Cameras and Colourspace Confusion

A lot of photographers think that the colour space option of ‘sRGB’ or ‘Adobe RGB’ on the back of their camera is used to set the colourspace of their camera.

It doesn’t do that.

The colourspace settings are only for the jpegs that are produced in-camera.


RAW data is unaffected. Indeed, RAW can’t be modified. Think of RAW as a 'negative’ that comes out of an old film camera. The negative can never be changed once created.

So the ‘Adobe RGB and sRGB’ settings on the back of your camera are just for any jpegs that the camera ‘generates’ from the RAW capture .

If you are shooting RAW all the time, then you don’t need to worry about colourspaces while shooting.

Q. So when is the colourspace important then?

A. When you open your RAW files

When you open (or import), you are translating, converting the content of your RAW file into the host software’s format. In Photoshop’s case, you always go through the Adobe Camera Raw software before the image is available in Photoshop. It has to go through this translation stage.

The Raw Converter is where you can set the colourspace and it’s really important to pick a colourspace large enough to contain all the data that your RAW file has.

Effectively speaking, RAW files have no colourspace that you know of. Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but when you open up in Photoshop, you  have  to go through the Adobe Raw Converter. This is where you choose the colourspace and the RAW file is translated to that colourspace.

Effectively speaking, RAW files have no colourspace that you know of. Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but when you open up in Photoshop, you have to go through the Adobe Raw Converter. This is where you choose the colourspace and the RAW file is translated to that colourspace.

Pro Photo is the colourspace to choose, because it is a large enough container - much larger than Adobe RGB, and most likely much larger than any colours your camera can record.

A not too accurate illustration to show that Pro Photo is a larger colourspace than Adobe RGB. You should open your RAW files in Pro Photo.

A not too accurate illustration to show that Pro Photo is a larger colourspace than Adobe RGB. You should open your RAW files in Pro Photo.

If you choose Adobe RGB you may be clipping (throwing away) some of the colours that your camera can reproduce, because your camera may be capable of recording colours outside of the Adobe RGB colourspace.

The best option is to open up your camera files in Pro Photo. It’s a larger colour space and won’t clip the data. You’ll keep all of the colours in your file.

Q. But doesn’t the RAW format have it’s own colourspace?

A. Technically speaking there is a lot of splitting hairs about this. Some say no, some say yes.

The camera has its own proprietary way of recording the data, and this ‘specification’ is given to the developers who write the RAW converter engine. It’s up to them how they translate the information and this is why RAW converters vary (please note this is a serious oversimplification here).

Q. Why keep all the colours if your monitor or printer uses a smaller colour space?

A. Because the more data you have while editing, the better

Your camera is a glorified computer that just stores numbers. Photoshop just reads numbers, and when you alter a photograph you are truncating those numbers. It follows then, that the more data you have, the less chance you have in introducing weird problems into the file when you edit or adjust it in any way.

Although you cannot see all the colours present in Pro Photo because your monitor maybe has a smaller effective gamut, you still get the benefit of having more data to play with while editing.

In summary

  • The colourspace settings on the back of your camera are just for the jpegs it ‘generates’ from the RAW files.

  • The RAW files are unaffected and can’t be changed.

  • When you import a RAW file into a photo editing program, it has to get ‘converted’ or translated. This is when you need to choose a colourspace

  • Choose a large colourspace otherwise you may truncate colour data

Today, colour seems louder than it was yesterday

I’ve just completed work on some new Hokkaido images. The past few weeks have been a journey in colour reduction and more specifically: colour use. Reduction can be done by anyone, just turn the colour down. But to apply colour sensitively, takes skill and a whole lot of consideration and doubt.

Hokkaido-2019 (29).jpg

Now that I’ve finished the Hokkaido images, I’m struck by how little colour there is in them. Yet if I try to put the colour back in, they just sit wrong. They don’t work. They need to be the way I’ve edited them.

Looking at my website main page today, I was struck by a feeling that there is simply too much colour. I don’t think that’s true one bit, but what it is telling me is that I’ve been working with such quiet, muted tones this past week, that somehow, every colour feels strong for me at the moment.

Hokkaido-2019 (17).jpg

Our visual perception is often changing, and I think for me, it’s as if it all depends on how I feel today. Tomorrow I may feel otherwise, find that there isn’t enough colour. All I know is, that colour needs to be used carefully, and applied only when it’s required. You can create some noisy, complex images if you let the colour run riot.

Perhaps my sensibilities are changing yet again. Perhaps it’s just a moment. A passing phase. All I know is, that today, colour seems louder than it was yesterday.

Steel blue

You can use colour to convey a feeling. And if you reduce the colours in your pictures to just a few, then the message gets stronger / simpler.

You can use tone to help lead the eye around the frame, but it is colour for me, that conveys emotion.


I’m not the same photographer I was 10 years ago. Where I once crammed lots of tone, texture and colour into the frame, I now do the opposite.

With early efforts, I think the high saturation, high colour, complex textures and busy compositions are similar to someone trying to convey all their points in one paragraph. As we learn to go on, we move each point to its own paragraph, to its own space where it has a chance to express itself.

I didn’t see the ‘steel blue’ when I was in Romania. It only happened during the editing and by creatively messing around.

I like to try to be as fluid as I can. ‘what happens if I turn the hue slider this way?’ and suddenly a steel blue colour leapt out of the frame. It was always present - you can’t bring something out that isn’t there, And once it was there: I knew it belonged.

The quietness of colour

We’re always changing. Developing or regressing, fluctuating even. But all of these changes accumulate to ultimately say ‘you are different now’.

Perhaps the start of my ‘colour reduction’ phase in my own photography.

Perhaps the start of my ‘colour reduction’ phase in my own photography.

When I look back at my earlier work, I see that it had a lot more colour in it. I’ve been discussing my ‘progress’ with a friend of mine today and I was explaining that for me, composition comes in three layers that are all inter-related.

  1. Structure

  2. Luminance (tone)

  3. Colour

When we all start out, we all work and focus on structure. The placement of objects in the frame. Indeed, I think that most of us think that composition is ultimately about where we place subjects in the frame.




For me, it took about maybe six years or so, before I started to realise that the luminance, or tonal properties of my subjects also affected the composition. Indeed, I think that tone and structure are interrelated. You can’t just place objects in the frame by thinking about structure only. I’m sure you will find that the reason why some arrangements of subjects in the frame work better than others is due to their luminance / tonal qualities. So these two layers of composition are connected.

The last stage, is colour. Yep, that’s right - although colour is where most of us start, and we are often delighted with our red-sky photos, a picture washed in garish colour soon becomes tiring for those that are developing a sensibility towards colour as a contributing factor to compositional success.

I think that all good colour photographs still work, when you strip the colour out. Open any colour photo and turn it to black and white. Does it still work? Are the tones there able to support the image without the colour? Good photographs will still work without their colour component.

For me, I feel I’ve been on a quest the past four or so years to quieten the colour in my images. I worked on structure in my compositions for a long time, then I was thinking about luminance and how it related to structure. These days, I think I’ve been reducing down the colour and in sense, have been playing with ‘how far can I reduce it?’.

One needs to find the boundaries, to understand the terrain that they are working in, so they can then let loose where they need to go.

Colour is a vital part of composition. Too much of it, or too many colours can cause the viewer’s attention to be thrown in many directions at the same time. But to a beginner, lots of colour seems exciting, attractive. It just becomes a little tiring after many years when you realise that by reducing colour or de-saturating certain objects in the frame allow others to shine.

Want to get better at colour composition? Take an art-class. Photography and composition are no different in a camera than they are on a canvas or piece of paper. It’s not a problem if you can’t draw, forget whether you need to learn to do that. An art class will give you the understanding of how composition works, structurally, tonally and with colour.

Colour palettes - colour grading

In black and white photography, tinting prints - tritone, duotone, quad tone, is a staple of the process. Black and white often uses hints of colour in the shadows and highlights to give the work a particular feel or look.

But in colour landscape most photographers don’t apply the same principles to their work. When it comes to editing, few consider using colour thematically. By that I mean, few consider using colour to give their work a particular kind of look or feel. Yes, they may saturate the colours or mute them, but that is often as far as it goes.

Adjusting the colour palette, or ‘look’ of a scene has been a staple of the motion picture industry for a very long time. Movies are there to tell stories and to take us into another world. One way that movie producers take us into another world is by the use of colour. They will often adjust the colour palette of a movie to give a certain feel to it. This is called ‘colour grading’.

In colour photography, many of us choose to adjust contrast and overall saturation of colours, but few of us use colour to convey a certain mood of feeling to the work.

Perhaps you feel that adjusting colour in this way is not what photography is about? Perhaps you feel that photography is about recording what was there?

I hope the opposite is true for you. That you like photographs to convey a mood or a feeling, and that you think of photography as a creative medium where you can cast a spell over the viewer. Photographs aren’t real. They never were. Everything about the process introduces a point of view: where you stood to make the shot, what lens you chose, what exposure you opted to give the shot. All these decisions mean that you are telling a particular story. A point of view. An illusion.

One of the most under-utilised tools in our editing process is the choice of colour palette. It’s something I’ve been working with now for about the past five years: I look for photographs that have similar colour palettes to work as a portfolio. Colour and how it is applied, is just as important as where to stand was, or what lens to use. Colour is part of how we tell our stories, and using it in a delicate, considered way to ‘colour grade’ our photographs is a skill that most never consider.

I colour grade my work all the time. I consider the use of colour just as important as all the other more mainstream actions we take. I’m not interested in whether the colour is accurate to what I saw, but more about whether the tonal and colour palettes give me the look and feel I want.