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Why Placed Color Images Can Appear Inconsistent

You place two images that have identical colors in them… but they look different! This can drive you crazy. While there are a number of possible solutions, the most likely problem is: There’s a color profile mismatch somewhere! And often that mismatch is due to the fact that one or more images does not have a color profile embedded in it.

Here’s one common example: I’ve placed two images into InDesign… the images appear to be identical, but there’s one important difference: one of them was saved with a color profile embedded in it, and the other was not (also called “untagged”).

color profile mismatch

Now, you probably can’t tell the difference right now, right? On my screen there is a very tiny difference. But when I choose View > Preview on CPU (which turns off the new—and slightly buggy—GPU rendering), you can see the differences more:

mismatch 2

OK, now look what happens when I turn on View > Overprint Preview:

mismatch with overprint preview

Holy mackerel! Remember, those two images look exactly the same in Photoshop; the RGB values are identical. So why do they appear so different? (If you don’t care and you just want to fix it, skim through the next section and head right for “What to do about it.”)

Tagged vs. Untagged Images

The reason is that InDesign knows what the colors are supposed to look like in the tagged image (the one with the color profile in it), but it has no clue what the colors look like in the one with no profile.

This is why the colors may look really different when you import an image you found on the web, or exported from some simple pixel-editing program. If there’s no embedded profile, then InDesign has no idea what the colors in that image are supposed to mean. And in those situations, it applies its default RGB color profile.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. InDesign’s normal “default RGB” profile is sRGB, but Adobe makes a big stink about how you should make sure your RGB and CMYK color profiles are all the same in Photoshop and InDesign and Illustrator. And so a lot of people synchronize all these settings, and the result is that InDesign’s default RGB profile gets changed to Adobe RGB or some RGB other than sRGB.

And that is a problem.

As I wrote over a decade ago, it’s a good thing to have your programs unsynchronized, and have different RGB defaults!

You almost certainly want your InDesign documents to have a default RGB profile of sRGB. Because when you use sRGB, then all those web images and images from other less-reliable-than-Photoshop sources will probably look right when you place them.

(By the way, you do want your default CMYK profiles to match among all the Adobe programs. I’m just saying it’s okay if the RGB profiles are different.)

What to Do About It

OK, so what can you do about this problem? Here are a couple ideas:

  • If you can, try to ensure every RGB image has a color profile saved with it. Photoshop saves profiles by default in the Save As dialog box, but it’s off in Save for Web.
  • Check to see what your InDesign document’s default RGB profile is. This is harder than it should be. You can find it by choosing Edit > Convert to Profile:

convert to profile

But don’t change the profile here! Convert to Profile is good for learning about the document, but it can cause bad things to happen if you change anything here. So if it says Adobe RGB or something like that, and if you want to change it to sRGB, then click Cancel here, and then choose Edit > Assign Profile:

assign profile

Here you can assign the sRGB profile and then click OK. Now, every RGB image that does have a color profile embedded should look the same, but all the RGB images that have no profile will update and probably look far better.

(Note that this only changes the currently open document. If you want to ensure new documents are set up with the correct profile, use Edit > Color Settings.)

I know this seems crazy and technical, but the important lesson is: when colors don’t match, then it’s almost always a problem with either the profile not being included properly, or it not being interpreted properly in InDesign. Fortunately, these little steps can go a long way to helping you get consistent color!

David Blatner

David Blatner

David Blatner is the co-founder of the Creative Publishing Network, InDesign Magazine, and the author or co-author of 15 books, including Real World InDesign. His InDesign videos at Lynda.com are among the most watched InDesign training in the world. You can find more about David at 63p.com.
David Blatner

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5 Comments on “Why Placed Color Images Can Appear Inconsistent

  1. Good article on an important subject. Would you please do a follow-up article on colour issues related to placing Illustrator files in InDesign? I have many times had colours go squirrelly when placing, for example, logos in AI files in an InDesign document.

  2. Good article, thank you! I read an older article about grayscale images and how ID does not color manage them at all. Is this true still with CC? Any use soft proofing grayscale in InDesign, or should one just make a PDF and check it there?

  3. That GPU rendering on Mac… it is problematic to say the least. It is inaccurate in transparency display (Knock Out Groups) and showing colours when not in Overprint preview. Better to turn CPU on instead of GPU…

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