Why photos look bad in Firefox 3.5 (or: one reason why the web sucks)
Have you ever noticed how garish and over-saturated colours in photos appear when viewed in Firefox 3.5 compared to Photoshop, even on a calibrated monitor and with an appropriate ICC colour profile?
If you haven’t detected this before, take a look now. If you’re lucky enough to have a wide-gamut display (modern wide-gamut monitors can display all the colours in the Adobe RGB colour space while standard screens barely cope with the SRGB space), this problem will be even more evident.
Congratulations! You’ve stumbled across one of the thorny, unspoken issues of the web: colour management in browsers. Some browsers do it, other browser don’t. This specific issue exists because there are two types of ICC profiles, V2 and V4 (all you need to know is that V4 profiles are more accurate; refer to this International Colour Consortium document for the technical specifics).
The trouble is:
- Firefox 3.0 and Safari understand ICC V2 and V4 profiles.
- Firefox 3.5 introduced a new colour management system which no longer understands ICC V4 profiles (great job guys).
- Internet Explorer 8 and Google Chrome don’t understand colour profiles at all!
The browser uses colour profiles in two locations:
- Your system colour profile in MacOS or Windows (created by your display calibration software).
- The profile embedded within each image (embedded by the retoucher in Photoshop).
The browser must able to understand both these profiles in order for the image to be rendered correctly.
To complicate things, note that:
- Most modern display calibration software will generate ICC V4 system profiles by default.
- The standard SRGB and Adobe RGB profiles that ship with Photoshop are V2.
The following table summarises the colour management characteristics of each browser:
In my case, what was happening was that while my images contained a V2 profile, my display calibration software generated a V4 system profile which Firefox 3.5 was unable to recognise.
So assuming you have a calibrated display (and if you don’t, you might as well give up photography), you really have only three options when it comes to viewing images correctly on the web:
- Just use Safari
- Downgrade your browser to Firefox 3.0 (not really recommended)
- If this functionality is supported, force your display calibration software to generate an ICC V2 system profile, use Firefox 3.5 and hope that no one embeds ICC V4 profiles in their images
This appalling state of affairs will hopefully improve over time as browsers are updated or re-written. Till then, this International Color Consortium page can be used to determine if your browser correctly supports ICC V4 profiles.
Of course, none of this matters if the photographer (or more correctly, the retoucher) has problems perceiving colours in the first place. Try out this hue perception test. How did you do? Don’t worry dear reader, there’s still time to get out of this pesky photography gig!