I was talking to a group of photographers and the topic of professional printing came up.  A surprising number seemed unfamiliar or uncomfortable with CMYK color.  Let’s quickly review a few core concepts to help you feel more confident in your printing of photos.

The Process

The CMYK process uses four colors to simulate the full range of color that can be perceived by the human eye.  The four inks are cyan (C), magenta (M), yellow (Y), and black (K, for key). Many inkjet printers and most professional printing options use this color mode.

CMYK mode uses the subtractive color model to re-create color. Subtractive color explains the theory of how ink or dye absorbs specific wavelengths of light and reflects others. The color you see is based on which colors of light are not absorbed.

Who Uses CMYK?

Print designers use CMYK Color mode for professional printing, they will work in RGB mode throughout the design stage. CMYK Color mode has a smaller color gamut, so CMYK conversion is saved until the last stage of image preparation. Photographers are often asked to give design clients CMYK files.

Here’s how to make them.


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Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. Being a copier tech I am all too familiar with the Additive/Subtractive color processes!

  2. Great video.

    But one of the issues you’ll run into is that there are different processes of printing that result in differing CMYK settings. For example, high quality glossy magazines have a different profile than newspapers which are different from news magazines.

    And Photoshop can only convert to one CMYK profile at a time. As a result, your CMYK conversion may not be as accurate as you want due to the profile setting being set wrong.

    The Command-Y preview only previews for the one profile you have set in Photoshop.

    What I usually had to do when submitting CMYK work is ask the editors what the profile setting was for their particular printing method. Then I’d set my CMYK profile for that.

    But most of the time, I send RGB files and in Adobe RGB and let the editors convert.

    Thanks and have a great day!!!

  3. An impressive share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a colleague who
    had been conducting a little research on this. And he in fact bought me dinner
    because I stumbled upon it for him… lol. So let me reword
    this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending some time to discuss this issue
    here on your web site.


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About Richard Harrington

Richard Harrington is the founder of RHED Pixel, a visual communications company based in Washington, D.C. He is the Publisher of Photofocus and Creative Cloud User as well as an author on Rich has authored several books including From Still to Motion, Understanding Photoshop, Professional Web Video, and Creating DSLR Video.


Photography, Software