How do P3 displays affect your workflow?

P3 color joins Adobe RGB as a wide gamut display option

Some new displays use a color space called P3, which is different than the sRGB and Adobe RGB color spaces that designers and photographers have used for years. Is P3 an improvement, or a complication? It’s a little of both.

What Are Color Spaces?

A color space, or color gamut, is a range of colors. The sRGB color space is widely used for color graphics files, displays, printers, and other devices. Almost all displays can reproduce sRGB or something close to it, and sRGB is good enough for moderate quality color printing. It’s a convenient common ground.

Many creative professionals work in the Adobe RGB color space because it’s significantly larger than sRGB. It can represent more of the greater color ranges that professional cameras, scanners, and printers can reproduce. Displays that can show larger-than-sRGB gamuts such as Adobe RGB are called wide gamut displays.

sRGB gamut vs Adobe RGB

Adobe RGB is called a wide gamut color space because it can reproduce a larger range of colors than sRGB. (Based on a Lab color graph from Apple ColorSync Utility.)

What’s P3?

Now there are displays using the P3 color space. Like Adobe RGB, P3 is a wide-gamut alternative to sRGB. The DCI-P3 color gamut started out as a standard for digital cinema because it’s based on the color range reproduced by the type of digital projector you’d find at a movie theater. Apple created their own version called Display P3, adapting it for computer displays and making some aspects of it more consistent with sRGB. You might already be using a P3 display; many newer Apple devices have them such as newer iMac and MacBook Pro computers, iPad Pro tablets, and some iPhone models. And this isn’t just an Apple thing. Microsoft chose a P3 display for their Surface Studio desktop computer.

The P3 comparisons in this article are based on the Display P3 color profile included with recent Apple Mac computers.

How Does P3 Compare to Adobe RGB and sRGB?

Adobe RGB and P3 are similarly larger than sRGB, and have a lot of colors in common. Adobe RGB leans more toward blues and greens, while P3 extends a little more into yellows and reds.

sRGB gamut vs Adobe RGB and P3

Adobe RGB and Apple Display P3 cover mostly similar ranges of colors beyond sRGB.

For print workflows, Adobe RGB is generally more aligned with prepress color spaces. This isn’t surprising; Adobe RGB exists in part because Adobe wanted to have an RGB color space that included CMYK colors that fall outside of sRGB. Whether the difference matters to you depends on the CMYK standard you use. An Adobe RGB display can have an edge over P3 in covering some extreme cyan colors, but if you’re currently using an sRGB display, a P3 display will still show you more of the CMYK color range than you’re seeing now.

P3, Adobe RGB, and sRGB compared to Coated FOGRA39

A P3 or Adobe RGB display can reproduce more colors of the FOGRA39 CMYK standard than an sRGB display, but Adobe RGB may be a better fit.

But not everyone prints on a press. Some photo quality inkjet printers can reproduce colors that typical presses and sRGB displays cannot. In the next illustration, P3 and Adobe RGB displays both seem to be a roughly equal (though not perfect) match for the specific combination of printer, ink, and paper shown; much of that photo printer’s gamut can’t be reproduced on an sRGB display.

P3, Adobe RGB, and sRGB compared to Epson Exhibition Fiber on a Stylus Pro 3880

Both P3 and Adobe RGB displays can reproduce much of the gamut of Epson Stylus Pro 3880 printer inks on Epson Exhibition Fiber paper, while an sRGB display falls short of the printer’s color range.

How a P3 Display Fits Into a Production Workflow

Fortunately, working with a P3 display is no different than correctly using an Adobe RGB or sRGB display. Color-managed applications such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, and Adobe InDesign automatically use whatever display profile is selected in your Mac or Windows system preferences. A P3 display is no problem as long as the selected display profile accurately describes that display. And as long as images and other documents are tagged with an appropriate color profile, color-managed applications can reproduce colors consistently on a P3 display.

You probably don’t need to change the settings in the Edit > Color Settings dialog box in Photoshop, InDesign, or Illustrator. The way you set up Color Settings should be based on the requirements of your production workflow, not on the specific display you use.

It’s trickier for workflows involving applications that don’t use color management, such as some web browsers, video editing applications, and web design software. Applications that don’t use system-level color management may display oversaturated colors on a P3 or Adobe RGB display because they’ll incorrectly assume the display is sRGB-based.

Some wide-gamut displays let you limit their gamut to sRGB in the display itself, independently of the computer. This can be a good way to prevent oversaturated colors in non-color-managed workflows. But some wide-gamut displays, including Apple P3 displays, don’t have that option. Another option is to connect an inexpensive sRGB display to your computer and view non-color-managed content on that display.

Wide Gamut Displays Are Here to Stay

It used to be that wide gamut display issues weren’t something most people ran into unless they made a conscious decision to buy an Adobe RGB monitor. But now that the price of Adobe RGB displays has gone down, and Apple and Microsoft are selling millions of devices with P3 displays to consumers, wide gamut is rapidly going mainstream.

Mobile devices are not as advanced as desktop computers when it comes to color management. Recognizing this, Apple added system-level color management in iOS 9.3. Based on the ColorSync color management that Macs have used for many years, iOS color management helps reproduce color consistently on iOS devices with wide gamut P3 displays. Color management is not yet built into the Android operating system.

The current standard for HDTV uses sRGB as its color space, but that’s also changing because video is rapidly moving beyond today’s 1080p (2K) HDTV standard to 4K and 8K resolutions, high dynamic range…and wide gamut color. A new industry standard called Ultra HD Premium incorporates these advanced video features. To handle wide gamut, DCI-P3 is the delivery color space specified by Ultra HD Premium. So while P3 is largely aimed at theater projection workflows at the moment, mass market television and video workflows should eventually replace sRGB with wide gamut P3.

For years, an easy way to avoid color management was to assume that non-color-managed sRGB would look “good enough” everywhere. That assumption is no longer going to hold up as more computers and mobile devices use wide gamut displays. During this transition from sRGB to wide gamut, knowing how to keep your colors consistent across sRGB and wide gamut devices will be an increasingly valuable skill.

A P3 Display is an Upgrade From sRGB

If you’re currently using an sRGB display, getting a P3 display is a definite step up. It reproduces a wider color range than sRGB, and it’s close enough to Adobe RGB that the differences are usually minor. As with Adobe RGB, working with the P3 color gamut shouldn’t complicate your workflow if it’s color-managed. If you have at least some experience using color management and color profiles, you’ve got a great head start on the wide gamut future.

(Note: The illustrations in this article are useful for basic comparisons, but comparing gamuts is a lot more complex than this article has room to explain. For example, the size and shape of a gamut changes as colors get lighter or darker. The simplified gamut illustrations in this article are 2D adaptations of 3D Lab color plots from Apple ColorSync Utility.)

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Posted on: March 8, 2017

Conrad Chavez

Conrad Chavez writes about digital photography and Adobe Creative Cloud workflows. He is the author or co-author of many books including Adobe Photoshop CC Classroom in a Book (2017 release), and is also a photographer. You can find out more about Conrad at his website, conradchavez.com.

3 Comments on How do P3 displays affect your workflow?

  1. James Holloway

    May 5, 2017 at 7:17 pm

    Thanks Conrad, best article I’ve read on dci-p3. As I understand you, if I calibrate an iMac retina P-3 (with color munki in my case) and edit images in Photoshop or Lightroom, then export as Tiffs or jpegs, an editor in a color managed system could use my P-3 profiles for CMYK printing without unexpected color or saturation shifts?

    Also, do you recommend AdobeRGB or ProPhoto as a Photoshop working space with P-3?

    • Conrad Chavez

      May 6, 2017 at 7:10 pm

      Hi James! The short answer to your first question is yes, don’t worry about it.

      The long answer has some subtle but important details to be aware of. When you work in Photoshop, editing happens within the color gamut of the profile already embedded in the document. For example, if you open an image saved from a digital camera as JPEG with an sRGB profile and you don’t change it along the way, sRGB is the profile embedded in that image regardless of the Photoshop working space setting, and sRGB is what it will carry forward to the next editor. The working space applies only when a document doesn’t have an embedded profile, because then Photoshop has to assume a gamut of some kind, so it assumes the working space.

      The point of that long paragraph is that nowhere is the display profile involved in the editing itself, and it isn’t embedded in the image. Your P3 display profile is used only for the on-the-fly conversion of the image from the document profile to your display profile. The display profile affects how accurately you see the colors, but it’s the document profile that affects the color range used when editing and exporting.

      Now on to your question about color shifts. There still may be color shifts just because CMYK can‘t reproduce all of the colors in RGB color spaces; that will never be eliminated just by changing the display. But in theory such shifts should be a little easier to see on a P3 or Adobe RGB display instead of an sRGB display. And any color shifts resulting from RGB to CMYK conversion should be no worse than you would have seen on an sRGB display, because the display gamut is not involved in the actual color conversions or editing. Editing is done strictly within the document profile, while conversion is strictly between the document profile and output profile.

      So back to the short version: The next editor will see the image’s embedded document profile, whether it’s sRGB, Adobe RGB, or ProPhoto RGB (or a specific CMYK profile). They will view the image colors through whatever their display profile is, and the final printed colors will be the result of the conversion from the document profile to whatever the printer profile is.

      Regarding your second question, that’s answered where the article says ”The way you set up Color Settings should be based on the requirements of your production workflow, not on the specific display you use.“ In other words, whether you use Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB for images depends on which one is a better fit for the final output — not which one is a better match for any of the displays used during production. Most jobs headed for prepress are OK with Adobe RGB because it’s a good match for CMYK printed color. If you choose ProPhoto RGB, it should be because you anticipate that there are colors outside Adobe RGB that need to be reproduced AND you know the output device can reproduce them (e.g., pro-quality inkjet photo printers).

      The story is the same for Lightroom except that it works with all edited images in its own custom ProPhoto-based working space designed to work well with a range of printed and screen outputs. But you don’t have to know those details, because the profile that’s embedded in the finished image is the one you specified in Export settings or Preferences.

      One last factor (more sleep-inducing tech details, sorry) is whether you edit your images at 8 bits per channel or 16bpc. sRGB and Adobe RGB are OK to edit at 8bpc, but if you choose ProPhoto RGB you should edit at 16bpc in Photoshop to avoid banding. (Lightroom always edits in 16bpc.)

      That was a long reply, but color management is always full of conditions like “if,” “except,” and “but…” 🙂 I hope it’s more clarifying than confusing!

      • James Holloway

        May 8, 2017 at 2:59 am

        Thanks Conrad for your helpful and expert reply. Some of my in-camera Raw images are sRGB and some AdobeRGB and I want to be sure to change them all to AdobeRGB before editing. I look forward to reading your other articles and visiting your website.

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