Color space

A color space is a specific organization of colors. In combination with color profiling supported by various physical devices, it supports reproducible representations of color -- whether such representation entails an analog or a digital representation. A color space may be arbitrary, i.e. with physically realized colors assigned to a set of physical color swatches with corresponding assigned color names (including discrete numbers in -- for example -- the Pantone collection), or structured with mathematical rigor (as with the NCS System, Adobe RGB and sRGB). A "color space" is a useful conceptual tool for understanding the color capabilities of a particular device or digital file. When trying to reproduce color on another device, color spaces can show whether you will be able to retain shadow/highlight detail, color saturation, and by how much either will be compromised.

Comparison of some RGB and CMYK chromaticity gamuts on a CIE 1931 xy chromaticity diagram
A comparison of the chromaticities enclosed by some color spaces.

A "color model" is an abstract mathematical model describing the way colors can be represented as tuples of numbers (e.g. triples in RGB or quadruples in CMYK); however, a color model with no associated mapping function to an absolute color space is a more or less arbitrary color system with no connection to any globally understood system of color interpretation. Adding a specific mapping function between a color model and a reference color space establishes within the reference color space a definite "footprint", known as a gamut, and for a given color model, this defines a color space. For example, Adobe RGB and sRGB are two different absolute color spaces, both based on the RGB color model. When defining a color space, the usual reference standard is the CIELAB or CIEXYZ color spaces, which were specifically designed to encompass all colors the average human can see.

Since "color space" identifies a particular combination of the color model and the mapping function, the word is often used informally to identify a color model. However, even though identifying a color space automatically identifies the associated color model, this usage is incorrect in a strict sense. For example, although several specific color spaces are based on the RGB color model, there is no such thing as the singular RGB color space.


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