Color management guide by Arnaud Frich

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Updated on June 17, 2017

Color management with Photoshop

We will now see how to use all the menus dedicated to color management in Photoshop. They are actually not that many, and with a little practice, easy to integrate into your workflow.

In the second part of this Photoshop tutorial, I first wanted to show you the different menus and windows that provide the photographer to know where he stands in terms of color management for his images - Color information in Photoshop.
Now, in this tutorial dedicated to color management in Photoshop, it's time to study the different rules of color management in a workflow, distinguishing profile management when opening photos and during your work in Photoshop.



Color management when opening a file

When you open a new image, correctly set - color settings - Photoshop will read the color profile - ICC profile - or notice his absence, to understand how it should be displayed (Photoshop can clearly see the RGB values ​​of the picture, but as there is no ICC profile assigned, it does not know what Lab color it corresponds to). Depending on what it finds, Photoshop opens a different menu. This menu is quite surprising the first time you see it (what is Photoshop asking for ??). Three scenarios are possible:

  • The image does not have an ICC profile. So, Photoshop does not know from where the image is coming and how to correctly display the colors.
  • The image has an ICC profile, but different from the workspace.
  • The image has an ICC profile identical to the workspace. It is then directly and correctly displayed, without going through a menu. Nothing more to be said in that case !

No ICC profile

This case occurs less today because all our photos are tagged by our digital cameras. However, this can happen with images from Internet, your scanner or some software such as panoramic stitching software, some of which are suppressing the ICC profile from the images during the assembly process. The window that appears is then the following one :


Missing profile menu


1 - "Leave as is" : this menu is very interesting and informative, if I do not know at all where my image comes from. The software has indeed no reference to display colors correctly. Photoshop "sees" many RGB values ​​but has no idea on how to display them. It will display them using the workspace ! In the workspace, the RGB values read correspond to Lab colors, but not necessarily the right ones. As you know, a set of RGB values ​​can match several L*a*b* colors depending on the device or the workspace.
If you choose this option, it will be needed to indicate when opened in Photoshop the right profile, through the menu Edit/Assign profile... because there, you will see what you do with the preview window. Certainly we could do it immediatly with the third option "Assign Profile" but there is no preview window and you do not actually see what you're doing, which is not suitable as I do not know from where the picture is coming from. I prefer to choose the "Leave as is" option and then assign a profile using Edit/Assign profile - see below - to actually see what happens. This menu is useful to assign a profile to an image, that you do not know the origin - See illustrative photos below -.


Illustration in images ...

Illustration of display differences that can be observed simply by changing the profile options. The picture is coming from a digital camera and was developed in sRGB, but I did not record the ICC profile. Here is its appearance at the opening in Photoshop - using "Leave as is" -

Window of cathedral of Bourges without profile

The red color in particular are especially saturated because the RGB values ​​of the image are displayed in RGB Prophoto (my workspace), which is a much wider gamut, therefore contains much more saturated colors.
Here is the photo opened with its ICC profile !

Window of cathedral of Bourges wiith profile

Everything is in order and return to their natural color saturation ...

2 - "Assign working RGB" - This is the right solution if you know that the ICC profile of your photo is the one of your workspace. This was not the case here. This is the only case where you can choose it.

3 - "Assign profile / and then convert document to working RGB" : this will often be the menu of your choice, if you know where the picture comes from, from your scanner for example. you must then scroll the list of ICC profiles to choose the appropriate one.
For example, you developed your RAW files in a color space and your stitching software has deleted it. Then, simply select it from the list of ICC profile (the one you had BEFORE assembly). Your panorama will be then correctly displayed.
Another example : assume, this time, that your image comes from Internet. It was necessarily recorded in sRGB, but for weight file reason - nightmare on the Web ! - it is not tagged with its ICC Profile. The profile is missing. That said, it has been transformed - converted - to this color space. You can choose : Assign profile, and from the list pick sRGB and convert to the workspace or leave it as is, without conversion.

About "and then convert document to working RGB "

One can legitimately ask himself why convert to the workspace - Adobe RGB 98 RGB Prophoto, etc. - if the profile assigned is sRGB and that we will, after processing the image save for the web, thus sRGB ! It will have to be converted again ! In other words, starting from a small color space, we convert to a larger color space and then convert back to the first small color space ! What for ?
The answer lies in the difficulty of the work to be performed on this image. If there is not much to do, if you're not too fussy, if the colors of your photo are not too saturated arround primary colors, then leave your image in sRGB and work as is, without checking "and then convert ...". This saves you from having to convert twice.
If the image requires extensive and intensive treatments, it is best to perform them in the widest possible environment. While initially the image has much less nuances that the workspace can display - a converted sRGB image in ECI-RGB is displayed exactly the same way, but after modifications nothing tells you that the new colors to be displayed would not be out of sRGB color space, if you saturate certain colors for example. Only a larger color space would have the capacity to display the result of the treatment.
The work will be more subtle if you work your image - originally sRGB - in the workspace - ECI-RGB -. You will just have to remember to convert the image back to sRGB at the end of treatments, before saving for the Web or to convert to the profile of the printer for printing.

Finally, whatever your picture, if you want to work subtly, convert it to the workspace - if it is larger than the photo - after assigning the proper device ICC profile. If you want to save time in sRGB, uncheck.


The picture contains the same ICC profile than the workspace

If your image contains an ICC profile that is the same as your workspace, the image opens directly !

The photo contains an ICC profile but different from the workspace

If your image contains an ICC profile different from your working space, the following menu will open :


Embedded profile Mismatch


1 - "Use the embedded profile" : In this example, the tagged profile is sRGB. I took this example because it is almost the only case where it might be interesting to check this button. If you want to work with an image that you then save for the web, print to a printer that you know that this is the default profile, check this box. Indeed, the "workspace" of the Web is that famous sRGB profile, the smallest common denominator in the world. You'd better leave without converting this profile to the workspace - here Prophoto RGB - since it would then be converted back when saving. (unless the image requires extensive treatment and in that case you will prefer a larger workspace where there is more space !).
Generally, when an image has a smaller profile than the working space, choose this option. It is not because you convert it into a larger space that you "gain" colors !

2 - "Convert document's colors to the working space" : in general, it suits when the profile of the image is larger than the workspace, IF the profile is actually a color space and not a device profile like a scanner for example.
If the profile in the image is an ICC profile in the strict sense, therefore, the one of a device, you really have to choose this option to convert the ICC profile into a neutral color space.

Note ! when performing a conversion, you know that it can be done in two different ways, according to two different conversion modes : relative colorimetric or perceptual, but there, you have no option that allows you to choose between them. So it is performed according to the selected default mode in Photoshop color settings. That is why I only rarely choose this button.

3 - "Discard the embedded profile" : it is possible, perhaps for educational purposes !



Color management during your work in Photoshop

In the previous two paragraphs, we have seen that there could be different scenarios offered to the photographer who opens a new image in Photoshop. When the picture had no embedded profile and if you do not know where the picture comes from, we saw that it was better to wait until the image is therefore displayed on the screen to assign a profile, seeing what actually happens. So, I advised you to check: "Leave as is ". Let's now see how to assign a profile. I will not come back on the need to assign/tag a profile to an image - see ICC profiles - !

Assign an ICC profile

Assign a profile

As seen on the previous page - Photoshop color information and menus - after opening your photo that does not contain an ICC profile using the option "Leave as is", open the menu : Edit/Assign Profile to assign one using the preview window - on your calibrated screen ! So first, make sure the "Preview" box is checked ! Then click in the box : "Working RGB" or "Profile: ..." - search in the list the proper profile - and verify the image on the screen by checking/unchecking the "Preview" box. When it suits you click OK.

Thanks to this menu, the profile will be tagged/assigned to the image, like a Post-It. The original is conserved but a small tag, an ICC profile or a color space is glued on it in order to be read by Photoshop, the screen or any other device to correctly display colors. As long as you have not found the right ICC profile, your image will be more or less contrasted, more or less saturated according to the relative size of the "normal" color space of ​​your photo and the one you try to assign.

  • If the color space of your photo is bigger than the profile you try to assign, then the image will appear desaturated;
  • If the color space of your photo - still unknown at that step - is smaller than the color space you try to assign, then colors will be really "colorful". Demonstration !


Comparison between photo with 2 profiles : larger and more narrow


When you find the right ICC profile, your photo is displayed correctly ! Now, you will surely be willing to convert this photo to other color spaces - for the Web for example - or to other ICC profiles - for example your printer. Let's have a look at that ...

Convert to profile

I will not again repeat what a conversion and a conversion mode are like because we saw it on the page convert an image. This "convert to profile" option is often used for the treatment of pictures because it is the one that can "translate" the color (Lab) values ​​(RGB) of my image from one color space to another, so from one device to another, considering their color characteristics. The interest is to keep up to the maximum, the "true" colors of my original image after conversion.

Be careful ! conversion changes the RGB values ​​of the file. Yes, it is done in order to display or print a photo, but you will not deal anymore with your original. So, remember to save it before processing ...


If you forget to convert ...

Here is the illustration of the differences that can be observed simply by forgetting to convert from a wide color space and the famous sRGB.

Window of cathedral of Bourges with profile

The colors are normaly saturated in this picture which ICC profile is Prophoto RGB. I want now to send it to the Internet ...

Window of cathedral of Bourges without profile

... but I "forgot" to convert it to sRGB ! The colors are desaturated, blacks are washed out, etc ... A simple conversion would have allowed me to keep the same colors, even if the RGB values ​​would have been changed.

It would be the same if you were forgeting to convert your photo before printing it, even if this conversion is then made directly into a special menu in File/Print ... and not in Edit/Convert to Profile.

Convert to profile menu


To open it, go to Edit/Convert to Profile in Photoshop. As shown on the previous page, we see the Source space and you can of course choose the Destination space. Once selected, choose the conversion mode you wish to use, Relative colorimetric or Perceptual. By checking/unchecking alternatively the "Preview" box, you will get a good idea of ​​the ideal conversion mode. However, much will depend on your monitor and the nature of your photos. The higher quality your screen is - wide gamut, display accuracy, calibration - the easier you will see the effects of the conversion on your picture ... If of course it contains enough saturated colors. It is often forgotten but if you shoot pastel colors, it will be almost impossible to see the difference, whatever the gamut of your screen !

If we just talk about one of the cases where it is needed to convert through this menu, to prepare the photos before they are posted to the internet, there is also a second very common case : printing. There are two scenarios :

  • You print with your own inkjet printer, which is comparable to an RGB device, even if it works in CMYK. Do not convert your photo here. Everything will be done in "File/Print ..." of Photoshop. The conversion options, the destination profile choice are all grouped there. We will study that case in the last page of this tutorial - Print with Photoshop Suivre
  • You have your photos printed by a distance provider and your lab send you its printing profile according to the paper you hace chosen. You have to perform the conversion now in Photoshop, thanks to that menu "Convert to profile".

Remember !

Activate color management in Photoshop ! This is essential and weird. It is not enabled by default. To do this, go to Edit/Color Settings.

Your workspace SHOULD NOT BE your screen profile. If you do not know what to choose, then select the sRGB color space .

Take the time to learn how to assign a profile and to convert an image. This is needed once your screen has been calibrated.

To complete this series of articles on color management with Photoshop, I chose to talk specifically about printing in Photoshop. This is the ultimate goal of the photographer. Thanks again to the calibration of the whole color workflow, to a good ICC printer profile perfectly adjusted to your device and to the proper use of this software, it will be "almost" a cinch. But in this world, nothing is perfect, in fact, not even printing in those favorable conditions ! - Print with Photoshop Suivre


Next page 4/4 : print with Photoshop Suivre







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