Color Spaces

If you’re like many people who work with photos and other images for print or the web, there’s a good chance you’re confused about color spaces. In fact, you might just ignore them altogether. I hope this article will help you get your head around the topic. Since I deal mostly with Photoshop and Lightroom, I will focus on these two programs and how color spaces relate to my own workflow. But no matter how you work with your images, I believe there is a lot of useful information here and I think you will get something out of it. Let’s jump right into it…



  • When an image is opened in Photoshop, the program assigns your current RGB Working Space to it if it doesn’t have an embedded profile. This behavior can be changed in Color Management Policies under Edit > Color Settings…
  • To change an existing image’s color profile, go to Edit > Convert to Profile (not Assign to Profile).
  • If your image is embedded with a color profile other than sRGB, Photoshop will automatically convert it to sRGB when you choose Save for Web. This is because most browsers have that as their default color space. However the conversion will change the colors of the image so it is better to change the image’s profile using Edit > Convert to Profile before using Save for Web.



  • Lightroom works in its own color space, which has a wide gamut. You don’t need to choose color settings or color profiles until you are ready to output your photos, i.e. exporting them or choosing to edit them externally. Color spaces for exported files can be chosen in the Export dialog box, while External Editing color spaces can be chosen in the External Editing tab of Lightroom’s Preferences.
  • When you are finished editing a photo outside of Lightroom, just choose Save to import it back into Lightroom. The color space will be retained. From Lightroom you can export it for different purposes and the program will automatically convert color spaces accurately. If you want to use Save for Web from within Photoshop, remember to choose Edit > Convert to Profile and choose sRGB first, otherwise the colors will be changed.
  • If you get a pop-up that says “This version of Lightroom may require the Photoshop Camera Raw plug-in version x for full compatibility” upon choosing Edit In > Photoshop from within Lightroom, here’s what it means and what you can do (thanks to Jim Wilde at the Lightroom Forums):

That message will always be issued whenever there’s an “ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) Mismatch” between Lightroom and Photoshop. In other words, this happens when the two programs are using different versions of the Camera Raw plug-in. When the ACR levels are in sync, what happens when you use “Edit in….” is that LR passes all the relevant information to PS which then uses its ACR plug-in to render the file into PS’s working space. This means that a new file (Tiff or PSD) isn’t actually created on disk and imported into Lightroom until you select “Save” in the PS file menu… in other words if you change your mind and close the file in PS without saving, no new file will exist.

However, you don’t have to upgrade PS or its ACR plug-in just to get the ACR levels in sync…..when you receive the mismatch warning in Lightroom, simply use the “Render using Lightroom” option. This uses Lightroom’s ACR engine to render the file, then passes that to PS for editing…..the only real consequence of doing this is that the rendered file (Tiff or PSD) is created by Lightroom (and appears in Lightroom) before it’s passed to PS for editing. If you edit and save in PS, no difference to a workflow that is in sync, but if you cancel out of the editing in PS you are now left with a Tiff/PSD in LR which you probably don’t want and so have to delete. Other than that, the workflow works fine.

Using “Open Anyway” means that Lightroom passes all the edit information to PS which then uses its ACR plug-in to render the file….however because the ACR plug-in is at a lower level than LR the consequence is that any LR edits done using tools that were introduced AFTER the ACR plug-in for your version of PS will not be understood by PS/ACR and so will be ignored.

Other useful stuff


  • Hex colors are just RGB colors written in a different format (example: pure red is written as “255, 0, 0” in RGB and “FF0000” in Hex).
  • Many cameras allow you to change the color space that photos are captured in. If you’re shooting RAW, you don’t need to worry about this; otherwise it’s a good idea to choose Adobe RGB (1998). That way your images will have a wider gamut of colors and you can always convert them to another color space from within Photoshop (recommended for displaying them on the web or printing in printers that don’t support or are not calibrated for Adobe RGB (1998)).
  • Range of colors (gamut) from smallest to largest: sRGB -> Adobe RGB (1998) -> ProPhoto RGB
  • A color space with a smaller gamut has the advantage that average monitors can display all its colors (what you see is pretty much what you get). Web browsers use sRGB so anything else doesn’t make sense if your images will be displayed on the web.
  • Color spaces with a large gamut have the advantage of… more colors. They are good for working on photos (especially with high-end monitors that can display all the colors) and for printing with high-end printers that support and are configured to take advantage of the large gamut.

More information

Check out these resources for other useful articles on color spaces: