June 12th, 2008

Firefox 3 matters to Photographers

Posted by Ben in Imaging, Macintosh, Software, Windows

Mozilla have announced their expectation that the new version 3 of their popular web browser Firefox will be released this upcoming Tuesday, June 17th. Why is this a big deal for photographers in particular? Let’s step back a bit…

Colour management of photographs can be a complicated and misunderstood process, but the end goal is always to ensure that the viewer sees the image – with regard to tonality and colour – in the way that the photographer intended.
To achieve this, images are usually saved in a certain colour space such as AdobeRGB or sRGB, which defines the potential range of colours and embeds this information profile in the image in a way that can be understood by any colour-profile-aware application.
So if I view an image saved in sRGB and another in AdobeRGB, my colour-aware application can sense the difference and automatically convert the colours so that what I actually see is pretty much the same. Great huh?

However, if you look at the graph above, you will see that sRGB displays a much lower range of colours – a smaller gamut – than AdobeRGB. Professional photographers generally shoot and save their images in AdobeRGB because its larger gamut is better for capturing the full range of colours and for printing purposes.

The current problem is that most web browsers COMPLETELY IGNORE this colour profile information and assume that the image is saved in sRGB – you can test your browser to see if it is compliant at the ICC Test Page. Therefore when these AdobeRGB images are uploaded to the web and seen on the vast majority of browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox 2, Opera, etc) they appear flat and dull – as you can see in the some of the examples here.

Ideally photographers should save an AdobeRGB version for print, and then convert this to a separate sRGB version for web use – but that is of course, a pain. Up until now the only browser that supported colour profiles was Apple’s Safari – which is now available for both Mac and PC. Safari is quite a good browser but has a low market share, and doesn’t offer the wide range of useful plugins and customisations that Firefox does.

Enter Firefox 3. The new version of the browser isn’t colour-profile-aware by default but happily it can be easily fixed by either a hack explained here, or there is already an easy plugin created by Sean Hayes called “Color Management” that does the job – available here on the Mozilla site or here on the author’s homepage. The latter requires no registration.

This is certainly a step in the right direction as far as photography on the web is concerned. It gives me a way to see images on the web as the photographer intended. However the decision to have it off by default means it’s unlikely to help the majority of Firefox users and I find that disappointing, although some of the reasons are discussed here.

Until Microsoft’s Internet Explorer starts recognising colour profiles, and Firefox 3 starts doing so by default, the majority of web users will still be seeing much photography on the web incorrectly represented and not as the photographer intended – but at least I don’t have to any more.

UPDATE 17/06/08: Firefox 3 is now out, I’ve installed the Color Management plugin, and I can say that colour photographs on most websites I frequent look much, much better than before.


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