Confused by Color Standards? (Probably not, but if you have a few minutes…)


Every digital viewing experience is defined, impacted, and somewhat constrained by today’s confusing collection of display color standards.

And given how much time we all spend staring at a piece of glass with a digital image projected on it- now estimated to be an average of 16 hours (!) every day – it’s worth knowing just a little bit about those standards, where they come from and where we’re headed.

Do you watch TV? There’s a color standard for that.
Do you go online? There’s another for that.
Do you enjoy movies? There’s a different one for that.

Each one prescribes a number of elements that influence image quality, but to keep the discussion focused, we’ll use this blog to focus on one dimension of color standards: color gamut.

(Special bonus points for those in the industry… ¦ Are we talking xy or ‘v’? Area or overlap?)

Frankly, it’s a bit of a mess.

Each standard is optimized for use in a specific category of devices, and each has its own unique technical criteria to ensure compliance.

That adds up to a lot of unwanted complexity for device manufacturers, who are constantly working to simplify their offering for consumers.

Today’s Landscape

While the many criteria that comprise a standard are important, the one we’ll be looking at most closely here is the color gamut (or color space) defined by each standard.

The color gamut designates how much of the full visual spectrum the standard encompasses, and therefore how much of the spectrum the resulting device can display.

The era of color standards began with the formulation known as “the CIE”, which was ratified in 1931 and — for the first time in history — defined the full visual spectrum that can be perceived by the human eye.  The CIE serves as the ultimate color gamut benchmark (at least for humans) and all subsequent standards are a subset of it.



NTSC / PAL / SECAM (CIE Coverage: 47%)

These were the primary standards used since the 1950s for analog broadcasting and televisions in various parts of the world.  They were largely phased out in the 2010s due to the migration to digital HD broadcasting.

Rec.709 (34% of CIE)

Introduced in 1990 by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Rec.709 is now the predominate standard for digital HD broadcasting and TVs worldwide. It’s also used in DVD and Blu-ray media and players. Although it was introduced almost 40 years later, the Rec.709 color gamut actually covers less of the CIE than the NTSC.

sRGB (34%)

With the growing adoption of personal computers, the sRGB color standard was introduced in 1996 by HP and Microsoft using a color gamut identical to Rec.709.  sRGB is now the most commonly used standard worldwide for just about every device other than TVs. It is used in internet streaming, monitors, projectors, cameras, printers, game consoles, smart phones, tablets, touch screens and more.

Adobe RGB (50%)

Introduced in 1999 by Adobe, this standard was originally designed to solve challenges associated with accurately matching display color with CMYK printing color. It has grown beyond that scope in the many years since, and is now increasingly preferred by artists and photographers due to its much wider gamut compared to sRGB.

DCI-P3 (46%)

DCI-P3 was introduced in 2005 by a consortium of cinema, television and entertainment companies. It is primarily designed to ensure consistent content quality from original capture to final projection. It is increasingly preferred by professional creators due its emphasis on digital production and distribution.  It’s used in cinema-grade cameras, projectors and projection equipment.

The Only Color Standard To Know Today: Rec.2020 (67%)

Introduced in 2012 by the ITU, Rec.2020 is optimized for ultra-high definition (UHD) displays and content distribution. While there are many important dimensions to the full Rec.2020 spec, it’s the wide color gamut that has the capacity to unlock significantly higher image quality across devices.

Rec.2020 prescribes a color gamut that is nearly 70 percent of the full visual spectrum.  It’s 90% larger than Rec.709, today’s television standard, and will enable devices capable of displaying an unprecedented 68 billion colors.

This level of performance will usher in a new era of remarkably better color quality and entirely new visual experiences.  And, because it is, by definition, a superset of all of the others, Rec. 2020 should help to simplify the overall standards landscape.

This should be good news for manufacturers, who can standardize on one design target thereby simplifying their design, development and manufacturing.  It should be good news for content providers, who can finally see on a display the color they have been capturing at the source.  Most important, it should be good news for consumers, who should have a simpler way to compare products when shopping, and who will be able to see the same digital images whether viewing them on a television, laptop, tablet or smartphone.

Momentum for Rec.2020 is growing fast. Japanese broadcaster NHK has announced their intent to broadcast the 2020 Olympics in full Rec.2020 color.   In May of this year, the Blu-Ray Disc Association formally established Rec.2020 as the color gamut for the Ultra HD Blu-Ray specification.  More recently, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) released its new definition of HDR (high dynamic range) and it includes a reference to Rec. 2020 primaries in its HDR10 Media Profile.

Hopefully, this is only the beginning.  The beginning of an era of more consistent and lifelike color across all your displays.

Rec. 2020 … for color standards, it’s all you’ll need to know.


By John Volkmann, Chief Marketing Officer, QD Vision

Posted in Red
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