What's the Difference Between a Color Space and a Color Profile?

As a photographer, it is very important to have a good understanding of color management. And color spaces and profiles can, at times, fall right into the field of mystical terms in photography.

I've also seen the two terms used interchangeably which can certaily lead to more confusion. However, I was able to find a fantastic article by one of the biggest authorities in the world of photography: The American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), and their awesome project DPBestFlow.org.

The following article on Color Space and Color Profiles really explains the differences between the two and offers some great videos to illustrate how to use them correctly in your workflow.

Here is a quick breakdown of the essential terms mentioned, but I highly recommend checking out the article above to fully understand the concepts:

Color Model: 

A way to "turn color into numbers" so that it can be read by digital devices. For example, RGB and CMYK are two commonly used color models.

Color Space:

From the article above "a color space is a specific implementation of a color model." So, as an example, RGB is a color model which has several different "color spaces" that can be used. A few commonly used color spaces of RGB are:

  • sRGB (Use this if your work will be displayed on the web).
  • Adobe RGB
  • ProPhoto RGB

I also found one of the best analogies for explaining what a color space is in this great article by Thom Hogan:

"A Color Space defines what is possible. Imagine you're designing an office building. The bigger the building you design, the more workers it can hold. Color Spaces are the same. The "bigger" the Color Space, the more color definitions it encompasses."

Color Profile:

The article by ASMP states that a color profile is "a numerical model of a color space." To clarify this a bit more, I would combine this with the definition offered by Hogan in his article saying that basically "a color profile specifies how a device deviates from a Color Space." Essentially, when we're working with images in a photo editing program, we want to set a specific color "space" according to our needs (ie. sRGB, Adobe RGB, or Prophoto RGB). However, our monitor may display colors a bit differently and may have a color cast, and so we need to "profile it" so that it displays colors according to the color space we've chosen to work in. 

Here's a great video by Jason Odell of LumincescentPhoto.com that goes over the process of calibrating your monitor, setting a color space preference, and converting an image to a color space before saving it.

I hope I was able to add some clarity to the world of color spaces and profiles which can definitely drive us photogs crazy! If you found this useful, feel free to share it using the buttons below, or leave me a comment with any feedback you may have. Thanks!