Color Management Mistakes to Avoid

Colorspace Comparison
Comparison of color pallet specifications in different color spaces.

Why is Color Management IMportant?

In the digital world getting a photo (or any artwork) from source to destination is a challenge because colors are represented by numbers but each device handles those numbers differently. The challenge increases when you want a specific color on your screen or print. I’ll try to keep this from getting too technical by using a simple example.

Shutterstock’s Color Trends for 2021

Shutterstock, a global powerhouse for licensed images, recently published an analysis of colors in images being downloaded from their website for commercial applications. The analysis captures trends in industry that shape consumer behavior. Their analysis indicates that 2021 will be a year with advertising focused on rich and optimistic colors in nature that symbolize hope and opportunity. Creatives, including myself, may want to use these colors in artwork and graphic design to leverage the trends shaping consumers. The question then is how to get the correct color into your artwork. That’s what this article is going to discuss.

Color Spaces

Color spaces are a numerical method for defining colors to be presented. The set of all colors in the color space is called the color gamut. The most common color space is known as sRGB which evolved from the color gamut that early computer monitors could display. Monitors were able to create color by illuminating small “dots” on a screen called pixels. Each pixel could produce various levels of red, blue and green light which is where the names for color spaces originate; with some variation of RGB for red, green and blue.

Additional challenges come when we try to convert pixels we see on a monitor to ink on paper. Images on paper reflect light rather than emit light. When color is produced by emitting light the process is called additive color. With additive color, the more color that is added (brighter illumination) by the pixel the result approaches white; the light emitted becomes white in “the presence of all color”. When viewing printed color, the process is called subtractive. As more and more color ink is put on the paper, the ink reflects less light creating black in the presence of all color. Commercial offset printers use a different color model known as CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) to create the color output. The paper surface, color, and inks play a role in how the printed colors are created.

Color Management

The colors produced by early computer monitors and color televisions were significantly less than the human eye could see. As technology evolved, engineers developed different color spaces with a larger gamuts – gamuts with some colors that are still beyond the capability of modern monitors to display or printers to print. Because of the different physics between printed color and illuminated color there are colors that can be produced by one but not both devices. How those colors are shifted to look natural on both devices requires active management. Software can be used to identify when a color is out of gamut for the destination device so the output can be adjusted to compress or shift the colors.

Photographers and digital artists usually work in the largest gamut called ProPhotoRGB to future proof their work by preserving the full range of colors whether or not they can currently be produced on the screen or paper. When an images is output to a specific device the colors must be converted to the gamut of the output device whether that is a monitor or printer. All the colors shift to some degree as they are processed for output. Controlling the shift is a process called color management.

Converting From One Color Space to Another

The process of getting the exact color you want on an output device can be challenging. In our case, we want to use some specific colors which Shutterstock says are going to be winners in 2021. They gave us sample pictures of the colors in nature and they gave us a numerical number to plug into Photoshop to paint the color. But what happens when I plug that number into my color space? I use ProphotoRGB so I can preserve the widest range of colors.

When I put those number in to a ProPhotoRGB color space, they didn’t look right. Well, its because the numeric profiles were pulled from a sRGB colorspace. You can see the differences in the image at the top of the page. To use the sRGB colors in ProPhotoRGB the document color space must be converted to ProPhotoRBB in Photoshop. After the document is converted, the colors will look the same but the numbers will be different. You’ll need to sample the colors in the converted document to get the correct numbers for use in a ProPhotoRGB document.

Looking at the image above, you will notice the first color on the left, Fuschia, has a numeric code FF6347. That number renders the correct color in sRGB space (top image) but when used in ProPhotoRGB it looks brighter and much more saturated. To produce the same color in ProPhotoRGB the code BC6B41 must be used. That code was determined by creating the color in sRGB with the code FF6347 and then using Photoshop to convert the color space to ProPhotoRGB. Once the document is converted sample the color using the eyedropper tool to get the converted number.


Colors in a digital workflow can not be left to chance. It is important to understand what happens to your color photos when you go from camera to computer to printer and how your decisions affect the outcome of your artwork. If you are working with specific colors such as a brand color or want to incorporate specific mood colors, be sure to understand what color space those colors are coming from and how you are going to introduce them into your project’s color space and workflow.

Sam Dobrow uses a fully color managed work flow including a calibrated large gamut monitor to process his artwork and assure every color is printed the way he envisioned it in his camera and computer.