RGB to CMYK – Or Why Doesn’t My Red Look Red?

This self-publishing tidbit is all about color processes for print publishing and digital publishing.

The title of the post refers to the difference you can get when you change your photos from one color process to the next. In general red has a very hard time staying vibrant when changed from RGB to CMYK.

So what are RGB and CMYK?

Both abbreviations refer to color and both are used in publishing. However, one is used for print publishing and the other is used for computer viewing.

RGB stands for red, green, blue and are used for computer viewing. The reason being is because these are the color lights that make up a computer monitor (or other similar device).

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. These are what make up the four process colors that are used for print publishing.

So why do I need to know this?

You don’t actually need to know what the letters stand for as long as you know which to use for what type of publishing you are doing.

When you take a photo, your digital camera will shoot the photo in RGB, when you view it on a computer, you will view it in RGB. If you send that same image to a commercial printer (or even your home printer for that matter), you will get a surprise when you receive your proof (book that needs approval). The photo you loved on screen is now a washed out mess.

The reason is because RGB can produce many more colors than CMYK can, but printing can only be done in CMYK.

Some publishers will take your photos as RGB (Amazon Createspace being one); however, they will still print it as CMYK, so you might not receive the outcome you were hoping for.

So what does this all mean?

If you are self publishing only in the digital realm (eBooks and computer viewable .pdf), you can use RGB to your heart’s content and not worry about your pictures turning wonky. You can take and edit pictures without ever having to worry about converting.

If you are self publishing and planning on printing your works. You need to get familiar with CMYK and how to convert your pictures to this color process so you can make sure your pictures look the way you want them to.

If the commercial printer takes my photos as RGB, why should I convert it to CMYK. Isn’t that extra work that is not needed?

Definitely not. Take the photo below. The first picture is in the RGB color process, the second has been converted to CMYK. You can see that my CMYK photo is not as vibrant and the RGB version. This is why it is important to convert before sending your book to the printer. You want to be able to fix the color problems now instead of feeling the disappointment of receiving the first copy of your book and finding it completely unsatisfactory.

All of my RGB colors are vibrant in this colorful photo.
All of my RGB colors are vibrant in this colorful photo.
My vibrancy is greatly diminished in CMYK.
My photo is now slightly washed out and the vibrancy is diminished. The printed version will be even more washed out because the brightness from the computer monitor will be gone.

So how do I convert to CMYK?

Converting is a super simple one-step process with software such as Adobe Photoshop. You will need the full version unfortunately, Photoshop Elements does not have the option for converting to CMYK. There are free programs on the web you can search for. However, with anything free on the internet, be careful — you never know what you will pick up on some of these sites.

My little mini tutorial below is made with Photoshop CS5.5, the option might be in a different place on older (or newer versions of Photoshop), but you should be able to find the same type of editing if you look around your toolbar a little.

First pull up the picture you want to convert. Then click on “Edit” in your toolbar and then click on “Convert to Profile”.

Convert to Profile is near the bottom of this drop down
Convert to Profile is near the bottom of this drop down

There will be a dropdown under “Profile”. You want to choose one of the options for CMYK. Any of the options will work, the differences are all minimal and refer to what works with different printing systems and different parts of the world. Your printer might tell you which one to choose, otherwise it’s up to you. As long as CMYK is in the title you’re good. I won’t go into the huge list of color profiles that exist, but you can definitely search it if you would like to learn about them all. In my mini tutorial I chose Photoshop 5 Default CMYK and hit OK. The result was the photo above.

The CMYK options are also at the bottom of the "Profile" drop down, so be sure to scroll to find them.
The CMYK options are also at the bottom of the “Profile” drop down, so be sure to scroll to find them.

So that photo doesn’t look as good, are you going to leave it that way?

Nope, I will use Photoshop to correct the colors. This can be done in a multitude of ways under the “Adjustments” in the “Image” tab on the toolbar. Sometimes the photo will need very little adjusting to make it look like the original, other times you will need to make major adjustments. If you would like to see a tutorial on various ways to adjust the color, leave me a note below and I will whip one up.

See previous topic: Formatting Photos For Self-Publishing

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