of displaying the full Adobe RGB gamut.

Editing is one of the most exciting and creative steps in the photography process. Learn more with our in-depth guides on colour grading in photography and advanced editing techniques.

3. Exporting edited files

Your edited file should now be saved in a working file format, such as PSD or TIFF, that enables you to make further tweaks in future. Maintain your chosen colour space and bit depth – you’ll only need to change it when creating copies that cannot be edited.

4. Sharing digitally

If your final output is a digital file, you’ll want to change the bit depth to 8-bit and save your images in the JPEG file format. This is the most widely supported format on digital devices and viewing software (such as photo galleries and web browsers).

If you forget to adjust the bit depth of your image, you’ll know once you open the saved JPEG file in a file viewer or web browser: the image’s colours will typically appear washed-out and poorly balanced as compared to your working file, and you may also notice banding or other aberrations.

As an additional final step, you may want to vet your images on a target device – whether it’s a mobile phone or a large TV screen – to ensure it looks good at a different scale.

5. Preparing for print

If your images are meant to be printed, it’s best to maintain the PSD or TIFF format from your working file and maintain the chosen bit depth. This ensures that your printer receives all the colour information needed to accurately reproduce your image.

Printing is arguably the most complicated step in the photography workflow, with a ton of variables that will affect the final physical picture: printing process, ink, and choice of medium being the main considerations.

6. Collaborating with printers

If you’re working with professional printmakers or labs to print your photos, communication is key. Simply giving a printmaker the files and print dimensions won’t be enough, especially if you already have a clear idea of how your work should be brought to life.

For instance, when I make prints for photographers, each project begins with a call where we’ll discuss the choice of paper or other medium, the planned framing style, whether the work is being sold, made into a book, or put on exhibition, and so on.

A good printer will be willing to spend time collaborating with you, so make sure you make the most of this last stage to produce photographs that showcase your artistic vision.