Why do my colors look different in Photoshop than in Lightroom?

Has that happened to you? You do a basic edit on a photo in Lightroom & then for further editing, you take it to Photoshop. Or even when you export out of Lightroom and upload to Facebook or elsewhere. The colors look different than what you saw in Lightroom. Why does that happen?

Most likely, it’s because the color space is different outside of Lightroom than what you had inside. Now, Color Management is a detailed subject in and of itself but I try to break it down in simple terms and tell you the most essential things you need to know, to ensure your photos look great everywhere.

What is a Color Space?

There isn’t any device in your entire digital photography workflow that can display the full range of colors that your eye can see. Every device works with a particular color space that simply defines a range of colors that the device can record or display. Some color spaces are bigger than others, which means that they can record or display a wider range of colors than their other counterparts.

To understand this, let’s understand a very simplified example.  Consider a color space with only 7 different tones of colors in it. Let’s call that one color space X. Then another one with 70,000 different tones of colors in it. Let’s call this one color space Y. Which one do you think would render a better image? Obviously the one taken in color space Y. It just has so many different colors to choose from. 

The illustration above shows that color space X with its very limited colors will result in patchy colors and would not be able to represent the scene even close to what the eyes saw. On the other hand, color space Y, while still not having the entire range of colors as our eyes, would result in better, more accurate tones. If color space X had to render a blue color, it can only do it with the one option of blue that it has. Color Space Y has an entire range of the different tones of blues. So, in simple terms, the more colors that are in a color space, the better result it would be able to produce.

The different color spaces available in Lightroom [Image from Wikipedia]
The three most commonly used color spaces are sRGB, Adobe RGB (1998) & ProPhoto RGB. Recently, a new color space has been introduced, the P3 Display. Let’s take a look at each one of them. 

sRGB

This is the smallest color space of them all, but also the most commonly used. Most of the monitors and printers available, render colors using the sRGB color space and even they can’t display the entire range of colors properly. Maybe only 90% of them.

When to use it:

sRGB would be your choice when you’re exporting images for the web or social media, since our web browsers display colors using the sRGB space. Even most of the print labs require that you save your images in sRGB. Only the pro labs can handle other color spaces.

Adobe RGB (1998)

Adobe RGB (1998) is a bigger color space. It is definitely the better option as it has the ability to render a wider range of colors. It is said that Adobe RGB (1998) is able to display 35% more color ranges than sRGB. This is the color space Lightroom uses to display the photographs in all modules except the Develop module. Now, I know that I mentioned above that the more colors that are in a color space, the better result it would be able to produce. But, there’s a catch. Pretty much all the devices and software works with sRGB. The internet, video games, different software, apps, monitors and even most of the printers, all use the sRGB as the standard to display their colors.

So, when an Adobe RGB (1998) file is displayed on these software or devices, it doesn’t have the ability render the full colors. Only about 70-80% of them. Even when you upload an Adobe RGB (1998) file to the web (or social media), it converts that into sRGB; and usually it does a pretty bad job of it. The photo will upload with dull, desaturated colors.

When to use it:

There are professional print labs now that do support printing using the Adobe RGB (1998) space. You’ll have to check with your print lab if that’s the case. If it is, then this should definitely be the profile you should be using for your photos. Also, when shooting, you should select Adobe RGB (1998) as your color space in the camera. It’s better to capture more colors and discard them later, instead of not having them at all.

P3 Display

P3 Display is a new color space. A lot of the newer devices are using this color space to render colors. Like Adobe RGB (1998), it has a wider color range than the sRGB. It started out as a standard for cinema because it’s based on the colors as rendered by the digital projector that you’d find at movie theaters. The P3 Display space is particularly used by Apple devices like the newer iMac & MacBook Pro, the new iPad Pro, and some iPhone models. However, it’s not limited to only Apple devices. Microsoft also decided to use this color space for their new Surface Studio computer.

The P3 Display color space is best suited if your images are just going to be displayed on the latest Apple Devices

When to use it:

Adobe RGB (1998) and P3 Display are similarly larger than sRGB, and cover a similar color range. However, the P3 Display is more suited for display on screens. If your photos are going to be displayed on any of the Apple devices listed above, you’re better off exporting your photos in P3 Display than any other profile.

ProPhoto RGB

ProPhoto RGB is the largest color space available in Lightroom. This color space has the ability to contain all the colors that a camera captures. A variant of this color space is also the color space Lightroom uses to display photographs when in the Develop module. The colors present in this space are the best choice for editing images. However, on software, that isn’t color managed, like your web browser, it will result in pale, desaturated colors.

ProPhoto RGB will display pale colors on a software that isn’t color managed. Like your web browser.

When to use it:

It’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to use the ProPhoto RGB space for your final photograph, since there really aren’t any printers or monitors that can display that. But, ProPhoto RGB would be the best choice when you’re sending your image to Photoshop for further editing.

You don’t want to throw away any extra color information until you’re fully ready for a final version. If there’s editing still to be done, it’s better that it be done with the widest color range in the photo.

One thing to note here is that when working with a space with such a wide range of colors, you need to be working in a 16-bit color depth to avoid banding and posterization. We’ll see how to do that later in the post.

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Working with Color Spaces in Lightroom

As mentioned above, in the Develop module when editing photographs, Lightroom uses a variant of the ProPhoto RGB color space. In all the other modules, where the photographs are just being displayed, it uses Adobe RGB (1998). It also uses Adobe RGB (1998), when:

  • exporting PDF slideshows and uploading web galleries
  • you send a book to Blurb.com (If you export books as PDF or JPEG from the Book module, however, you can choose sRGB or a different color profile.)
  • when photos are uploaded to Facebook and other photo-sharing sites using the Publish Services panel.

There’s nothing you can do to change these. One more thing to note here is that if you import a TIFF or a JPEG into Lightroom, it uses the current color profile embedded into the file. If there is none, it will make it sRGB. If you choose a different one when exporting, it will convert it then.

There are two main areas where you do need to take a decision about which color space to use:

External Editing

When you need to take your images to another software, like Photoshop, for further editing, Lightroom needs to know which color space should it be when it opens in Photoshop. You can decide this by going into Lightroom’s preferences. In the menu bar on top, go to Edit > Preferences on a PC, and Lightroom > Preferences on a Mac.

In the Preferences dialog, go to the External Editing tab, where in the top section, there’ll be a dropdown menu to choose Color Space. From that, you can choose any color space you want, but as recommended above, ProPhoto RGB is the best option at this point. We still have editing to do, so it’s better that it be done with the widest color range in the photo. From the Bit Depth dropdown, it’s best to choose 16 bits/component. Whichever option you choose, Lightroom will give you a little description on the right, to let you know of anything you need to consider while choosing that option.

The Export Dialog

When you’re exporting your photos outside of Lightroom, it’s usually when your entire work is done and now the photos are ready to be delivered. At this point, we will consider where those photographs will be displayed. We can now get rid of any extra color information from our photos if our output device can’t handle it. It’s better to go with a smaller color space to ensure your colors replicate the way you want them on other devices.

In most cases, this is going to be sRGB since most of our photos are shared digitally, or are printed at labs that don’t support any other profile. If you’re printing at a lab does support Adobe RGB (1998), then that would be the better choice. P3 Display could be used if the photos are only going to be displayed on devices which support that. ProPhoto RGB is very rarely used at this final stage.

Conclusion

Color space can be a confusing topic, but I hope this post was able to clear some of those confusions. If you get your head around it, it’s not that complicated. If you still have questions, or would like to add anything, let me know in the comments section.

 

Shajee Aijazi

Shajee Aijazi is the founder of Digital Darkroom Academy. He helps people speed up their post-processing workflow and organize their photos in a way that they don't have to waste time managing it and they can focus on creating great looking images.

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