Printing 101: CMYK vs RGB

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Whenever you start a new digital project, you will have to choose between using the CMYK or RGB colour format. It may sound like a technical difference, but your choice could have a massive effect on your work! 

What is the difference between CMYK and RGB?

CMYK and RGB are both colour formats used to digitally create colours and also communicate these colours to a printer. A main difference between the two are the principal colours used in printing and how they print. CMYK uses a combination of the following colours: Cyan (C), Magenta (M), Yellow (Y), and Black (Key). CMYK is also a subtractive colour scheme which works by absorbing and reflecting various colours. RGB combines the primary colours, Red, Green and Blue in an additive colour format. What this means is when a RGB file is printed, the three colours are added together to make a wider selection of colours. The important thing to remember is that because of these differences, your print will also look different.

When Should I Use CMYK/RGB?

RGB is most often used for digital displays. It’s also used as the standard because it offers the widest selection of colours.  When you open a new file in Photoshop, you’ll notice the colour mode is automatically set to RGB. That’s a pretty big problem if you start working in the standard mode, but wanted to eventually print. Generally speaking, if you are planning to print your project, you should be working in the CMYK colour mode.If you have completed a project using RGB, the image will look perfect on screen and other displays. If the file isn’t converted before printing, the printed version will look a lot different than the version on your screen. Although more home printers are able to print RGB colours, most professionals print using CMYK.

Some people have recommended working in RGB to take advantage of the spectrum of colours. Later if you decided to print, you can convert the project to CMYK just before sending your work to the printers. The one time when you may want to choose CMYK over RGB is when you’re working with greys. RGB creates grey by combining Red, Green, and Blue, but CMYK creates grey using Key (Black). This helps control the quality of grey in print. Between CMYK and RGB, you have a variety of options that can be great for any number of projects.


Next time you make a print and it turns out very different from your display version, you now know that it’s probably because of the choice in colour format. Thankfully there are many ways to convert between the two. Remember to ask your printing company for test versions just in case you choose the wrong colour format! If you didn’t catch your mistake when you started working, you will have a quick chance to fix it for the final print run. Here’s wishing you and all your digital projects a bright future!

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