Demystifying Colour (v) : colour gamuts

Terms used to describe colours are often confusing. If a colour space is a subset of a colour model, then what is a colour gamut? Is it the same as a colour space? How does it differ from a colour profile? In reality there is often very little difference between the terms. For example, depending on where you read it sRGB can be used to describe a colour space, a colour gamut, or a colour profile. Confused? Probably.

Colour gamuts

A gamut is a range or spectrum of some entity, for example “the complete gamut of human emotions“. A colour gamut describes a subset of colours within the entire spectrum of colours that are identifiable by the human eye, i.e. the visible colour spectrum. More specifically a gamut is the range of colours a colour space can represent.

While the range of colour imaging devices is very broad, e.g. digital cameras, scanners, monitors, printers, the range of colours they produce can vary considerably. Colour gamuts are designed to reconcile colours that can be used in common between devices. The term colour gamut is usually used in association with electronic devices, i.e. the devices range of reproducible colours, or the range of different colours that can be interpreted by a colour model. A colour gamut can therefore be used to express the difference between various colour spaces, and to illustrate the extent of coverage of a colour space.

Fig.1: CIE XYZ 2D Chromaticity Diagram depicting various colour spaces as gamuts

The colour gamut of a device is sometimes visualized as a volume of colours, typically in CIELab or CIELuv colour spaces, or as a project in the CIEXYZ colour space producing a 2D xy chromaticity diagram (CD). particularly the luminance of the primary colours. Typically a colour space specifies three (x,y) coordinates to define the three primary colours it uses. The triangle formed by the three coordinates encloses the gamut of colours that the device can reproduce. The table below shows the RGB coordinates for various colour spaces in the CIE chromaticity diagram, shown on the 2D diagram in Figure 1.

Adobe RGb0.640.330.210.710.150.0650
Apple RGB0.62500.340.280.59500.15500.0733.5
NTSC RGB0.670.330.210.710.140.0854
CIE RGB0.73460.26650.28110.70770.17060.0059

Note that colour gamuts are 3D which is more informative than the 2D CD – it captures the nuances of the colour space, particularly the luminance of the primary colours. However the problem with 3D is that it is not easy to plot, and hence the reason a 2D representation is often used (the missing dimension is brightness).

Two of the most common gamuts in the visual industry are sRGB, and Adobe RGB (which are also colour spaces). Each of these gamuts references a different range of colours, suited to particular applications and devices. sRGB is perhaps the most common gamut used in modern electronic devices. It is gamut that covers a good range of colours for average viewing needs, so much so that it is the default standard for the web, and most images taken using digital cameras. The largest RGB working space, ProPhoto is an RGB color space developed by Kodak, and encompasses 90% of the possible colours in the CIE XYZ chromaticity diagram.

Gamut mapping is the conversion of one devices colour space to another. For example the case where an image stored as sRGB is to be reproduced on a print medium with a CMYK colour space. The objective of a gamut mapping algorithm is to translate colours in the input space to achievable colours in the output space. The gamut of an output device depends on its technology. For example, colour monitors are not always capable of displaying all colours associated with sRGB.

Colour profiles

On many systems the colour gamut is described as a colour profile, and more specifically is associated with an ICC Color Profile, which is a standardized system put in place by the international colour consortium. Such profiles help convert the colours in the designated colour space associated with an image to the device. For example the standard profile on Apple laptops is “Color LCD”.Some of the most common RGB ICC profiles are sRGB (sRGB IEC61966-2.1).

One thought on “Demystifying Colour (v) : colour gamuts

  1. Pingback: Demystifying colour (vii) : sRGB vs. Adobe RGB | Crafting Pixels

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