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Color settings in Photoshop


Color settings in Photoshop

Published on April 15, 2011  |  Updated on Ocotber 31, 2019


As curious as it may seem when you look at color management, you can see that it is not fully enabled in Photoshop by default, even in its latest version CC 2019. In a way this is understandable but it also means that you absolutely must set your color settings if you want to optimize your workflow and keep the beautiful colors of your photos.

A good Photoshop setup is useless without calibrating the graphics chain but neither is the reverse ! Good color management is only possible after the right color settings in Photoshop, a good understanding of working spaces or color spaces, and finally a good use of ICC profile conversion or assignment tools. This is what we will see in these Photoshop tutorials.
While many photo editing or photo catalog management software such as Lightroom can manage colors now, they are not all equal in the quality of the conversions they are able to perform. Color management does not necessarily mean a good color conversion !

Before going any further in these Photoshop tutorials, I invite you to read, if you haven't already done so, the first two parts of this file on color management - The basics of color suivre and Calibrate your monitor  - because they already explain some very important concepts and vocabulary for a good understanding of color management in Photoshop. This image editing software is an extremely powerful tool to manage the colors of an image since version CS6, so for more than ten years. In its current version, the nineteenth, the conversion engines - CMM - have been further improved. The tools available to the photographer for excellent color management are very numerous and this is what I will try to show you now.



What screen profile does Photoshop use? (Advice for those who use multiple screens)

The first thing to do is to check that Photoshop uses the ICC profile of the monitor on which you are working with your images if you are working with at least two monitors. As with the rest of this page, this verification is done in Photoshop's "Color Settings". To do this, go to the menu: "Edit > Colors". Here is the menu that appears :

Color Settings of Photoshop : choice of working space
  For effective color management, it is essential to use Photoshop's color settings menu! Here, Photoshop CC 2019 menu.


If Photoshop sends the RGB information of your photos to the graphics card, it must be converted into new R'V'B' values to take into account the defects of the main screen on which you are editing your photos, thanks to the reading of the ICC profile of your photos... Of course, if you calibrated it ! If this is not the case, your computer will use the generic ICC profile on your screen. This is not ideal, however....

When you calibrate your display, the ICC profile created will be used by Photoshop to correctly display the colors of your images, taking into account the defects of your image. Indeed, you want to work on a particular color (so L*a*b*) and Photoshop must know what correction it must make to the RGB values it reads and that it must send to the graphics card so that this color is displayed correctly taking into account the defects of your (main) screen. All this is done on the fly without any further intervention on your part. We will therefore immediately check that Photoshop is using this ICC profile, the one we just created.


Three important remarks !

No. 1 - There is no specific menu for this verification. We will therefore use Photoshop's RGB color space menu even if it is confusing and counter-intuitive.

N°2 - Second, this check is only useful for those who work on two screens, from a laptop for example (Calibrate a laptop ). Indeed, laptops do not know how to manage two ICC profiles at the same time, so either your laptop screen will display the colors correctly or the other (secondary) will be in trouble because your computer will automatically assign the same ICC profile to it. Obviously, it will not work as well!

N°3 - This implies that you must absolutely choose which monitor will be the main one on which you will retouch your images because you will not have to move the main Photoshop window on your secondary monitors !


1) - Since, as we have just seen, there is no dedicated menu to check the monitor profile, it is necessary to go to the "Working spaces > RGB" menu of the "Menu > Edit > Colors" window (figure below).

Choosing the color working space in Photoshop

2) - Then scroll this "RGB" menu up - even if it doesn't seem "logical" - to the "RGB Monitor" line. It is located just above the group "Adobe RGB / Apple RGB / etc.

  RGB monitor check in Photoshop

Next to this line "RGB monitor - ..." must be the last profile of the monitor you have created. If you have not calibrated your monitor, it will be the one you have imposed on your operating system and at worst the one it imposes on you because of the generic profile of your monitor. If this is the case, it means that Photoshop uses your ICC monitor profile on the fly to correctly display the "right" colors on your monitor.

3) - CAUTION ! DO NOT CLICK ON THIS PROFILE, BECAUSE, THEN PHOTOSHOP WILL USE THIS PROFILE AS RGB COLOUR SPACE BY FAULT - This is why it is not very logical or practical to use this menu to do this check - even if, as we will see below, it will not be as serious as that but it is not what we are trying to do here. Therefore, DO NOT CLICK ON NOTHING ABOUT THIS OR THEN ON ANY OF THE RGB SPACES BELOW AS THE sRGB, for example. All this is detailed below.


Working spaces (RGB, CMYK, etc.)

ESSENTIAL ! What is a working space ? By definition it is the one of the image that comes out of our box, our smartphone if it is a JPG image or the one we will have chosen if we work in RAW format.

Working space = "Color space automatically assigned to an image by Photoshop IF AND ONLY IF the image does not have an integrated ICC profile when opened AND IF Photoshop color management is not fully enabled". That's a lot of ifs and it's a little long so it's become "Working space", which, however, can in my opinion be confusing.

So when your images have an ICC profile (or more precisely a color space) then the Photoshop working space IS STRICTLY NOT IMPORTANT. IT IS THE COLOR SPACE OF YOUR IMAGE THAT MATTERS. So, if you develop a RAW file in ProPhoto for example and your working space is the sRGB, you will work on your photo in... ProPhoto. That's right !

But then why does Photoshop absolutely want to assign a color space to an image that doesn't have one ? Because without a color space, Photoshop does not know which L*a*b* color the RGB values in its file refer to. This is the foundation of color management that we have studied on my pages dedicated to the color basics. So Photoshop will "force" the allocation of a color space even if it is not the right one. And that's why he chose the famous default sRGB because as it's the most common, the probabilities that it will just fall are higher.

When your images already have a color space then the Photoshop working space is absolutely useless !!!

A brief historical note  -To understand why this is so, we have to go back in time - thirty years ago - when Photoshop 1.0 was released because at that time the APN did not exist and the files that the retouchers were retouching came from scans... which cannot assign an ICC profile to their files by definition. The color space of Photoshop had better be that of the scanner to increase productivity.

So don't confuse the color space of your images with the Photoshop working space. I explain in what follows how, then, to choose your working space...

1 - Choosing the Photoshop RGB working space

We have just seen in the previous paragraph that the term "working space" was not appropriate today in the vast majority of cases, but we still have an interest in choosing it well to make our workflow more fluid. Here is my advice...

Choosing the RGB Work Space in Photoshop
  To help you choose it anyway, I imagined this scenario: color management is enabled in my Photoshop and I'm trying to open an image that I downloaded from the Internet, so as often, without an ICC profile. The famous "Missing Profile" menu opens and asks me which ICC Profile I want to assign to this image of unknown origin so that it can be displayed, "at all costs", even if its display is not correct. In order to save time, I choose as always in these cases the sRGB color space, very common on the Internet. Well, to save even more time, I chose sRGB as my working space and can therefore select "working space profile" because I don't have a menu to pull down to get the sRGB space. Lazy as I am ! I explain all this in detail on a page dedicated to the RGB working space of Photoshop and our images. 

The famous sRGB: is it really too small ?!

sRGB color space and Adobe RGBInternational space, the RGB Standard - sRGB - is the smallest common color space "inter-monitor". Normally, any display that leaves the factory today in the world is able to display this color space. That's the lowest common denominator ! That's why it reigns over the Internet. Web images must therefore be converted to sRGB before being broadcast (especially because of the tablets that still do not support colors in 2019). If you have a non-professional digital camera this will also be the default case. With these devices you will rarely have any other choice. I am sure that at least 80/90% of the colours we photograph in everyday life are contained in the sRGB !!! For these photos, the Adobe RGB is useless.


In the second part of this folder - Managing colors with Photoshop - I will explain why this space is often installed by default, instead of Adobe RGB and why it often seems to work better, paradoxically.

2 - The CMYK working space

As with the RGB working space, it only makes sense if you do not enable color management and if a CMYK image has no profile. In other cases, you will choose it when you open each image.
We can add that the CMYK working space only concerns people who print on offset printers and does not concern photographers who print with an inkjet printer or who have their photos printed by external laboratories such as Frontier or Durst Lambda. Inkjet printers work with inks so in CMYK but the processed files must be RGB files that their own conversion engines will convert. Unless you install a RIP, inkjet printers work "like" an RGB camera in the same way as a flatbed scanner or digital camera.

My advice to choose the CMYK working space - In Europe, I would be tempted to use the ECI-RGB V2 but I really don't see under any circumstances you would find yourself opening a CMYK photo without a profile that should open in the Photoshop working space...



And other color settings...

After choosing the right working space, you still need to enable Photoshop color management, which is only partially enabled by default !

3 - Color management rules

Photoshop color management rules

In any case, to fully enable color management, you must choose : "Keep embedded profiles" which is now selected by default in recent versions of Photoshop and check the three boxes below to have the choice of profiles when opening files or saving. This is the only way to know where you stand and to be able to decide at each step of the image transformation which profile to adopt. We will see this in detail on the page managing colors with Photoshop 

Attention! Under no circumstances should you tick "disable" because it disables color management in Photoshop.

4 - Conversion options or rendering mode (intent)

Choosing conversion options in Photoshop

As conversion engine, it is absolutely necessary to choose: "Adobe ACE Engine", much better than the CMM of Microsoft ICM. It is based on Heidelberg technology. It is this engine that will decide, according to rules called Conversion Mode or Intent - four in total but two useful for the photographer - and taking into account the information contained in the ICC profile of the source image, how the RGB values of an image should be transformed when they move from one space to another, especially if the arrival space is smaller than the original space. As a reminder, this means that the destination space is normally unable to reproduce this color but that the engine must strive to maintain the same L*a*b* color - perceived color -. This is a very delicate work if we want to keep the same perceptual aspect to the image once it has been converted and therefore often printed. It can only be done by the best conversion engine. Finally, note that this engine also makes the difference with other photo editing software, cheaper or free.

The conversion process and the differences between the colorimetric rendering modes have been studied on a dedicated page. On this page, I will just explain why I choose "Relative colorimetric" by default. In my experience, it is indeed the one I use most often by default, even if the "Perceptual" rendering mode, called photographic, would be more "logical". Logic that I personally contest, moreover, because it is no more logical than the relative one. When you work with normally saturated photos - so most of the time ! - In any case, the original file rarely contains colo rs outside the printing range all the time, even in sRGB. The advantage of the relative rendering mode, I repeat, is that it preserves all the colors of the source file without transformation since they are contained in the destination gamut, after conversion. As we can in any case choose the mode of perceptual rendering when we perform a conversion, it doesn't really matter much in the end !

My advice ! After having chosen Perceptual mode for a long time, I have change my mind and I now choose the default Relative colorimetric mode because it fits most of the time when I want to work quickly. But let's be clear, when I print I always check BEFORE printing, using Proof setup of Photoshop, detailed on the page Printing with Photoshop which rendering mode is the best for each case.
But since I usually work with colors that are not especially saturated, the Relative But as I usually work with colors that are not especially saturated, the Relative mode is most often better suited.

Finally, leave the last two boxes ticked : black point compensation and simulation.

In the second part of this tutorial on Photoshop and color management, I will try to "desacralize" the famous Photoshop working space and explain how to choose it - Which color space to choose in Photoshop ?


To be remembered !

Setting Photoshop color preferences is important if you want to manage colors correctly. 

 First, make sure that Photoshop uses your screen profile to display colors correctly in this software, especially if you are working on a secondary screen from your laptop. This will however not be your working space !

 Whether or not you enable Photoshop color management, choose sRGB as your working space (with exceptions explained on the dedicated page). It is only used for photos that open without an ICC profile or they often come from the Internet so they are often in sRGB AND if you have not enabled color management in Photoshop. In all other cases, the Photoshop working space actually becomes your image working space! The correct choice of the image Working space is studied in the " section "Managing colors with Photoshop"and "Choosing your working space in Photoshop".

 Enable Photoshop color management : choose the color management settings : "Keep embedded profiles" and...

 Tick the 3 buttons: "Choice when opening", "Choice when gluing" or "Choice when opening".

 Choose the ACE conversion engine. It is the most powerful Adobe color conversion engine.

Choose by default the RELATIVE conversion mode. You will then have the opportunity to check on a case-by-case basis whether this is the most appropriate but by default it is often the most practical and best suited in my opinion.

 Then leave the other three boxes underneath checked.

Through these 5 pages I will share with you all my advice to manage the colors of your photos in Photoshop...  
- Color settings in Photoshop
  - What screen profile does Photoshop use ?
- The RGB and CMYK color spaces
- Other color preferences
- To be remembered...

- Choosing your working space in Photoshop
- Color informations in Photoshop
- Color management in Photoshop
- Printing with Photoshop


- My 35 monitor reviews!
- How to choose your monitor ?
- How to calibrate your monitor ?


Calibrate your monitor with the best
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Calibrate your photo printer with the
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