Color Spaces and POD sites: a gamut of confusion

I have photos on a couple of “Print On Demand” sites. Every so often, one of those forums lights up with a thread about Adobe RGB versus sRGB. Which one should I use? Don’t photos look better in Adobe color space? Why don’t my images look the same on this site as they do on my computer?

Hooooo boy. The real answers to these questions are… complicated.

There are countless web sites explaining color spaces and color management, profiling and calibration. They typically start the story in 10,000 BC with the invention of color, then continue through 90 pages of beautiful diagrams and formulas, of which you retain nothing. (If you know a really good, short, presentation, post a comment. )

How we got here: the sRGB color space was developed by Hewlett Packard in the 90s, based on the characteristics of CRT monitors – those giant beige space heaters that sat on desktop PCs.  HP and Microsoft issued a paper titled “A Standard Default Color Space for the Internet – sRGB.”  They wanted to avoid ‘color management’ entirely, by making sRGB closely match a CRT, so there’d be need for an ICC profile for the monitor.

Adobe pushed their own color space, which was larger, and should have won out. But the web was already off and running, and few people in that gold rush cared about “color gamut”. Especially not Microsoft – or their corporate customers, who wanted office workers staring at spreadsheets all day, not beautiful Web sites. That’s one reason Apple computers became the standard for artists, designers,  and any artsy people in black turtlenecks: Apple supported color management, and the Adobe color space, from the early days.

Serious photographers didn’t like sRGB, which never had anything to do with the color ranges of film, printers, or digital cameras.  Many bought Apples. But the web became a vast desert of sRGB.

LCD monitors came along, with color gamuts different than CRTs; if systems using them didn’t have color management (i.e. ICC profiles for the monitors, and calibration) – colors could look ‘off’.   And so they did, on a lot of systems.

Roll ahead to today.  Some high-end monitors support nearly the entire Adobe color space. The big name browsers are all color managed. But the web is still overwhelmingly sRGB, and if that’s basically the only place your photos are seen, there’s little upside to going outside that color space.

But wait” you say. “I just bought a high-gamut monitor, and a calibrator, and I want my photos to be the best they can be, so I do everything in Adobe RGB, and wow those colors really look good, so don’t tell me to use sRGB.” Stick with me here. Say you do a photo using the Adobe color space.  You shoot it in Adobe RGB (or raw), edit it in Adobe RGB, make sure the resulting JPG is tagged as Adobe RGB, and you upload it to a POD. And let’s say that POD is Fine Art America, one of the biggest.  Yes, they’ll store your file unchanged, and if it gets printed, some high-end inkjet printer will do its best to put those Adobe RGB colors on paper accurately.   But when buyers are looking at it on the FAA web site, their browsers get a JPG of your image converted to sRGB; those additional Adobe colors are gone, replaced by the nearest sRGB equivalents. They’re flattened.

Even if you say you only care about the prints, you have no control over either the printer or the paper, and there’s no guarantee they’ll cover the full extend of Adobe RGB.

Another POD does it differently. Photo4Me.com, a UK site, correctly tags previews of Adobe RGB images with the Adobe RGB ICC profile, and leaves their pixel values unchanged. A buyer with a color-managed, calibrated, high-gamut system, sees your full range of colors – and no doubt buys a big print. But another buyer, with a cheap display and no color management, sees that image with dull colors throughout – not just in the places that are outside sRGB – because their system thinks those pixel values are in sRGB color space. Your photo looks washed out and “off”.

What about the ‘gallery’ sites? I checked Smugmug.com (the one I use) and found that like FAA, they convert images to sRGB, so the Adobe-only colors are lost. Their sadly out-of-date online Help says they’re doing the right thing in hiding Adobe RGB colors because “no Windows-based browser can display them correctly”. But that hasn’t been true for years.

So here’s the crux of the matter: which way is better? FAA and SmugMug think they’re doing you a favor by converting your photo to sRGB, because every viewer sees something that looks “pretty good”; but no one sees your carefully preserved saturated reds and yellows in those tulips. Photo4Me puts your image online in its full Adobe glory; some will feel the radiance, but others will see a photo that looks like it’s been run over by a truck, color-wise.

So it’s a compromise either way. My decision has been to stay inside sRGB. Most of the time, that’s not even an issue, the colors all fit. For the occasional image where it matters, I use “soft proofing” to show me the places that are out of the sRGB gamut, and I try to tweak them so they don’t look flat and banded in that color space. Looking ahead, I suppose will be a day when just about everyone is looking at a display with enough gamut for Adobe RGB, on a color-managed system, and I’ll regret not preserving all the color in those tulips. But when that time comes, I’ll just shoot some new ones.


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