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Converting RGB to CMYK: How to keep color from washing out!

90% of the visual media I create is for television or internet, which means I design using RGB color space almost exclusively. However, occasionally I need to create a print ad or sign based on elements I’ve already created in RGB.

Anyone who’s converted an RGB image to CMYK knows how frustratingly different the end result can be. Typically, the most obviously perceptible change is less color saturation. The beautiful image you worked long and hard to perfect is now a shadow of its former glory.

I won’t get into the reasons why the color spaces are different, you can research that for yourself if you’re curious. What’s important here is doing your darndest to get your CMYK artwork as close as possible to the RGB original!

Here’s a super easy way to restore the color:

1) Add a new layer in Photoshop or Illustrator. 

2) Fill it with black.

3) Set the color mode of the layer to Color Burn.

4) Adjust the layer opacity until you’re happy, usually in the 15-35% range.

I stumbled upon this trick while creating some business cards for print using an RGB background and am now applying the same trick to vehicle signage.  Also, instead of applying a black layer to the entire image you can just use a soft black brush in the areas of most obvious change.  You can also add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, but you may want to use it sparingly.  Increasing saturation to a CMYK document appears differently than RGB.  Finding a balance between the saturation adjustment layer and the color burn layer is a great way to get your CMYK conversion close to the RGB original.

Happy creating!

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  1. Dryblanket
    October 2, 2011 at 5:37 am | #1

    this is definitely very helpful! thanks for sharing :)

  2. January 11, 2014 at 11:11 am | #2

    Thanks for the great hint!! What works even better for me, is the “Overlay” color mode (~30% Opacity), since it really seems to bring back a similarly saturated and colorful image as the original RGB image. In contrast, the Color Burn creates hard edges between overburned regions …

  1. May 24, 2013 at 1:23 pm | #1
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