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Color Modes

Tuesday, November 9th, 2004 by | Filed Under: Digital Photography

Color Modes

One of our readers asks:

My imaging software has several different types of imaging “color modes.” It’s currently RGB, but I also see Grayscale, indexed, CMYK, and a couple others. Should I change from RGB to something else?

Probably not. RGB (Red Green Blue) is the normal color mode for digital photos. However, if you want the whole scoop, here are a few of the more common image modes and what they are used for:

RGB – Again, this is Red, Green, and Blue and it’s the most common color mode you’ll use. By mixing these colors together in various ways, you can create around 16.7 million colors! Unless you have a good reason to switch to one of the modes below, this is probably the best bet for general use. Besides, this is the mode your monitor uses, so it would be best to stick with it – at least through the editing process.

Indexed Color – This is used for web work and generally is an image made up of 256 colors or less. It’s great for GIF files, but not too useful when you’re trying to edit those birthday party pictures from last week. In fact, most web designers work in RGB mode, then convert to GIF format (Indexed color) once they’re done.

CMYK – This is used if your images are going to press – like in a magazine or advertisement. The CMYK represent the 4 inks generally used in publication –

Cyan (C)
Magenta (M)
Yellow (Y)
Black (K – and no, I’m not sure why it’s a K and not a B)

Grayscale – This is exactly what it sounds like – B&W. If you have a photo that you think would make a good B&W image, then change to this mode. This and RGB are the only two color modes I generally work with – and even this one is reserved for those times I’m feeling artsy :-)

Lab– Nope, this isn’t a color mode for those picts of Fido.

This mode includes all the colors you can create in both RGB and CMYK modes. It’s device independent, so what you see on your monitor should be exactly what gets printed (on postscript printers and such – not necessarily your family inkjet). Unlike RGB, where what gets printed doesn’t always match, or CMYK, where inks plays a part in how accurate the color is, this always looks the same. This mode is probably better geared toward those who will be printing in publications, rather than tinkering at home, but give it a try if you like.

That’s the majority of the color modes you’re likely to encounter in your digital travels. As I mentioned before, for most people plain old RGB mode is the way to go, but at least now you can sleep at night knowing you’re not missing out on anything :-)

~ Steve

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