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What Are Color Profiles? – Demystifying a Key to Great Photography

Color Management, photography

Using (and understanding) color profiles to shoot, edit, and print the perfect image.

Photographers don’t always want lengthy explanations of color profiles; they just need to know what to use for best results. This blog post tells you those basics, short and sweet – from “what are color profiles?” to using them like a pro.

Why Bother with Profiles?

Here’s the 30 second overview of how profiles affect your photography.

  1. Every color device images color differently.
  2. This behavior is measured using standardized tools.
  3. For every device, measurements are made by comparing the differences between the colors we asked the device to give us and what it actually delivered.
  4. The measurements are saved in a standardized format called color profiles.
  5. These profiles can be set to work automatically in photo-editing software such as Photoshop and Lightroom.
  6. The profiles are snapshots of color at that moment on that device. If anything changes—the paper, the inks or the device—the snapshot is no longer accurate.
  7. Profiles will be used in every step of the photographic process, so it makes sense to master how to use them correctly.

How Does this Affect Photographers?

Profiles are set automatically by cameras, operating systems, software, and printers. By default, they’re set to lowest common denominator standards, which means photographers using these defaults may get adequate color, but not nearly the best they could get with a little bit of profile mastery.

Getting the best color means being greedy for color at every step of the workflow, making sure to get the maximum color from each device. You can always throw color away later in the workflow, but once it’s gone, you can’t put it back. The images at the top of this post show the same photo, with an incorrect (sRGB) profile at top, and the correct (AdobeRGB) profile embedded below. The sRGB profile makes the file appear darker and muddy. This will be more visible on you own display, when you download this file and test it yourself, as offered later in this blog post.

Streamlined Profile Decisions

This downloadable graphic shows the best choices to preserve color at every step of a photographer’s color profile workflow. Match your workflow against it to look for areas of improvement.

For each part of the graphic, there’s an explanatory section further in this blog article. If you already know profiles backward and forward, use the graphic as a handy reminder. If you want to dig deeper, match each number on the graphic with the explanations in this blog post.

Part 1 – Capturing Original Color (Input)

Color gets recorded by cameras, phones, and scanners. Which profile is correct for each?

Camera – Use Adobe RGB, and (even better) RAW

Almost all cameras start up in sRGB by default (until you get into cameras that cost five figures). If your camera offers Adobe RGB, use it; you can always convert to the smaller sRGB space later if needed. When possible, shoot in RAW, so that you capture all color possible and are in control of what color is thrown away (instead of your camera deciding for you).

If you’re shooting in both RAW and JPEG (as I do) the Adobe RGB setting only affects JPEGs. For RAW files, you set the profile you use in your RAW software, later in the workflow.

Camera Phone — Use the Auto-embedded Profile

Camera phones, if using profiles at all, embed the profile in the photo. Nothing you can do about it except make sure your workflow doesn’t edit out your profile from your photo (discussed later).

Scanner – Use the Embedded Profile, if Available

Scanner color profiles follow one of four paths:

  1. The scanner converts everything to sRGB and embeds an sRGB profile. This is automatic; use the embedded profile.
  2. The scanner embeds a custom profile provided by the manufacturer. This is automatic; use the embedded profile.
  3. The scanner software offers options to make and use custom profiles. If your scanning requirements need absolutely critical color fidelity, and you have this option, use it for best color. Consult your manual for more info.
  4. The scanner software does not embed a profile when scanning in 16 or 48 bit color; you will have to assign a profile later (discussed later in this blog post).

Regardless of the path chosen, note that putting a photographer’s gray card on the scanner bed, such as this one adds a neutral gray reference to the scan, as shown around the border of the image at right.

You can use this to neutralize color casts in your image, simply by click- balancing on it using the Curves or Levels tools in photo editing programs, such as Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw or Photoshop.

Click balancing to neutral will dial in most scanner color very quickly and easily. This is a good tip for images captured with cameras also!

Part 2 – Getting the Color into the Computer – Do Nothing

Do nothing to change the color. Make sure that images being imported to your computer are not having a profile assigned to them by your import software.

The only time to change an embedded profile or assign a new profile is when you know the images you are importing need a different profile from the one already embedded in the images. Open the images with software settings that respect the embedded profiles.

Part 3 — Editing the Color on a Good, Calibrated Display

Use a custom profile on a good display. Make your own display profile; it’s easy and inexpensive. Use an X-Rite i1 Display Pro or Datacolor Spyder. Make sure they’re fairly current models, because older versions won’t work with some contemporary display technologies.

Displays require a profile to run. If there’s no custom profile, Windows will set the display’s profile to sRGB, no matter how far off that setting is from color reality. On a Mac, the operating system tries to roll its own profile. Either way, these OS defaults don’t work nearly as well as a custom calibration and profile.

In all editing applications, your software must be set to honor embedded profiles upon opening images, or color will be distorted. This does not apply to opening RAW images, because RAW color is managed internally by the applications.

Lightroom – Trust Lightroom to do the right thing automatically

Do nothing special. Lightroom honors embedded profiles automatically. Lightroom uses the embedded profile in your image and the display profile set in the operating system to show you the color in your image, again, automatically.

If the embedded profile is absent, or swapped out incorrectly, or the display profile isn’t current, your displayed color won’t be faithful to the original, and the edits you make won’t be trustworthy. Don’t make these mistakes!

If you’re editing RAW files, which have no embedded profiles, Lightroom uses camera-specific profiles hidden in the software to read each file’s color, and then opens your images automatically in ProPhoto RGB in 16 bit color for maximum color fidelity.

This is a good setting to consider using in Photoshop and Camera RAW as well, because you get maximum color quality. You only need to convert color when sending a copy of your master file to a specific destination.

If you are exporting images from Lightroom for further work in Photoshop, be sure you export the file in the same colorspace as you’ll be editing it in Photoshop. For best match, set your Photoshop RGB editing colorspace to ProPhoto RGB.

Adobe Camera Raw – ProPhoto RGB

Adobe Camera Raw offers options for opening your image into four different theoretical RGB color spaces, as well as many other color spaces.

To access these settings, click on the blue link at the bottom center of the Camera RAW screen. In order of size, ColorMatch is smallest, sRGB is small, AdobeRGB is bigger, and ProPhoto is biggest. You’ll also notice that you can select any color profile you have installed in your system, such as a printer profile, but it’s strongly recommended you not do that. Edit in ProPhoto RGB, the biggest color space, and convert as needed as you send images to their destinations.

Adobe Camera RAW allows you to open JPEGs as well, honoring the embedded profiles automatically.

Photoshop— Always use embedded profiles (unless there isn’t one)

Use embedded profiles. The only time you have to make profile decisions is when there is no profile embedded in an image, an unusual event in most workflows. Photoshop will ask you to select a profile when an image does not have a profile. If you know your camera was set to sRGB, choose sRGB, and if your camera was set to AdobeRGB, choose that profile. RAW files are not opened directly into Photoshop, but rather through Camera RAW or Lightroom, as discussed above, and the color profile you use to open it should be ProPhoto RGB, for preserving maximum color while editing.

Opening Scanned Images in Photoshop

Photoshop will honor embedded profiles, whether theoretical constructs such as sRGB or custom profiles for a particular scanner. If your scanner did not embed a profile, check the scanner software settings to see what profile it was using, and assign the matching profile. If you can’t find a setting, start by assigning sRGB, and then try Adobe RGB. One of those two is usually the correct choice. How to assign a profile? I’m glad you asked.

Assigning Profiles in Photoshop

Assigning profiles is pretty straightforward; with an image open, go to the Edit menu in Photoshop, roll down to Assign Profile, and pick the one you want to assign in the dialog box that appears. To see how your choice of profile affects an image.

It has sRGB embedded in it, which is wrong. Open the image, then select Assign Profile under the Edit Menu. Select Adobe RGB, with the preview box checked, and watch the color change to the correct color. Greens and violet tones are brighter, losing muddiness in the image. Note that if you were to do this with a photo that was actually tagged correctly as sRGB, which this is not, the effect would be to make the image excessively saturated, with garish color. Tagging an sRGB photo with Adobe RGB is particularly dangerous with Caucasian flesh tones, causing the appearance of bad sunburn.

Part 3b – Previewing the Destination Color

Lightroom and Photoshop both offer preview functions, which show how color will appear when converted to the profile of the destination. Destinations can be printers, displays, video, or the Internet. If you want to preview how your image will look at a particular destination, a destination profile must be installed in your computer. For printing, these would be printer profiles.

All Breathing Color substrates have profiles for you to use, provided free of charge, under the Support link on the Breathing Color website. Download the profiles for your particular printer, with the instructions for installation on both Windows and Mac operating systems. Install a profile for each printer-paper combination you want to use. This is also useful when previewing new papers to see which ones you’d like to use.

Photoshop – How to Preview

To invoke a preview, go to the View Menu, then Proof Setup, then Custom. The window that appears provides a pull-down menu for selecting any installed profile. For more detail on how to use this window or to save presets for future use. Scroll down to the Section 3, on custom previewing.

Lightroom – How to Preview

In the Develop module, click on the Soft Proofing check box at the bottom left of your image. A Soft Proofing box will appear in the top right of the Develop Module panel. Select the profile for the destination you want to proof, and voila! Lightroom shows you how your image will look when printed, sent to the web, etc. (assuming you selected the correct profile).

For more detail, including screenshots, on how to use this window or to save presets for future use, see this post. Scroll down to Section 3, on custom previewing.

Part 4 – Preparing Color for Final Destinations

Printing to Your Own Printer from Photoshop

As above, use installed profiles to preview in Photoshop. Then, you hit the Print command, select your destination printer, its profile (the same one used to preview), and tell Photoshop to manage printing.

Photoshop will remind you to disable color management in your printer, which is essential so that two different managements aren’t in conflict. If you check the boxes in the print dialog at bottom left, you can see the actual color that will print, the color of white for this particular paper destination, and (toggle this one on and off) a gamut warning, to show what colors aren’t printable using your current selection. Then print!

Profiles for Internet Images

The much-maligned sRGB profile is the standard for the web. Convert a copy of your original file to sRGB to post it on the web. Don’t convert your original file, as you’ll degrade its capabilities for printing all the color values you can print when it goes to other destinations.

Sending Files to be Printed Elsewhere — Use Profiles Here Also

When files are sent to be printed elsewhere, one of two things will happen.

  1. The print house will tell you to leave the file in its current color space, because they wish to convert it. This is unlikely, but does happen. If the print house does the conversion, you must insist on seeing a proof.
  2. The print house will tell you to convert the file to “CMYK”. A good print house will tell you which CMYK profile to use, and the best print houses will send you the correct profile to use to convert your files for them. Tip: if you communicate with them at the beginning of the process, and can get a profile from them, use it to preview your images as you edit and prepare them for printing.

In the absence of a specific CMYK profile, use one of the CMYK profiles installed with Photoshop that most closely matches the type of printing process and paper with which your images will be printed.


This succinct, step-by-step guide to what to do with profiles at each step of your workflow is designed to be quick reference for each stage of your workflow. More in-depth details are available in other color-related blog posts here at Breathing Color. Here’s to great color at each step of your workflow.

Kevin O’Connor helps design and test software, is a graphic designer and photographer for multiple clients and companies, and fixes people’s (and companies’) color.

He has consulted to multiple companies, including Apple, Sony, Fujifilm USA, and X-Rite. He loves teaching good color practices to enthusiastic learners.

Have a Printmaking Question For Kevin?

We are going to feature Kevin on an upcoming episode of the podcast and would love to have him answer your printmaking questions.

If you have a question for Kevin just click the button below and leave a question.


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