[Click on pictures to view different sizes.]
I got my first camera around 1985 or so. It was second-hand Fujica 35mm with a 50mm lens that I purchased for $110. I ran a lot of film through that camera, and used it constantly through all of high school and university, going so far as to process my own film, do my own prints, and work as the photo editor for the school paper. I finally replaced my old Fujica with a second-hand Nikon FM2n (and a handful of used prime lenses) in 1997 or 1998. Since then, of course, I’ve been a digital camera junkie, starting with a 1 megapixel Kodak DC240, then moving up through a host of various Nikon and Canon point-and-shoots until finally scraping together the cash for a proper DSLR, the Nikon D70s. I’ve upgraded once since then to the Nikon D80, and I think this is all the camera I need until Nikon puts out a reasonably priced full-frame sensor model. In short, I’m a bit of a photography enthusiast.
One thing that has always irritated me about looking at pictures on the web is that browsers don’t seem to display photographs properly. And by “photographs” I really mean “colors”. I spend a lot of time tweaking pictures in Photoshop, but when I upload them to my Flickr account and look at them in Firefox 2 the colors aren’t the same — they’re more washed out, dull, and lifeless. It’s a subtle thing, but annoying nonetheless.
Here’s an example of what I mean. The following is a split-photo created from two screenshots — one of my Flickr photos displayed in Firefox 2, and the same photo displayed in Photoshop:
It turns out that these differences are because of something called “color profile support”. Firefox 2 does not include support for color profiles, so the browser renders colors as best it can without doing special tweaks based on your system or custom color profiles.
The good news is that Firefox 3 does include full support for color profiles. The bad news is that color profile support will be turned off by default when Firefox 3 ships. I’ll explain why this is the case a little later.
Here’s a three-split photograph created using screenshots of another of my Flickr photos in Firefox 2, Firefox 3 (with color profile support enabled), and Photoshop. As you can see, the Firefox 3 photo matches the Photoshop photo exactly. This is happy news for photographers.
There are two ways to turn on color profile support in Firefox 3. The easiest is to install the Color Management add-on (which will work with Firefox 3 Beta 5). After you install the add-on and restart Firefox 3, color profile support is enabled, and you can specify a custom color profile by going to the Tools menu, selecting “Add-ons”, and clicking the Color Management add-on “Preferences” button. If you do not specify a color profile, the system default profile will be used, which should be OK for most people.
The second way to turn on color profile support is through the about:config page, which is a special page where a huge number of different (and usually hidden) Firefox options can be tweaked. This is not a recommended method for most people — about:config options should only be edited if you are very aware of what you’re doing. That said, if you do want to edit the options there, they are gfx.color_management.enabled and gfx.color_management.display_profile. For more about editing about:config, see the SUMO knowledgebase article, or the more detailed (if slightly out of date) content over on MozillaZine.
Here’s another example photo, this time just Firefox 2 compared to Firefox 3 with color profile support enabled:
Why wouldn’t you want it turned on?
So, if color profile support is so awesome (and it really is, in my opinion), why won’t it be on by default for Firefox 3? There are two main reasons.
First, color profile support causes a roughly 10-15% performance hit in many of our performance tests. If the images that you’re viewing are of a reasonable size, that’s probably negligible. If they’re large, it could be noticeable. We’re working on improving the performance of this feature so that we can turn it on by default in future releases.
Second, plugins do not currently support color profiles. What this means is if a plugin has been color-matched precisely with other parts of the page, it may no longer match when color profile support is turned on. As an example, here are two screenshots of a plugin displayed on the GuildWars game website, Firefox 2 on the left, and Firefox 3 (with color profile support enabled) on the right. You’ll notice that the background grey on the Firefox 3 screenshot is a lot darker, so the corners and bottom of the plugin no longer match it exactly. This is caused by color profile support being enabled — if disabled, Firefox 3 renders the background grey exactly the same way as Firefox 2.
So, there are currently some trade offs involved with enabling color profile support, and the Firefox 3 developers have opted to leave it disabled by default for the time being. That said, I have been using Firefox 3 with color profile support enabled for months and have never encountered any noticeable performance impact. It is likely that a future version of Firefox will see this feature enabled by default, which will be a happy day as everyone will then be able to see photographs on the web as they were meant to be seen. There will be great rejoicing.
For more examples of Firefox 2 vs. Firefox 3 (with color profile support enabled) screenshots, check out my Flickr set.