What is the difference between RGB and CMYK colour?

16-07-2015 by

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When looking at the photos you’ve taken of your latest holiday/best friend/cat/latest meal on your computer or smartphone screen and then looking at those exact same pics that you’ve printed out, you may notice a difference in the colours.

This is because your computer uses one colour system, while your printer uses another. Screens, and other light-emitting displays like LEDs, use a mix of Red, Green and Blue (RGB) while printers use a mix of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (CMYK) which you’ll notice when you have to replace your printer cartridges.

RGB is a form of additive colour, which is created by mixing different coloured light together. The more additive colours you mix, the more they approach white; think of a prism turning a sunbeam into a rainbow.

CMYK, on the other hand, is a form of subtractive colour. This means that the colour you see is actually the result of the printed page absorbing all the other colours of light, leaving you with one. For example, a picture of a red apple is red because the red light is not absorbed by the picture and is reflected to our eyes.

So what does this mean for printing our holiday snaps? Because of the way RGB colour works, over 16 million colours can be shown on a screen. CMYK colour is slightly more limited in the shades it can reproduce. So the subtle blues in that awesome picture you took where the ocean meets the sky may look amazing on screen, but slightly muted when you print it out to frame it.

You can convert your digital RGB images into CMYK using any photo editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Publisher and Corel Draw. This will give you a better idea of what your printed pictures will look like.

Or, if you’re serious about printing your photos, you can always look into a dedicated photo printer that uses up to 8 ink cartridges, including colours like light cyan and light magenta, to recreate the shades and tones you see on your screen.

What does this mean for your everyday printing? Not much really. The difference here comes into play only when you’re designing something to be printed (like a brochure or catalogue) or printing your photos. For office use, the difference doesn’t really matter.

If you’re still in doubt, you can always contact us and our technical support team will be able to help you out.

Nic Venter

About the author

Nic Venter+

 is the founder and director of He started the business in 2009 with the idea to sell ink and toner cartridges online and to provide you with a quality product, value for money and convenience. He regularly blogs on about printing and technology. Part of his philosophy is having fun and making sure that he and his team think everything ink, so you don't have to.

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