The Photoshop sRGB mystery

I nearly wrote this piece over a year ago when I noticed that a particular image I had uploaded to my site had very wrong skintones. I kept quiet in the end because I am well aware that 99.9% of colour management issues are user error or bad profiles, but since bad profiles are not the problem here because sRGB is a standard, that left only me. I've been working with colour management for about 12 years, and think I know what I'm doing, and it would be downright embarrassing to find I had made a stupid mistake somewhere. However I've checked and double checked and quintuple checked and still don't see anything wrong with my workflow. From camera to print, it works with fine accuracy. I still don't know what is going on here, but the recent thread 'sRGB differences?' on ProDig looked very much as if I am not alone with this puzzle. So time to come out of the closet...

My original file was in Adobe RGB and I had done the usual profile conversion to sRGB for web use and saved it untagged. It looked fine when opened on my profiled system in Photoshop as sRGB, but terrible via a web browser on the same machine and every other I tried. Below is the sRGB version that sparked this inquiry, which I have little doubt will portray this lady rapper in a repulsive shade of maroon to you as well.

Baby Chan in sRGB with no profileBaby Chan in sRGB with no profile

This worried me a lot because screen accuracy is fundamental. Sure, on the web monitors will vary considerably, but I know the screens I have access to and not even the unprofiled ones are this bad. So I looked more closely at some other sRGB files I had online. Some appeared as OK as you can expect in a non-colour-managed environment, but others had some of the same hues and wrongness. This particular image just seemed to be one that showed up the problem more than most. Most liikely something was badly wrong with my profile setup, and if that was the case, had I been sending off-colour images to clients? For how long?

First thing I did was to check my PS settings and then recalibrate the monitor and use the Spyder to create a new profile for it in OptiCal. It didn't make the slightest difference.

Eyeball checking of known good reference images showed nothing wrong in Photoshop. They looked right, they printed right, it was only when I saved as sRGB things went awry. I checked the Baby Chan image in some apps that don't understand colour management, like Irfanview, and still she was maroon, either on the same profiled screen as PS or on other systems with and without profiled screens. I tried changing my working space to sRGB from Adobe98, it made no difference. What on earth was going on? sRGB in PS looked correct and completely different to sRGB anywhere else.

Then I discovered something very odd. As you'd expect if I copied an image from PS and pasted it as a new sRGB image in PS, it was the same, the colour was fine. But if I pasted instead into a non-CM aware application like Irfanview it was wrong, the maroon skin was back. Yet both are supposed to be sRGB - which PS had been explicitly told, and Windows assumes for untagged files in Irfanview and everywhere else. The RGB values could not be changed by copy & paste, so whatever was going on must be at some arcane CM level.

And then I found that if I opened the Irfanview version into PS 'as sRGB' then it was identical to to the PS one and just fine.

Just in case you're getting confused here, let me summarise the problem : sRGB looks different in Photoshop than it does outside Photoshop. Even on the same system with the same profiled screen.

How? Windows uses sRGB as the assumed and default colourspace for images without tags, and monitor profiling applies not only in Photoshop but system wide. The same sRGB image that looks fine in PS looks different and wrong outside PS. This is nuts! How then can we hope to put images on websites that look anything like the version we see in Photoshop. Even allowing for the obvious variables that we can't control, like monitor calibration across unknown systems, even on the same system -with a profiled monitor, a file in sRGB looks considerably different!

So I thought about that. The 'wrong' sRGB I was seeing in Irfanview and web browsers was pretty much how my monitor would display it without any monitor profile. It's a 19" Sony G420 and has always run rather red in darker tones. In fact it's that blue and green are slightly weak. Yet the correction curve is applied at system boot - you can see it kick in and the display turn neutral - so even Irfanview and browsers on that PC should display corrected colour.

That meant something unexpected was happening within PS itself, in the process of converting to sRGB. It was as if PS was subtractting the monitor profile effect from the image and skewing the RGB values. Surely it shouldn't do that? I can see why it might for its own sake, because it will apply the correction to displaying the file next time it is opened. But if that's what is happening, sRGB can't possibly appear correct in other non-CM applications even though it should where the monitor displays sRGB either natively or through application of a corrective profile.

So then I tried converting to monitor space instead of sRGB, and saving the image without a tag. And this is what I got:-

Baby Chan in monitor space with no profileBaby Chan in monitor space with no profile

And the disturbing thing is that in a web browser or non-CM-aware Windows application this version is close to being identical to what I see in Photoshop.

However if I open it as sRGB in Photoshop, it's wrong

This has probably all confused you as much as it has me, so here's a screengrab showing the various flavours

Baby Chan compositeBaby Chan composite

  1. Is in sRGB space saved out of Photoshop with no embedded profile, displayed in Irfanview - the first large image displayed in this blog. This is the correct method yet clearly the result is wrong. It was how this file looked that opened this can of worms.
  2. Is the same file used in 1. but displayed in Photoshop. Here it looks identical to the original in Adobe 1998 RGB and the colour is as good as I could get from this image, which was shot in rather awkward mixed ldaylight and flourescent.
  3. Is in monitor space saved out of Photoshop with no embedded profile, displayed in Irfanview - the second large image displayed in this blog. This looks pretty muchi identical to 2 and appears to be the only route whereby I can get close to what I see in PS for display in a web browser.
  4. Is the same file as 3 but opened into Photoshop which was told to assign sRGB to the untagged file. Clearly it's wrong, with a double-profile-ish overcorrection.

(and yes, to get the above composite image to display approximately as it does in PS I had to convert it to monitor space).

Note that it's only the skintones that are really affected, the neutrals in the image stay fairly constant and clean. This points to profiling issues rather than simple gamma or hue errors. My screen is natively well aligned in the top-half of the luminance range and the profile does little there. It's only the bottom half where blue and green gamma diverge from the target curve (red is bang on) and correction by the profile kicks in.

What's more, if I 'save for web' in Photoshop (which normally I do not use because it strips metadata), here is what I get in the the preview window.

A screen grab of Photoshop with the 'save for web' preview in the foreground
A screen grab of Photoshop with the 'save for web' preview in the foreground

What is going on here? All I can be sure about is that Photoshop does not appear to do what I thought it did with respect to the monitor profile. I believed it mapped the display of working space RGB values so that amended values were sent to the graphics card but the working space values themselves remained unchanged.

As far as I can see, either this is not the case and PS actually adjusts working space values in order to achieve correct display, or the OS handles similar adjustments very differently and its idea of sRGB->monitor space is considerably different from Photoshop's adjustments.

Either way, here at least, with a monitor that natively diverges significantly from sRGB (ie, profiling makes a significant improvement), the practical problem is how to create images that will look in a browser as close as possible to how I see them in Photoshop. Saving them in sRGB tagged or not usually works acceptably, but with this image in particular is completely unsatisfactory. Converting and saving to monitor space, untagged, works far better.

I would welcome second opinions, especially from anyone else who finds puzzling anomalies is the browser display of specific images. Please pick an image that presents poor colour and/or gamma errors in sRGB and try this:

  • Convert your image to your custom monitor profile
  • Save the image but without an embedded profile
  • Open it in a web browser or other application that does not understand ICC profiles and see if the anomalies are reduced

I suspect people with monitors that are natively close to sRGB will see this issue far less or not at all. But let me know, please.

To make this issue even more frustrating, it does NOT affect most images significantly. Most are best converted to sRGB, not monitor space. This particular Baby Chan pic is far the most extreme example of bad colour that I've come across. The general case is not so clear cut, and converting to monitor space instead of sRGB is no panacea : it can make things worse rather than better. So I would only suggest trying this where you have a particular problem image.

For those of you who know the PDI target, here are alternate versions by each method. Neither is quite right.

PDI Target-converted to sRGB but untagged
PDI Target-converted to sRGB but untagged

PDI Target-converted to monitor space but untagged
PDI Target-converted to monitor space but untagged

On my profiled screens the monitor space version looks rather closer to how the original refence file appears in Photoshop.

Comments

And here I am thinking it

And here I am thinking it was only me or I'd mis-configured PS. The long and short of it is that I've abandoned PS for creating web files and now use Lightroom's web gallery function. Still not perfect but a lot more reliable.

I am so pleased to have

I am so pleased to have found your article!!! I have exactly the same problem as you. The only way to see most of my images correctly in the web browser is converting them.I don't believe the monitor profiling software is implicated, I am using PhotoCal with Spyder2. I think Photoshop just doesn't do what we've been told it does, and I rather suspect it's a legacy from the early days of PS4, when the monitor space was the working space. Or something.
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Workaround

Kenneth, as suggested in the article, try this:

  • Convert your image to your custom monitor profile
  • Save the image but without an embedded profile
  • Open it in a web browser or other application that does not understand ICC profiles and see if the anomalies are reduced

Let us know if this helps.

Regards, Tony Sleep

Hi! Im glad i found this

Hi! Im glad i found this article, cause im dealing with the exact same problems myself. I am a landscape photographer, located in northern Norway. I was up on the mountain, taking pictures of the extremely beautyful autuumn colors. When i came home i loaded my pics into Adobe Camera Raw-->Photoshop. The pictures is Adobe RGB, working space in Photoshop is Adobe RGB. I converted the final pics into sRGB and saved them as ordinary jpegs. Now everything should be fine, but is not. When i look at my pics on the web, all the yellow, oranges and reds look oversaturated and wrong. While all the other colors look ok. I have tried everything, but nothing works. I normally dont use save for web, but i had to try it in my quest for a solution. And guess what! The pictures looked as bad in the preview as on the web, or browser! Im going nuts!!! My OS: Windows 7 (supports ICC profiles) Main browser: FireFox 3.5.2. My screen: Eizo FlexScan SX2461W (calibrated with Spyder 3 Pro) If u have found a solution to the problem, please let me know! Best wishes, Kenneth

Hi, I was having the same

Hi, I was having the same problem using a windows system and Spyder 2 for calibration. It's not much of an issue when I covert in my desktop, but when I'm shooting on the field with my crappy laptop, the LCD renders srgb differently on PS than on a browser/ 3rd party image viewer.

For my laptop, this seemed to fix this issue:
-convert the image to the monitor profile (the profile you created with Spyder 2; using relative colorimetric & Adobe Ace engine)
-save the image (with or without ICC profile, it doesn't really matter for web intent).

Oh, I am so pleased to have

Oh, I am so pleased to have found your article!!! I have exactly the same problem as you. The only way to see most of my images correctly in the web browser is converting them in Photoshop from Adobe 98 to my monitor profile (without attaching it to the image file). It is true that converting to sRGB works for some pictures, but most of the times it over-saturates the images and, in my case too, it gives problems with the reds. On the other hand I have checked that my images converted to my monitor profile look correctly in other computers and monitors and they do. However, the converted to sRGB images don´t look right either in my computer or in others. I have discussed this issue with other people in forums and it is true that the defenders of Photoshop and Adobe don´t recognize this problem, they remain stuck to Photoshop theory. The colour management explained in Photoshop help is OK in theory but doesn´t work in practice. At some point Photoshop isn´t using correctly the monitor profile information and messes everything up! Well, thanks so much for your article and sorry for my English, it is far from perfect :-). Greetings from Spain.

Good to see that I am not the only one...

Hi there, I am really happy to read this article... I had difficulties in finding the exact same issue I was facing between all the simple AdobeRGB/sRGB issues that you could immediatly find on the web after googling your problem. So there it is,

I have a Dell 1703FP to which a factory-set calibration profile is assigned. Funny, I would imagine that such monitor should be close to sRGB and yet I have the same problem. Converting an image to sRGB (with a profile embedded or not) will display the good colors if reponed in Photoshop but looks bad and flat when opened in a web browser for instance.

For info, I don't know if that actually helps, but if I save a raw file as jpg and AdobeRGB, the picture looks obviously flat and wrong when opened in a web browser. Strange enough, these colours are absolutely identical to those displayed for my sRGB converted file... I am confused.

I have to disagree

This explanation doesn't make sense to me.

Untagged images should be interpreted as sRGB, not monitor space, by CM-aware browsers, else they break W3C convention (see 'W3C: a default color space for the internet: sRGB')

This derives from an earlier proposal by Microsoft and HP, c.1996, before which scanners and consumer digital cameras were outputting into their own untagged custom device spaces. The MS/HP proposal standardised sRGB as the output space for manufacturers. At the time this was a necessary kludge because Win 95 had no OS-based CM at all, so outside CM applications like Photoshop there was complete mayhem even when custom device profiles were attached. The proposal allowed a common basis where naive consumers who knew nothing about CM could swap images because they could safely be assumed to be sRGB. The W3C later broadened this to the internet.

Macs didn't face the same mess because they had Colormatch. From W98 on Windows CM assumed sRGB of any untagged file by default, and XP, Vista etc still do.

On a PC set up without monitor profiling, display space is also assumed to be sRGB. How close to sRGB the monitor actually is depends on the manufacturer, age and user adjustments of course. But sRGB is again the target.

If you use monitor profiling software, that maps display space across all applications and the OS itself, to the monitor profile. You can see this kick in at boot, whether you're using Adobe Gamma or something like OptiCal.

So to me it makes no sense whatsoever that any colour-management aware application would assume monitor profile as an input space for an untagged file. It doesn't need to and shouldn't, the mapping to display space has already been taken care of either by the OS or by a stub monitor profiling application that takes over from the OS. Like Photoshop any CM aware app should either ask what space the input is in, or default to the W3 convention of sRGB.

Now, I agree with you that 'Save for web' preview in PS does indeed display correct and incorrect previews as you describe. I noticed that a long time ago. However I think the explanation is awry. I think PS is basically 'double-monitor profiling' but I need to do some tests to find out and I just haven't bothered yet. I'll come back to this later.

Regards, Tony Sleep

If you use a non color

If you use a non color managed application, you will always see the difference: The difference between the image profile and the monitor profile. That's why converting to monitor profile gives you an identical result in PS and the browser. "Save for web" will show a preview of what the image will look in a non color managed browser. You can tell it to "Use document profile" to preview like a color managed browser. Click the arrow in the top right above the image. The "PDI Target-converted to monitor space but untagged" looks *way* off on my calibrated screen: Very yellow /green cast. (Using FF3, color management enabled and also when using Safari, which assumes monitor profile for images without an embedded profile.) Since you converted all screenshots to your monitor profile, but didn't embed that profile, there's no way to tell what the actual files look like. Might be that something is wrong with your monitor profile, and the images *are* red, might be something else. I'd try creating a new monitor profile. For wide gamut screens: Simple solution: Browse color managed.

And here I am thinking it

And here I am thinking it was only me or I'd mis-configured PS. The long and short of it is that I've abandoned PS for creating web files and now use Lightroom's web gallery function. Still not perfect but a lot more reliable.

Chesk out this link to

Chesk out this link to someone having similar problems. Their solution works for me! http://www.stevesforums.com/forums/view_topic.php?id=80684&forum_id=31

I don't think so

Thanks for confirming that you encounter similar effects. Does 'converting-to' your monitor profile help for these problem images, as it does for me?

I don't believe the monitor profiling software is implicated, I am using PhotoCal with Spyder2. I think Photoshop just doesn't do what we've been told it does, and I rather suspect it's a legacy from the early days of PS4, when the monitor space was the working space. Or something... I have mentioned this topic on the Pro-dig list and none of the PS/colour management gurus had anything to say.

Regards, Tony Sleep

sRGB conversions in PS

I was glad to read your post on this issue, Tony. I'm having the same issue myself when I convert from ProPhoto RGB or aRGB to sRGB for web display. Like you indicate, it is not prevalent on many conversions but it can be overwhelming on the ones it does affect.

In my case, I only noticed this phenomenon after purchasing a wide gamut Dell 3007WFP-HC. I also use a Dell 3007WFP (the earlier, non-"high color" version) and do not experience the same issue on it. Thus your theory that this problem becomes more apparent the farther your monitor deviates from sRGB makes much sense.

I calibrate both monitors with a Spyder3 Elite which is supposed to be able to handle monitors with a wider gamut. Wonder if the DataColor software plays into this. Isn't color management fun?

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