How to Optimize Color Settings in Photoshop

I’m not going to sugar coat it, color management is intimidating. I read 10+ books on the inner workings of ICC profiles last year and I still wouldn’t claim to fully get it. But if you want your images to look great and consistent on your monitor, the computer you buy next year, printed on your wall, and anywhere you show it on the internet – it’s something you need to get right. One of the foundations for that in Photoshop is the “Color Settings” dialog, and in this tutorial you’ll learn what the various settings are and how to set them to help ensure your photos look the way you intend.

Hear Jeff Harmon and I discuss this tutorial and the basics of color management on the Master Photography podcast.

What are working spaces and profiles?

First, a quick background on ICC profiles. The pixels in your images are saved as red, green, and blue (RGB) values from 0-255. But 255 what? Even your computer does not know. It would be like trying to bake a cake with half a recipe that called for 2 sugars. 2 cubes? 2 teaspoons? 2 cups? ICC profiles are meant to help resolve that ambiguity so that a pixel with an RGB value of 255, 130, 194 would look the same on your computer as it would on someone else’s phone when they see your image on Facebook.

We could spend weeks discussing how ICC profiles work, how to make them, and so on. But there are really only a handful of critical things every photographer needs to know:

  • For color management to work, you need an ICC profile embedded in your image. This ensures that your file accurately describes the color in the image. This is typically sRGB, Adobe RGB, or ProPhoto RGB. However, there are other good general purpose “working spaces” (which means they are a standard, but not based on any specific device). If it is missing (“untagged”), the computer has to guess (we’ll get to this below). When working with an untagged image, Photoshop will add a “#” indicator next to the bit depth in the file name (unless you have set the color management policy below to “off”).
  • You should open your image the first time with your preferred color profile and then avoid converting the profile in your working file. Any conversion may cause a loss of quality (and converting from a small gamut to a large gamut won’t bring back lost color). There are only a few cases where I convert profiles. The first is when outputting an image to the web or for print. I always do this on a duplicate copy, never my original working file. The other (which is rare and I try to avoid) is when combining images that were created with different RGB profiles, as all layers in an image must ultimately use the same profile (more on pasting with different profiles below). You can get deep in the details to consider all the options, but Adobe RGB is a safe and very good choice to use from start to finish in your working files. The settings below will help you avoid unwanted conversions.
  • You also need an ICC profile for your monitor or printer. This ensures that your output device accurately displays the color described in the file. You’ll need a profiling device such as the X-Rite i1Studio to do this. This is a very deep topic that we won’t cover here, but it needs to be done in addition to the other color management choices discussed here. Using the analogy above, skipping this would be like knowing the recipe calls for 2 teaspons of sugar, but you just use some random spoon in the kitchen to get close enough.

The color settings dialog (Edit / Color Settings) in Photoshop refers to ICC profiles in a few different ways:

  • The “color management” section describes what to do about “embedded profiles”, which refers to saving the ICC profile with your document. Without an embedded profile, you are back to the “2 sugars” scenario above and Photoshop will just guess what to do when it opens the file, which will likely lead to some disastrous results. Photographs should always include an embedded profile.
  • “Working spaces” are the ICC profiles that Photoshop will assume when there is ambiguity, such as not having a profile saved with the image.
  • “Conversion options” tells Photoshop how to manage conversion from one profile to another. While you should avoid converting the profile in your working document, you will likely need to convert copies of it for output to the print or web, so these are important.
  • The “advanced controls” section includes a bunch of random options that you should leave alone, but we’ll cover them below as well.


Optimal “Color Settings” values in Photoshop

If you are using Lumenzia, just use the “optimize” utility and it will take care of most of these settings for you automatically. Just go to the flyout menu (top-right three bars icon) and click on Utilities / Optimize. (Note: CS6 users should <ctrl/cmd>-click the Tutorials button to get to the utilities menu).

The settings dropdown at top allows you to choose from some standard defaults. Leave this alone to set things as recommended below.

Working spaces:

  • RGB Working Space:
    • This setting is only used when there is ambiguity. If you open your image in Adobe RGB, there is no ambiguity and this working space setting is ignored. So assuming you are using embedded profiles, there are only a couple of places where this setting matters.
    • One is when opening untagged images (which is common when working with images that came from a scanner or the internet). If you check the option below to warn when opening images with missing profiles, you won’t have any problems and will be prompted with options when you open the image.
    • The other is if you use the Image / Mode menu to convert between RGB and LAB, because this menu option does not specify which RGB profile to use. I recommend you never use that and instead use Edit / Convert to Profile so that you can choose your preferred RGB profile.
    • If you use LAB a lot and have a habit of using the Image / Mode command, you may wish to set the working RGB to match the embedded profile you use when opening your images (ie probably Adobe RGB or ProPhoto). This would avoid accidental loss of color that could occur by converting to sRGB. This is also safe with untagged images if you enable the warning for missing profiles as recommended below.
    • If you use a scanner which does not embed profiles and you have created one, you may wish to set it as your working profile to make it easy to assign it to these untagged images as you open them.
    • Otherwise, setting this to sRGB is probably ideal. That will give you faster access to choose it when opening an untagged image (rather than scrolling through a list if it wasn’t the last one you used). And if you work with a lot of untagged images which you assume will always be in sRGB, you could then turn off the missing profiles warning below to have these images automatically treated as sRGB and avoid getting prompted over and over.
    • Do not set this to “Monitor RGB” (this will disable color management). You should also not set it to any custom profile you have created, these are not good choices for your working files. If you need to use other spaces for output, duplicate your file and use Edit / Convert to Profile to convert that one-off file.
  • CMYK working space: Unless you work on files in the CMYK workspace, this probably has no effect on your work at all. Regardless, leave it at the default unless you have a good reason to change it.
  • Gray working space:
    • As I described in a previous tutorial, this setting can significantly affect the quality of luminosity masks. However, there is no good general setting that you can just set and forget. It should be matched based upon the active (embedded) RGB profile in each document. Lumenzia automatically optimizes this for you on the fly for each image. If you are not using Lumenzia, see that older tutorial for suggestions on the best alternative approach.
    • Beyond luminosity masks, I strongly recommend you do never use the grayscale working space for photography. The only benefit is smaller TIF files. RGB mode is equally capable of producing the same black and white images. More importantly, there are numerous tools and filters which are only available in RGB mode (including non-destructive options to control the conversion from color to black and white). Additionally, great black and white images often have a slight color tint added to them.
  • Spot working space: It is very unlikely that you work on files in the spot workspace. Leave it at the default unless you have a good reason to change it.

Color Management Policies:

  • RGB, CMYK, and Gray should all be set to “preserve embedded profiles“.  Using “off” creates those disastrous scenarios covered above.
    • Specifically, it causes new documents to have no profile and strips the profile when opening a file that has a profile different from the working space (it will leave an embedded profile alone if it happens to match the working space).
    • And we should avoid conversions in general, so the third option to convert to the working space should also be avoided.
    • Note that if you are unable to to change this value, make sure your RGB working space is not set to “Monitor RGB” as this automatically forces the RGB policy to off.
  • Profile Mismatches / Ask When Opening” should be left unchecked. This will warn you when opening an image with an embedded profile which is not the same as the working RGB. Since we wish to avoid conversions, just stick with the embedded profile.
  • Profile Mismatches / Ask When Pasting” should probably be left unchecked. This serves as a helpful reminder that you haven’t been consistently using the same profile, but the right answer is almost always to convert and that’s what will be done if this is left unchecked.
  • Missing Profiles / Ask When Opening” should be checked. Missing profiles are a serious issue and checking this box will both warn you and give you a chance to fix the problem.

Conversion Options:

  • Engine should be left as Adobe (ACE). This is an excellent choice and consistent between Mac and PC.
  • Intent should be set to “relative colorimetric“. This is most often the best choice, and you can use “perceptual” as needed by using Edit / Convert to Profile to control the process when you need that instead. (Note: photographers should generally not use absolute colorimetric other than for some advanced hard proofing scenarios, and I cannot think of a good reason to use saturation for photography).
  • Use Black Point Compensation” should be left checked for best results (to avoid light/muddy shadows).
  • “Use Dither” should probably be checked. This adds a slight bit of noise when converting to 8-bits to help disguise any possible banding. You can also control this on the fly by using Edit / Convert to Profile if you need to make a different choice once in a while.
  • “Compensate for Scene-referred Profiles” should be left checked. It is intended for those using Photoshop as part of their video work, so it probably does affect you.

Advanced Controls:

  • Desaturate monitor colors” should be left unchecked as it is deliberately causing your monitor to deviate from an accurate profile. The potential benefit here is to help visualize colors so strong that they are outside the gamut of your monitor. This is not what I would consider a precise nor highly useful tool.
  • Blend RGB Colors Using Gamma” should be left unchecked. Setting this to 1 actually creates better blends of color. For example, paint red at 50% opacity over solid green. The default behavior will be dark where red and green mix, whereas a gamma of 1 will show the preferred yellow. While I would like to use this more “colorimetricly” correct approach, it only makes sense to do so as a setting in the document, not across Photoshop in general. If you change this behavior, then you are likely to see some potentially significant changes in the appearance of your layered documents. And if you share files with others or do not consistently use this setting going forward, your images may not appear as intended. In the end, this doesn’t provide a lot of value for the kinds of colors we actually mix in photography so leaving it off is fine and preferable since changing it may cause unexpected changes.
  • Blend Text Colors Using Gamma” should be left checked and set to the default 1.45. The idea here is similar to the previous setting, but just affects text. If you change it, you’ll likely see changes in the edge detail of your text layers. The default is fine, and the concerns for unexpected changes are the same.




Greg Benz Photography