What Is a Color Gamut?


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Have you ever wondered why the same picture looks different on different screens? If you have, then you have experienced the differences in color reproduction of different displays.

If you haven’t, open the same YouTube video on your phone and your PC. This way you’ll notice the different color profiles of different screens.

So, why do different screens produce slightly different colors? The answer is a color gamut. Let us take a closer look at the color gamut of a display and see why we need to pay attention to it before buying a monitor.

What Is a Color Gamut?

The human eye can see billions of colors. From the craziest shades of red to the mutest tones of blue, there are more colors out there than our screens can display. This is where the color gamut of a display comes in.

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The color gamut of a screen describes the range of colors that a particular screen can output. Every screen has a range of colors that it can display. For instance, most phone screens out there can reproduce around 16.7 million colors. This is far less than the number of colors that our eyes can perceive.

In other words, the color gamut of a smartphone screen is limited, as the screen can’t produce every color. The same goes for computer monitors and TVs.

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Why Do Different Displays Reproduce Colors Differently?

But this is where things start to get a little confusing.

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Not all monitors have the same color gamut. For instance, where most monitors can produce 16.7 million colors, not all monitors can produce the same 16.7 million colors. So, different displays reproduce colors in different ways. And that is why two different monitors display different colors for the same piece of content.

The inability of displays to reproduce the same colors across the board presents a gigantic problem for content creators like photographers and videographers. How do you make sure that the colors you are shooting with your cameras appear the same on all displays?

The answer is a standardized color gamut.

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Representation of Color Gamuts

Color gamuts are represented by triangles on a 3-dimensional chromaticity diagram. The edges of the triangles are color coordinates for red, green, and blue colors. The area enclosed by the triangle is the range of the colors that a particular device can display.

For instance, the colors enclosed by the sRGB triangle are colors that a monitor with 100 percent sRGB coverage can reproduce.

Chromaticity diagram representing different color gamuts
Image Credit: Mbearnstein37/Wikimedia Commons

Note that no single color gamut can reproduce all the colors that our eyes can see.

Standard RGB (sRGB)

A computer monitor

To solve the problem of different displays reproducing varying degrees of the same color, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) introduced a standard color gamut called “Standard RGB,” or sRGB for short. By defining a set range of colors for the displays to reproduce, photos and videos can look relatively the same no matter the display.

That said, not all displays can reproduce the sRGB color gamut in its entirety. You will still find that some colors look slightly different on different screen types. But because the industry is following the standard, there are only minor differences for the most part.

So, when shopping for a computer monitor pay attention to how much of the sRGB color gamut the display covers. For instance, a display that only covers 70 percent of the sRGB gamut, will produce a limited set of colors when compared to a display that covers 100 percent of the sRGB gamut.

While it wasn’t possible in the past due to technical limitations, modern displays can go beyond 100 percent sRGB coverage. In other words, there are modern displays that can produce far more colors than a regular display panel. This is where the concept of “Wide Color Gamuts” comes in.

Adobe RGB

RGB pattern

Although sRGB is the standard color gamut, its color reproduction range is less than desirable. The colors in the sRGB color gamut are muted and unrealistic. This is a major problem for the printing industry, as colors in the sRGB gamut come out dull and lifeless on prints.

To overcome these limitations, Adobe introduced a new color gamut called “Adobe RGB” in 1998. Adobe developed its gamut to compete with sRGB to become the standard. But due to technical limitations of the display technology of the time, Adobe RGB was rarely used. Hence, it didn’t gain traction as a color gamut until recently.

Nowadays, Adobe RGB is the standard color gamut for the printing industry.

Adobe RGB is a wide color gamut. It covers significantly more vivid colors than sRGB. While both sRGB and Adobe RGB have the same number of colors, Adobe RGB can cover about 50 percent of the visible spectrum. In other words, Adobe RGB has a more diverse range of colors where the differences between individual colors are big.

Today, high-end displays target both the sRGB and Adobe RGB color gamuts. Such displays list their coverage of both the gamuts as a percentage. For instance, if a display lists its color coverage as 100 percent sRGB and 90 percent Adobe RGB, it means that the display can reproduce every color in the sRGB color gamut and can even reproduce about 90 percent of the colors in the Adobe RGB gamut.

Moreover, professional displays need to have a wide color gamut due to the nature of the work people use them for. So, if you are in the market for a monitor for professional purposes, pay attention to the monitor’s Adobe RGB coverage as professional monitors almost always have 100 percent sRGB coverage.

DCI-P3

Representation of cinematography

The Society of Motion Pictures and Television Engineers introduced DCI-P3 to standardize color reproduction for the cinema. Filmmakers and digital video artists shoot with cameras capable of DCI-P3 to make sure that their film footage looks as intended on the big screen.

In fact, all modern cinema projectors are capable of reproducing 100 percent of the DCI-P3 color gamut.

DCI-P3 is another example of a wide color gamut as it is 25 percent wider than sRGB. So just like Adobe RGB, professionals prefer DCI-P3 due to its more realistic and vivid colors.

Monitors that target professionals also list their DCI-P3 coverage spec in addition to their sRGB and Adobe RGB coverage percentages. Needless to say, you should pay attention to these figures before buying a monitor. When in doubt, refer to a display buying guide to make sure you are looking for the right things.

Displays Use a Variety of Different Color Gamuts

But the good news is that you don’t need to worry about understanding the intricacies of each one.

We’ve only covered the three most popular color gamuts for digital computer monitors. There are other gamuts like NTSC that have their use cases. But when it comes to computer displays, you only need to pay attention to sRGB, Adobe RGB, and DCI-P3.

Just remember, whenever you are buying a display, get one that covers close to 100 percent sRGB. If you can get something that can cover a significant amount of Adobe RGB or DCI-P3, in addition to 100 percent sRGB, go for it.

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