Editor’s note: Thanks to our friends at Red Digital Cinema, Adobe, and Mixing Light for sharing their expertise for this article and the Frame.io Workflow Guide.
If you’ve ever been cutting a sequence and thought “this footage looked different on my other computer,” or sent footage off for VFX work only to get it back with wonky colors, then you’ve been on the receiving end of bad color management.
Color management may not be as viscerally exciting as other post-production topics, but not implementing it in your workflow can cause irreparable damage to your projects, your professional reputation, and your psyche.
For today’s article, we’ll break down the key concepts of color management, what you’ll need to set it up for your workflow, and guide you step by step through Adobe’s recommended color management settings for Creative Cloud apps (including Premiere Pro, Media Encoder, After Effects, Photoshop, and Illustrator).
Before we dive into the guide, let’s cover the basics. Color management is a very complex topic, and there are so many moving pieces it’s easy to get confused. To successfully implement color management into your workflow, you’ll have to give special attention to the software, hardware, and configuration of those tools at nearly every step of your post-production pipeline.
We’ve covered some of the hardware you’ll need for accurate color work in previous articles, but today we’re going to focus on the settings that make your media look consistent across different software and systems.
There’s a lot of technical terminology ahead, so here’s a quick primer on digital color that should clarify some of the most important concepts of color management.
What is color?
As you may or may not remember from middle school science class, our eyes contain two kinds of light-sensitive cells—rods, which are sensitive to light intensity, and cones, which are sensitive to certain ranges in the spectrum of visible light.
Cones are subdivided into three groups, each sensitive to their own range of visible light wavelengths. One group is sensitive to long wavelengths (reds), another is sensitive to medium wavelengths (greens), and the last is sensitive to short wavelengths (blues). When these cells are stimulated by their corresponding wavelength ranges, they send a signal to our brain, which then interprets the signal in a particular way, what we call color.
So, color is the human perception of light at a particular wavelength.
Of course, there are many more colors (an infinite number) in the visible spectrum beyond just the reds, greens, and blues we have cones for. Thankfully, our brains can mix the signals from our cones together so we can “see” secondary hues like yellow, magenta, cyan, and all the other colors we know and love.
But how many colors can our eyes and brain perceive?
Scientists in the early 20th century conducted real-world experiments to answer this question—about 10 million, they concluded. They took this data and plotted it onto a graph, now known as the CIE 1931 Chromaticity Diagram.
This is the foundation from which digital color is built. Think of it as a map, where every humanly-perceivable color can be found.
But in order to use the map, we needed a system for locating colors on it. And for that, we used a color model.
A color model is an abstract mathematical method for describing a color based on its component properties.
In the case of the RGB color model, which the CIE 1931 diagram uses, those component properties are the amount of red, green, and blue light that combines to create it. Why red, green, and blue? Because our biological vision system is based on those wavelength ranges.
Note: there are other color models, like the CMYK color model, but it is based on pigments, not light. Since we’re here to talk about digital video, we’re only going to talk about RGB.
So in essence, the RGB color model is a coordinate system that lets us find every color on the CIE 1931 map.
By plotting colors based on their component parts—the amount of red, green, and blue that make them up—we can assign them a mathematical value. Since humans and machines (like computers) can agree on mathematical values, that lets us tell computers what colors are (or at least how to calculate them) despite the fact that they don’t have eyeballs.
These values are calculated as a group of three percentages, called an RGB triplet. With just these values, we can ask a computer for a particular color (for example, Frame.io purple) and it will give us exactly what we want (33.33% red, 35.69% green, and 96.47% blue).
But these percentage values are meaningless without more information. To complete the calculation, the computer needs to know what red, green, and blue points on the map it is supposed to calculate from. 33.33% of which red, and 35.69% of which green? Different primary color points will result in different outputs. So to standardize the results, we need to tell the computer which points to use, and we do that by using a color space.
A color space is a specific organization of colors within the visible spectrum.
When we use a digital color space on top of the CIE 1931 map, we’re basically setting the starting points from which we can make RGB calculations. By defining the locations for the three primary colors, this tells a computer where on the map 100% of red, green, and blue are found.
That means a color space is a sort of GPS or compass that orients computers on the color map. Once it knows where home is for the three primary color points, it can find every other color relative to them.
Now you might wonder why computers don’t just utilize the primary color points on the CIE 1931 Chromaticity Diagram. It is a color space, after all.
Unfortunately, there are no electronic machines that can actually display the total extent of the colors on the chart. It’s just not possible with our current technology (and may never be). So, in order to make it easier to use color digitally, we need primary color points that computers can actually handle.
The standard color space for most digital video is Rec. 709. It’s a fairly small color space, but it has been the standard for SDR content for many years.
As we move into the future of 4K+ HDR content, the larger Rec. 2020 color space will become the norm. There are also some color spaces for specific technical applications, like DCI-P3 for cinema projection.
Each of these color spaces has advantages and disadvantages, so comparing them is not always straightforward. However, a simple way to compare them is by their gamuts.
A color gamut is just the footprint of a color space.
Gamuts are the subset of possible colors that a computer has to choose from within a particular color space. Generally speaking, a color space with a larger footprint is said to have a wider gamut.
So gamuts just tell us how big of an area on the map a computer can cover with its GPS (color space). The bigger the area, the greater range of visible colors it can locate.
It must be emphasized here that a gamut is just the extent of colors (i.e. the breadth of greens) that can be reproduced in a color model. It is not the number (i.e. how many greens) of colors that an image file can contain. To make that measurement, we need to understand color depth.
Color depth, also known as bit depth, is a measurement of the number of possible colors in a digital image file.
This measurement is determined by the amount of digital information that is devoted to describing every color within a file. More bits of information allows for more possible colors to be described.
To continue our earlier analogy, if the color space is the GPS that helps us find colors on the map, then color depth is a file’s zoning laws that dictate how many colors can live in the area.
So, let’s review everything we just learned. Color is both a physical property of light at different wavelengths and our vision system’s perception of this property. In order to create eyeball-less machines that can represent colors accurately, we had to first build a system for calculating colors mathematically.
To do that, scientists made a map of the colors humans can see (the CIE 1931 Chromaticity Diagram), assigned a coordinate system to the map (the RGB color model), and gave our computers a GPS to navigate the map (color spaces).
There are different color spaces, each with their own advantages and disadvantages, but we can sometimes compare them by how big of an area they cover on the map (their gamut). Bigger gamuts cover a larger range of possible colors.
When we create digital image files we have to pick the part of the map we want our machines to use (which color model and color space), and also have to set the rules for how many colors can be stored in the data (color depth).
Phew. We made it. Now it’s time to get into the nuts and bolts of managing all this.
Color management is the process of ensuring all your hardware and software tools maintain consistent colors throughout your entire workflow.
This is a much bigger challenge than many realize. When media comes from lots of different sources, and is passed between different processes, inaccuracies can be introduced into the color information every step of the way. Even footage from a single camera that’s edited on a single system can still experience these issues, as different creative applications interpret color differently (as we’ll cover below). Imagine how much more challenging this process is when you start moving media between machines and facilities.
But proper color management aims to keep everything looking as intended, even as files move through the huge mix of post-production tools. No matter the size of your workflow, color management can increase the quality and consistency of your work. You just have to know where to start.
Deciding on color space
When planning the color management for your workflow, the first thing you need to consider is the end destination of your footage. That will determine the main color space of your workflow, which in turn influences the hardware you can use and the configuration of your software.
For content destined for the web or broadcast, Rec. 709 is your best option, as it’s easy to manage. But if you’re creating content for digital cinema projection, then you will need to work in DCI-P3, which will demand more specialized hardware. And if you’re lucky enough to be building a 4K+ HDR workflow from scratch, then you have the opportunity to future-proof for Rec. 2020, though this will require significant investment.
Keep in mind, this first step just decides the color gamut you’ll be working in most often. It does not mean it’s the only color space you’ll ever have to deal with. Every color space is the best choice for at least some situations, but no color space is the best choice for every situation.
That means you’re going to need to get comfortable converting between color spaces.
Color space conversions
The process of converting from one color space to another is an important part of color management. As images move through your workflow, you want a color space that is as easy to manage as possible, but also isn’t restricted too much by a small gamut.
Just like with image resolution and codec, cameras often capture more color information than you will deliver in a final deliverable, using so-called wide gamut (larger than Rec. 709) color spaces. These color spaces, like REDWideGamutRGB, Arri Wide Gamut, and Sony S-Gamut, maximize the range of colors that can be recorded in an image, which gives extra room for image manipulation during post-production.
But just like 8K uncompressed footage, dealing with these wide gamut color spaces is cumbersome and expensive. They will need to be properly converted in order to be displayed correctly on your machines and for the final delivery format.
Conversions should be done with care to ensure color information which is in the capture gamut, but which is outside the display color space you’re converting to, is not clipped past the point of no return. Improper conversions can ruin the visual style of your footage, so always run tests before finalizing the color management of your workflow.
Cost, time, and practicality
Generally speaking, more information requires more storage space, which requires more computational power, and more network infrastructure to handle efficiently. Using wider gamut color spaces will require more time managing and tweaking your workflow to ensure that your color management standards are preserved.
High-end workflows tend to capture in very large color spaces and preserve them carefully until they have to be converted for delivery. This yields excellent capabilities for image control, but takes considerable investment. More approachable workflows (especially those that produce content for web/computer screens) tend to capture, work, and deliver in smaller, simpler color spaces to save time and money, often even using the same color space throughout.
The sky’s the limit on what your color management plan can achieve, but that’s equally true for the cost of implementing and maintaining such a plan. Take a good hard look at your anticipated project requirements for the next multi-year period before deciding on your color space management.
Color management your OS
First things first, the display profile in your OS—don’t mess with it. Leave it alone.
Mac and Windows are color managed systems as-is. They use what are called “ICC profiles” to ensure that colors are displayed correctly across different screens. These profiles are created by the device’s manufacturer according to standards laid down by the International Color Consortium (Ihence the acronym ICC). Any device that captures or displays color information can be profiled, and these profiles help enable color management across diverse hardware devices.
Note, this is not the same process as screen calibration, where a display’s color output is tested and then adjusted to match known values. ICC profiles, on the other hand, characterize how a device responds to and represents color information so that different devices can operate on the same basic rules for the same color space.
In general, you should never need to worry about it, but if your color ever looks weird, it’s a good idea to double-check these settings.
- Open System Preferences > Displays > Color
- Check the box “Show profiles for this display only” or choose a profile from the top of the list, above the line. These profiles are designed by the manufacturer for your specific display. In most cases, you will only have one option.
- From Windows search, type “Change display settings” and open the “Display Settings” panel.
- Choose the default profile from the “Color Profile” dropdown list. In most cases you will only have one option, named after the model of your monitor. In the screenshot below, the monitor is a Dell P2715Q Monitor, so that is the correct choice.
Display color management in Adobe video apps
Now let’s look at how to put all this into practice with Adobe Creative Cloud applications.
As we alluded to earlier, the various Adobe applications work with color in slightly different ways, but these settings are the first step to a good color management setup. We’re going to use Rec. 709 in these examples, but you can use this process for whatever color space is most appropriate for your workflow.
Now, when it comes to your software tools, you will usually need to manually enable display color management. Why? Because the software developer didn’t make your screen, and the software does not know what monitor will be used when it’s installed. So it uses a default profile to work with a broad range of hardware.
So how does display color management work in Adobe’s apps?
When display color management is turned on, Premiere Pro reads the ICC profile selected in your operating system and converts its color output to display colors accurately on your monitor. This applies to the Premiere program and source monitors, thumbnail previews in the project panel, the media browser in Premiere Pro and Media Encoder, and the export and encoding previews in Premiere Pro and Media Encoder. This feature was first introduced to Premiere Pro and Media Encoder in version 13.0 (CC 2018), so make sure your Creative Cloud account is at least that up to date.
Important note: Display color management has no effect on exported colors, it only affects the colors that you see on your display.
By default, display color management is disabled in Premiere Pro and Media Encoder, so you will need to turn it on manually. The reason for this is to prevent unexpected color shifts when upgrading from previous versions that do not have display color management.
If you want efficient color management for your whole workflow, it is highly recommended that you turn this feature on for all your systems. Enabling display color management is quite easy, though keep in mind it does require GPU acceleration, so some systems may need to be upgraded for best performance.
- Confirm that you have GPU acceleration enabled (File > Project Setting > General > Video Rendering and Playback)
- Enable Display Color Management (Preferences > General)
- Enable GPU acceleration (Preferences > General > Video Rendering)
- Enable Display Color Management (Preferences > General)
Color management in After Effects offers a few more options and works a bit differently from Premiere Pro and Media Encoder. There are three distinct areas for which you can select color space settings: the working color space, display color management, and the media color space.
For this example, since we’re setting up the workflow for SDR web content, we’ll set the working space to Rec. 709.
- Open the project settings color tab (File>Project Settings>Color)
- Choose Rec. 709 Gamma 2.4 from the list
- Bring your current composition viewer into focus (click on it – it will have a thin blue outline)
- View Menu > Use Display Color Management
After Effects also has the ability to work with media in various color spaces at the same time. You have the ability to see what color space a particular asset is in, and even override it if necessary.
To check the Color space of your media, you’ll need to:
- First, make sure your working color space is set to Rec. 709 (using the instructions above)
- Click on the file in your Project panel
- Inspect the media info that shows up at the top of the Project panel
Occasionally, you may come across a piece of media that is missing the color space metadata tag that is required to properly identify it, or the tag will be wrong. If you are certain you know that it is wrong, you can correct this using the “interpret footage” settings.
- Right-click on the media in the project panel
- Choose Interpret Footage > Main
- The Interpret Footage window will open, click on the Color Management tab
- Open the Assign Profile dropdown menu
- Find Rec. 709 Gamma 2.4
Changing the assigned profile will change the appearance of color in the media everywhere it is used in your project and will result in colors being rendered differently in your exports. Only do this if you really know that you need to.
One common reason to change the color profile is for graphics. Graphics which have been created in Rec. 709 often get interpreted as sRGB when brought into After Effects, which can make the colors look off because the gamma curves of these color spaces are different (despite them sharing the same primary color points). This is easily fixed by manually interpreting the footage to Rec. 709 Gamma 2.4 color profile.
Now that we’ve covered how to set up color management for the video apps, let’s look at the other common creative workflow apps.
Display color management in Photoshop
Just like with Premiere Pro and After Effects, color management is key for creating and displaying accurate colors in Photoshop. Thankfully, color management features are enabled by default in Photoshop, and mostly operates behind the scenes.
But, problems often arise when we least expect them, so we need to be prepared to investigate issues and solve them. Here are some common color-related misbehaviors and the settings you’ll need to fix them (hint, generally “default” is what you need).
From the “Color Settings” preference, follow these instructions:
- Launch Photoshop – a document does not need to be open
- Edit > Color Settings
- Ensure the Settings dropdown is set to the Default for your locale (North America, Europe, Japan). This will configure the following settings.
Now wait a minute, why are we using sRGB in Photoshop when we used Rec. 709 in the other applications? Because according to Adobe, it is recommended that users leave sRGB as the default and only setup documents intended for video use as Rec. 709. If your graphics team is building assets for destinations other than video (like website or social), Rec. 709 isn’t the best fit for their workflow. And since you can convert between sRGB and Rec. 709 so easily, it shouldn’t be too much of a hurdle down the line to just keep the default.
- Working Space – RGB: This setting defines the default working color space for new RGB documents. Since Photoshop is most often used to create assets for the web, sRGB is recommended. Of course, if you only ever use photoshop for video work, you can set this to Rec. 709.
- Working Space – CMYK, Gray, Spot: These are only for print work, so we don’t care about them in this Rec. 709 example, so just leave them at default.
- Color Management Policies: RGB: The default setting preserves the embedded profile, if there is one, and then works within that color space. So, if you create a document in Rec. 709, it will work in that color space.
Using Rec. 709 in Photoshop
If you only ever use Photoshop to create assets for video, then it may be a good idea to assign Rec. 709 profiles to new documents you create.
- File > New Document
- Choose a Film & Video preset like HDTV 1080p for example
- Open Advanced Options to reveal Color Profile
- Choose Rec. 709 Gamma 2.4 from the list
- Click Create
Color managing saved files
When it comes to exporting/saving your files, there are some important considerations regarding format and color space.
- If you want a no-fuss color-accurate format and you don’t need separate layers in Premiere or After Effects, choose TIFF
- If you need separate layers in Premiere and After Effects and you’re willing to do a little extra manual color management, choose PSD
- If you are going to hand off your graphics to someone else and need to make sure they can’t mess with anything, choose PNG or JPG
TIFF (Tag Image File Format) is a highly recommended file format when working with graphics for video. It is widely supported across applications, preserves transparency, supports embedded color profiles, and retains layers for flexible editing in Photoshop while conveniently flattening the image when brought into Premiere Pro or After Effects.
Here are the steps for saving a color-managed TIFF file.
- File > Save As
- Choose TIFF as the format
- Enable Layers to retain editable layers in Photoshop
- Select “Embed Color Profile” – it should show Rec. 709 Gamma 2.4
- After clicking Save, another dialog pops up – be sure to save your TIFF with transparency if necessary. This is especially useful for titles, lower thirds, network bugs and the like
- LZW compression can be used to reduce the file size if disk space is a concern
- ZIP compression is not compatible with Premiere Pro and therefore not recommended
As we mentioned above, the advantage of saving assets as a PSD is that it can be brought into Premiere Pro and After Effects as individual layers, which is obviously very useful for animation and motion graphics.
Unfortunately, Premiere Pro does not read color profile tags on PSD files, so a little extra care is required to maintain accurate colors between Photoshop and Premiere Pro.
In order to preserve your color management standard, you’ll need to embed the color profile into your PSD file:
- Prepare your document in the same way as above, assign the Rec. 709 color profile at the start
- You will be working in Rec. 709 and seeing correct colors in Photoshop
- When saving, DO NOT save with an embedded profile
- Bring the file into PPro -> colors look correct
- Bring the file into AE -> Interpret footage to Rec. 709 -> colors look correct
- Each time you open the document again in Photoshop, follow the instructions below for assigning the Rec. 709 color profile to get colors to display accurately while working in Photoshop
- Each time you save, be sure to save without an embedded profile by choosing “Save as” and overwrite the original file being sure to uncheck the “Embed Color Profile” option
PNG or JPG
PNGs and JPGs are great options when you want to hand off final designs to other clients or collaborators, without the fear that they will unintentionally change something. Just as before, you’ll need to embed the color profile into these files to maintain your color management standards.
- File > Export > Export As
- Choose JPG or PNG for File
- Disable “Convert to sRGB”
- Enable “Embed Color Profile”
Note: PNG supports transparency, while JPG does not
Common Photoshop color problems
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, colors may look different between Photoshop and Premiere Pro or After Effects.
#1: The colors look correct in Photoshop, but wrong in Premiere
The solution is to convert the Photoshop document to Rec. 709 and save as a TIFF with the embedded profile or a PSD without the embedded profile.
#2: The colors look wrong in Photoshop
For this issue, you need to assign a different color profile in Photoshop until you find the one that makes the document look correct. After you have assigned one that makes your colors look correct, convert the document to Rec. 709, and save as a TIFF with the profile embedded or as a PSD without the profile embedded.
#3: The colors look correct in Photoshop, and Premiere, but not in After Effects
This is one of the instances where interpreting an assets color space in After Effects comes in handy. Simply click the “interpret footage” dialog and change the color profile to Rec. 709.
Finally, if you use Illustrator to create vector assets for infinite scaling in After Effects, you’ll want to make sure you have the right color management settings as well. Unlike the other applications, embedded color profiles from Illustrator will not be read in Premiere or After Effects. So we need a new way to maintain accurate colors.
To create a vector asset that will look the same between Illustrator and Premiere Pro or After Effects, follow these instructions.
- File > New
- Choose one of the Film & Video presets, HDTV 1080 for example
- Under the Advanced Options, ensure Color Mode is set to RGB Color
- Click Create – the new document opens
- Edit Menu > Assign Color Profile > Rec. 709 Gamma 2.4
- Design your graphic and make the colors look the way you want
- Save – DO NOT embed the ICC profile
- Open in PPro -> Your colors should look correct by default
- Open in AE -> You will need to interpret the footage to Rec. 709
- Now, go and collect your Emmy/Academy Award
And just like that, you’ve configured all your favorite creative applications from Adobe for a consistent Rec. 709 workflow.
As we’ve just demonstrated, color management isn’t some high science beyond the grasp of everyday filmmakers. Sure, there are a lot of technical terms to wade through, but it’s just a matter of understanding how everything fits together.
So take a few minutes, configure these settings, and know you’re on your way to building a better workflow. Your eyes, your team, and your clients will thank you.