Digital photography terms: RGB and CMYK

From the November 2012 Ask the Experts column of The Artist’s Magazine.

Q. What’s the difference between RGB color and CMYK color?

A. RGB and CMYK are both color models or methods of duplicating color. In order to render an image on screen or in print, the image is recreated using only a few colors. A computer monitor uses three colors—red, green and blue. Printers use four colors—cyan, magenta, yellow and black. If you’re putting something on a website or e-mailing an image that’s not intended for print, RGB is fine. RGB is also fine if you’re printing to your own personal color printer. CMYK is only necessary for printing an image on a web press (a printing press that prints on surfaces in a continuous roll rather than printing on separate sheets). Generally, anyone who needs to use CMYK to print your image will accept an RGB image and then convert it to CMYK.

The most important thing to remember is that RGB and CMYK have different color spaces (ranges of colors). Because both color systems use limited palettes, neither can mix the full range of colors that we see. What’s more, the RGB and CMYK color spaces don’t overlap each other. The image that you take with your digital camera won’t match your original painting exactly, and the printed reproduction of your image won’t exactly match your painting either. The images can be pretty close to your original painting, though, especially if you didn’t use fluorescent colors or gold foil.

Your image’s color system, file format and resolution are all independent of each other. In other words, images can be saved as RGB or CMYK in any format and at any resolution. –Wendy Dunning, design manager of the Fine Art Community of F+W Media, Cincinnati



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