The print file you get out of Photoshop/Internet and the image as it appears on your t-shirt might not be the same. Often, the difference has to do with color spaces, and why there’s a difference between how colors appear on our screens and how they look in real life. In this post, we’ll go in-depth about one of the trickier color-related topics– RGB vs CMYK color spaces.
- What are RGB and CMYK and when do we use them?
- What is the difference between RGB and CMYK?
- What is the most suitable color space for printing?
- Is CMYK better than RGB?
What is RGB?
RGB stands for the three colors Red, Green, and Blue. The color space uses Red, Green, and Blue light to make new colors.
Each pixel in the digital devices we use has three tiny, slightly overlapping RGB light sources that trick our eyes into seeing just one color when looking from a distance.
So if you wanted to show something yellow, the RGB pixel would shine green and red light together, while leaving the blue one off. The stronger the light intensity, the brighter the colors appear. At full intensity, the combined colors appear white and at zero intensity they appear black.
What’s great about the RGB color space is that it gives you a wide of range color combinations you can play with when creating digital designs.
When is the RGB color space used?
RGB colors are used for digital purposes. Any images that appear on a digital screen will be displayed in RGB. This is important to remember when creating your print files since you’ll most likely do it in Photoshop or similar software.
We recommend you create your print files in CMYK and then convert them to RGB color space, or, to be exact, sRGB color profile. I’ll explain the exact reasons later, but first, you might be wondering what CMYK is.
What is CMYK?
CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (which is just another word for black). It’s basically the opposite of RGB; it uses colored ink to mask colors on a light background. This light background (usually white) reflects light, so each layer of ink applied subtracts from white light to make new colors.
For example, if you combine Yellow and Magenta (meaning subtract yellow from magenta), then you get Red. You can combine any two Cyan, Magenta, or Yellow colors to create one of the three RGB colors.
If it’s confusing, just try to think about drawing with colored pencils. If you combine two different colors, you’ll get a third. It’s the same idea behind CMYK.
When you combine all three colors, you get grey. Since we also need black, it’s the fourth color. This is also why CMYK is sometimes called the four color space.
When is the CMYK color space used?
CMYK is recommended for any printed material. This includes all of Printful’s products, from apparel to mugs, posters, and more.
Why do we use CMYK for printing? It reflects the colors more accurately.
What is the difference between RGB and CMYK?
We like to think of RGB as a lit match in a dark room, while CMYK is a picture of the lit match in the dark room.
With CMYK, color intensity is not as flexible as in RGB. It’s just impossible to replicate on ink paper or fabric the same intensity and brightness that a digital display can show.
This means some RGB colors will show up differently when printed in CMYK. The software you’re designing in (Photoshop and others) is set to RGB color space by default (in most casses: sRGB color profile specifically). That’s fine if your designs are only going to appear online, but printed designs need to be done in CMYK.
Is CMYK better than RGB?
CMYK and RGB have different uses, and it’s important to know when to use which. Since we’re focusing on printing, we want to stay within the CMYK range.
However, technology is advancing and printers can already print colors outside of the usual range, although we still suggest sticking to approved methods. So how do you avoid printing the wrong colors show up on your products? We recommend ordering color swatches. There are samples of different RGB colors as they appear on printed material. This will help you determine how to color correct for print. They come on a black or a white t-shirt and have multiple different RGB colors printed allowing to see how the colors look on your screen compared to real life. They also come with the numbered color codes for Photoshop for you to manually adjust colors if necessary. You can download the digital files of the swatches below.
If you feel comfortable using photo editing programs like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, you can create your own custom swatches with the colors you use more frequently and make a sample order with those.
Don’t worry if you’re nervous about setting up your design files correctly, we’re more than happy to help you with that as well.
Let’s not restrict our Imagination because of color spaces — Print My Fashion