4 Key Differences Between RGB vs CMYK: Which is Better to Use?

RGB or CYMK? If you're not sure which is best, read this guide to learn about 4 key differences to help you choose the right color scheme for your project

May 20, 2022

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RGB and CMYK are the two main color choices for visual media, but choosing the right one can have a huge impact on the end result of your project. While RGB is better for on screen viewing, CMYK gives a better result for printed media. Here we’ll take an in-depth look at the main differences between them and how to make the right choice.

We all know the importance of color. Perhaps you’re a business looking to create advertising. Or maybe you’re a filmmaker looking to release the next blockbuster. Whatever the situation, if you’re creating visual media, great use of color is imperative.

Of course, choosing the right colors is vital. You might have the best illustrations and content, but this is all for nothing if you choose the wrong color mode. This is where RGB and CMYK come in: both are color modes that can fundamentally alter the look of a piece.

But what are RGB and CMYK? Let’s look at each option!

What is RGB?

rgb colors.png

When creating a design with RGB or CMYK, you’ll need to change file formats depending on your choice. Let’s start by looking at some RGB file formats:

Image Source

Image Source

Image Source

Image Source

RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue. As you’ve probably also noticed, this option is all about using primary colors (i.e., colors that, when mixed, can create any other color).

RGB is the color set of choice for anyone whose media is designed to be viewed on a screen. This will be the best choice for you if you’re creating any of the following:

  • A video
  • Images for use online
  • An infographic
  • A logo for use online
  • Graphs or Infographics to be viewed online
  • Any form of UI design

What is CMYK?

color palettttes.png

CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key. You’re probably wondering, ‘what on earth is key?’. Well, the term actually refers to black. It’s called key because black is the main color that determines the outcome of an image.

The main difference between CMYK and RGB is that the former is used for printed media. Imagine you’ve put together a newsletter using an article outline generator. Once you’ve finished your newsletter, you’ll want to make sure that it looks as good as possible in printed form. Therefore you’ll want to choose CMYK.

There are many uses for CMYK. Here are just a few examples:

  • A flyer
  • A poster
  • An album cover
  • A book cover
  • A T-Shirt with a printed design
  • A magazine

Why Do Color Modes Matter?

Color modes are important because they help determine how an image will look in its finished form. But first, you have to choose the correct color mode. For example, if you set an image to CMYK, you will be able to see how it will look when it is printed. By choosing the right color mode, you can make sure that the look of your creation is consistent with the final design.

You Can Switch Between the Two

Perhaps you’ve started an image using CMYK but decided you’d like to switch to RGB? Luckily, there is an easy way to switch if you use Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator. Let’s look at the process of converting an image on both programs:

Adobe Photoshop

From the toolbar at the top of your screen, navigate to Edit and select Convert to Profile. Next, select Destination Space. You can then choose between RGB and CMYK.

Adobe Illustrator

Select all of the elements within your document. Now head to your toolbar, select Edit and navigate to Edit Colors. You can now choose the color mode that you want.

A quick tip: although you can change color modes, it isn’t always advisable. Just because a design looks good in RGB doesn’t mean it will appear the same in CMYK (and vice-versa).

Are Any Other Options Available?

pantone colors.png

Believe it or not, there is actually a third color option that you can choose from. This option is known as Pantone, a color mode used for printed designs. CMYK is a good option for printed design, but it provides less color range than RGB. As a result there may be a specific hue that is unavailable. Here’s where Pantone comes in.

Where other color modes mix different shades together to produce colors, Pantone uses an exact formula. This means that you will always receive the richest color possible. But beware, Pantone colors are much more expensive to print than CMYK!

Now that you’ve got an understanding of RGB and CMYK, let’s look at some of the key differences between the two:

1. RGB Uses Additive Colors

When viewing your screen, you’re actually looking at a vast number of pixels. Grouped together, these pixels form an image. Pixels are tiny and indistinguishable by the human eye, and these pixels contain subpixels, which are divided into red, green, and blue.

Each of these colors contains a value between 0 and 255. To produce different colors, you must alter the percentage of red, green, and blue within an image. Let’s look at how RGB can be mixed to form different colors:

Creating Purple

  • Red: 128
  • Green: 0
  • Blue: 128

Creating Orange

  • Red: 255
  • Green: 165
  • Blue: 0

Creating Pink

  • Red: 255
  • Green: 192
  • Blue: 203

Now you’ve got an understanding of RGB, let’s look at CMYK:

2. CMYK Uses Subtractive Colors

Just as an electronic image is made up of pixels, a printed image consists of many thousands of minute dots. With CMYK, you start with a white canvas and layer colors on top. This is the process by which all printed images are created. If you were to mix all CMYK colors, an image would become completely black.

The color system contained within a CMYK image is known as subtractive colors. This means that color is produced by taking in light. Subtractive color begins with white and gets progressively darker as color is added.

3. RGB Looks great on screen, but…

You might find that an image looks fantastic on a screen (as we’ve said, it’s because RGB can produce many more color tones than CMYK). But if you’re likely to print the content, don’t let this fool you. When printed, it is much duller in color. If you don’t design with print in mind, you might find that your design is not as effective as it should be.

If you’re a graphic designer working on printed material, it’s good to set an image to CMYK before beginning work. By doing so, you can gain a better idea of how a design will look when it is printed.

4. Both Options Use Different File Formats

image formats.png

JPEG – There’s a reason 73.9% of all websites use JPEG images. You must bear two factors in mind when creating digital images: size and quality. Create too big a file, and you won’t be able to upload it online. If an image doesn’t look the part, it won’t impress viewers. Luckily, JPEG helps to ensure decent quality while maintaining a low file size.

PNG – If quality is what you’re looking for, you can’t go wrong with PNG. Because it is a vector image (one made up of shapes and curves rather than pixels), it ensures the best possible look for your design. The obvious downside to using PNG is a much higher file size than JPEG.

Now let’s look at some options for CMYK file formats.

PDF – PDF is a great option for CMYK images, especially if you’re creating multiple-page documents such as magazines or leaflets. This is because the format is designed for print.

PDFs are also compatible with most programs. If you’re likely to share your designs with different people, this might be your best option. Just make sure you also invest in the best audio-video conferencing system for clear communication of ideas.

EPS - If you’re looking for higher-quality vector-based print, this is the format for you. EPS files are compatible with other vector-based programs. Because the file is vector-based, an image won’t lose its quality even if stretched. For this reason, EPS is a good choice if you’re looking to print a larger image.

RGB or CMYK – Which Will You Choose?

So, as we’ve established, there is no ‘better choice’ between RGB and CMYK. Ultimately, it’s entirely down to your situation.

If your creation is intended for print, you should choose CMYK. Otherwise, your design is at risk of looking sloppy. On the other hand, if you’re uploading an image online, you’ll want to choose RGB for the best color range. Of course, color isn’t everything. Make sure that all the elements of your design are top-notch. For example, make sure you invest in the best illustrations.

When you start a new design, make sure that you choose the correct color mode. That way, your finished design will match your vision. Once you’ve made your choice, you can work on making a fantastic design. So, think about the aims of your project and make a decision. With the right colors, you can bring your design to life!

Discover an array of captivating voices and expert insights as our guest writers grace the pages of the Manypixels blog. From seasoned industry veterans to emerging talents, their thought-provoking articles will inspire and inform, enriching your reading experience.

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