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Help System > Color University > Color Gamut and Printer Profiles

Color Gamut and Printer Profiles

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Now you know that there are lots of different color spaces:

Diagram of multiple color spaces

In each of those color spaces, particular coordinates (like 5,3) usually mean a different color.

Color gamut

Ok, let's learn a new word: gamut. Gamut (when talking about color) means: "a range of colors" or a "collection of colors."

The gamut of a monitor, printer, or projector is the range of colors it can produce. Some devices have a wide gamut (can produce lots of colors) and some have a narrow gamut (can produce fewer colors):

representation of wide gamut and narrow gamut

Every monitor, printer, projector, phone, and everything else that can produce color has its own gamut, or its own color space. Meaning, that every device has a finite set of individual colors it can produce.

In the diagram above, the Human Vision color space has the widest gamut, and the CMYK color space has the narrowest gamut.

Printer profiles (and paper profiles)

Don't forget about your printer, or you'll hurt its feelings and it will clog its nozzles to spite you. Printers and papers have their own color spaces too, and have their own color profiles along with all of the above "sRGB" and "ProPhoto" color spaces.

When we say printer profile, we mean the color space of the printer; in other words, the entire set of colors (or "gamut") that the printer can produce.

But, it's never enough to talk about a "printer profile." As we saw just above, there's a different "gamut" (or "color space", or "ICC profile") not only for every printer, but for every paper that can be used in every printer.

Here's a photo that was printed on printer "X" with paper that has a wide gamut on that printer:

Picture of Colorado mountains on a wide gamut printer and paper

Here's what that exact same image would look like if it was printed by the exact same printer on a paper with a narrower gamut. Notice that the printer couldn't reproduce the greens, blues, and dark colors on the narrow-gamut paper that it could on the wide-gamut paper:

Picture of Colorado mountains on a narrow gamut printer and paper

The wide-gamut paper was probably photo paper, and the narrow-gamut paper was probably plain copier paper. Papers called "photo papers" with special coatings and often multiple layers, always have a wider gamut (they can produce more colors) than plain ol' copy paper.

You could say that the greens of the trees and the blues of the sky were out of gamut of the narrower-gamut paper.

As you can see, when talking about printing, you need to know about the color space (represented in an ICC profile) of a particular paper on a particular printer. Manufacturers of high-end photo, canvas, and fine art papers publish ICC profiles (which are just definitions of color spaces) for every paper they sell on many popular photo printers. You can download them and use them on your computer to make sure you get the printing results you want. (That's called "soft proofing," which we'll cover in another article.)

Camera color spaces

You didn't think we were done with color spaces, did you?

When you take a picture, the information from the camera's sensor (which is a set of millions of numbers) has to be stored in, or associated with, a color space, because, as we've seen, without a color space, the individual numbers that make up the image don't mean any particular color. Only when you associate that grid of numbers with a particular color space can you say you have a particular color at a particular location within the image.

Most cameras=sRGB

Most cell phone cameras and inexpensive "point and shoot" cameras store images in the sRGB color space. Why? Because a vast majority of the pictures taken with those cameras will only ever be seen on a computer or phone screen. They'll look fantastic on a screen, because the sRGB color space can represent nearly all of the colors that can be shown on a monitor or screen.

Of course, photos in the sRGB space can be printed, and if they were good-looking shots, they'll look great when they're printed.

High-end cameras=Adobe RGB

If you buy an expensive, professional-level, very high quality camera, it will allow you to select whether you want the images stored in the sRGB or Adobe RGB color space.

The Adobe RGB color space should be selected because, as we've seen, it can store many more colors than sRGB. This choice doesn't matter if you're only going to be showing your photos on social media and online.

But if you're going to send your photos to a professional photo lab for printing, or if you're going to print them at home on an expensive, 10-ink (or more) dedicated photo printer, you may be able to print a wider gamut of colors with more color accuracy by saving your images in the Adobe RGB color space.

Now that you know there are lots of different color spaces for printers, papers, and monitors, how do you use them all to make sure that your prints look their best?

NEXT: The Color Managed Workflow


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