What is the difference between CMYK and RGB colors?

Posted by Jose Hurtado on

Does your advertising agency or print company use weird acronyms that you don’t understand? Acronyms like CMYK and RGB? If they haven’t explained it properly, you’ve probably just nodded your head and pretended like you understood. Well we’re here to break it down for you!

What do these acronyms stand for?

CMYK: Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-Black
RGB: Red-Green-Blue

RGB color mode combines three colors, Red, Green, and Blue. Your computer monitor, scanner, and digital camera all use a combination of these three colors to produce the final colors. Presses, however, require four different colors, CMYK, to produce the final printed material. Thus, RGB must be converted to CMYK for print.

  • You can convert a file from RGB to CMYK, but cannot convert a file from CMYK to RGB. If you attempt to do so, some of the image data in that file may be lost and become unrecoverable.
  • Keep in mind that your image may be created in RGB, but it will print in CMYK.
  • RGB color mode may look sharp on your computer screen, however, it will not print as it appears.
  • Convert RGB files into CMYK in Photoshop by simply clicking on Image > Mode > CMYK.

Printing RGB-CMYK

What is the difference between CMYK and RGB?

CMYK and RGB colors render differently depending on which medium they are used for, whether it be on the web or in print. Let’s go further into detail on this question.

colour-space-CMYKCMYK Color Mode
If printers are using a digital printing method, they would print color on paper using CMYK colors. This is a four color mode that utilizes the colors cyan, magenta, yellow and black in various amounts to create all of the necessary colors when printing images. It is a subtractive process, which means that each additional unique color means more light is removed, or absorbed, to create colors. When the first three colors are added together, the result is not pure black, but rather a very dark brown. The K color, or black, is used to completely remove light from the printed picture, which is why the eye perceives the color as black.

 

colour-space-RBGRGB Color Mode
RGB is the color scheme that is associated with electronic displays, such as CRT, LCD monitors, digital cameras and scanners. It is an additive type of color mode that combines the primary colors, red, green and blue, in various degrees to create a variety of different colors. When all three of the colors are combined and displayed to their full extent, the result is a pure white. When all three colors are combined to the lowest degree, or value, the result is black. Software such as photo editing programs use the RGB color mode because it offers the widest range of colors.

How do I know when to use which one?

In short, if you’re going to be printing something, such as a business card, stationary, or a newsletter, use CMYK. CMYK does not include a white color because it is assumed that it will be printed on a white paper and depending on the percentage of each color that is used, the white from the paper will be used to fill the space, therefore making the shades appear lighter.

If it’s something that will only be seen digitally, use RGB. The Internet is set up to work exclusively with RGB colors and there is a simple explanation behind this. A digital monitor is made up of tiny units called pixels. These pixels are comprised of three light units, one for red, one for green, and one for blue. The RGB values are applied to these pixels, thereby setting the luminosity for each of the light units in each pixel.

It should be known that there is no perfect correlation between the two types of colors, but when converted, a very close match can be achieved.

How do CMYK and RGB render differently?

These color render differently based on the amount of white space that is already provided and how much “mixing” of colors needs to occur. In order to get the correct color on all mediums, the colors need to be converted. Highland Marketing did a great job of explain why RGB colors need to be converted when you’re creating something for print: “The RGB scheme has a greater range of colors than CMYK and can produce colors that are more vivid and vibrant. These colors are beyond the range of CMYK to reproduce and will come out darker and more dull in print than what is seen on the monitor or display. Because the RGB color mode has the full range of colors, documents shown in CMYK mode will always show up precisely on-screen. RGB colors, however, will not necessarily appear in print as they do on-screen. To accurately print the document or image, it must be converted from its original RGB format to CMYK. It is possible to do this by using software such as Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator.”[1] Consequently, the same art displayed on a computer monitor may not match to that printed in a publication.

Examples

It is imperative that you convert your files to CMYK, since this is the only color mode that we accept for printing. Any other color mode will not produce optimal printing results. Most commercial printers accept RGB images, however, using images that are in RGB color mode may ruin the appearance of the final printed material. 

Below is an example of a photo originally produced in RGB colors converted to CMYK colors as displayed on a computer monitor. Notice how the colors are much more vibrant on the RGB picture.

Files to CMYK

 


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