Why Are My Colors Flat?

category: Cameras • 3 min read

Why are my colors flat when they looked so good on the review LCD of the camera? The photos looked fantastic for about 5 seconds in Lightroom, then they became flat.

It’s complicated because they are so many variables:

The Color Spaces

There are 3 main color spaces for us photographers:

  1. sRGB, the smallest color space. This is the basic color space in photography. And, it’s not fully supported by the vast majority of the screens. Even the New iPads with the Retina Display do not support the full sRGB color space (color saturation doesn’t make color space).
  2. Adobe RGB(1998), a color space introduced in 1998 by Adobe for desktop publishing to cover all the colors possibles on CMYK printers.
  3. ProPhoto RGB, a color space developed by Kodak. It is currently the widest color space in use for photography. It was developed for the photo uses. All “serious” photo editors do their edits/calculations in the ProPhoto RGB color space, then they display/output in the appropriate color space (screen/printer/file).

The Camera

Both Canon and Nikon offer sRGB and Adobe RGB(1998) color spaces on most of their dSLRs. No commercial camera manufacturer supports the ProPhoto RGB color space.

Both Canon and Nikon default to the smaller color space: sRGB. I have not checked the other camera manufacturers, but I suspect that they also default to sRGB.

I do not know about the Nikon D4 but even on its professional camera, the D3s, the default is sRGB. It’s the same for Canon with the 1DMk4. Why do both Canon and Nikon default to sRGB when their professional cameras support Adobe RGB and Adobe RGB has a wider color gamut than sRGB?

The Software

Most “real editing” software use ProPhotoRGB internally but output to the screen in the color space of screen, be it sRGB or Adobe RGB. They use ProPhoto internally to avoid the colors clipping during the processing and editing of the images. Then they output either in sRGB or in Adobe RGB.

Back to Lightroom and most the other “serious editing” software. They first display the JPEG preview of the photograph and then apply the various defaults when building the preview and that’s when the photos that looked fantastic for about 5 seconds before becoming flat. Check your color space and your camera settings within the editing software.

The Output

The output can either be:

  1. The screen. The vast majority of them, especially on smart phones tablets or cheap computers, do not even support the full sRGB color gamut.
  2. The printer. The vast majority of the “home printers” only support sRGB. Most of the “commercial printers” like Walmart, Costco… only support sRGB, especially with prints that are less than 11”. Almost all custom labs will provide you with a paper/printer profile that supports the Adobe RGB color space.
  3. The file. When the output is JPEG, the color space gets converted to sRGB then the whole file gets compressed which further reduce the color space to significantly less than sRGB.

Converting Between Color Profiles

One of the main problem when converting from one color space to another is which method. There are 4 different ones: perceptual, relative colorimetric, saturation, and absolute colorimetric. That’s 4 ways of “screwing up.” Whenever there is a change in color space, you loose something, even when going from sRGB to Adobe RGB, because the conversions are never perfect.

What’s My Solution?

  1. I use sRGB in the camera as recommended by both Canon and Nikon.
  2. I have a good IPS LCD screen that supports the “full” sRGB. Most “regular” LCDs do not support the full sRGB color space. Why not buy an Adobe RGB compatible screen? Because I’m a cheapskate, and much more importantly, my customers do not have any Adobe RGB compatible LCD screen. I need to see what they see.
  3. For important stuff, I use a grey card and a color chart when making the photos.
  4. I use the new Soft Proofing feature in Lightroom 5.x.
  5. If I will be needing CMYK, then I switch to Adobe RGB. Only once did I ever need to supply data files to be converted the CMYK.
  6. In case where color matching is important, I have a friend with a calibrated “boob tube” monitor that I can rent. Only “boob tube” CRTs can be calibrated accurately. With LCD screens, the position of your eyes in relation to the screen will greatly affect the color accuracy just like using a polarizing filter on a blue sky. See: https://www.sritch.com/lightroom/monitor-calibration-debunking-unit.html and https://www.sritch.com/lightroom/monitor-calibration-follow-up.html.