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Retoucher’s workspace: brass tacks

Your environment is important. Avoid daylight like a thief; a room with neutral-colored walls and no windows is preferable. If you can’t avoid windows, get blackout window shades. Lighting sources in your working room matter, too: make sure the light is not bluish or yellow and nothing shines directly on your monitor. Your monitor should not be your grandmother’s or the cheapest on the market. Getting the most expensive is not necessary either. Choose wisely: a good monitor will more likely to show you decent images in terms of colors and tones properly and won’t require to be calibrated every two weeks. A good monitor never calibrated is better than a bad one even if it's calibrated every week. Get yourself a colorimeter, and try to avoid organic filters when you pick one. The word “pro” in a colorimeter name doesn’t mean it’s expensive or can only be used by professionals. When you calibrate your monitor, make sure you deal not just with the RGB channels, but contrast and brightness as well. Cheaper colorimeters can’t calibrate contrast on most laptops, and this is bad, so make sure you pick the right one if you work with a laptop. Laptops with cheap IPS panels might give you lots of banding if you try to lower contrast, so beware. You can calibrate an image to appear “right” on one printing device, but you can’t calibrate images so that all the people will see the colors and tones the same way you do. Other people’s monitors and other devices (cell phones, laptops, tablets etc) will show different colors and tones of the same image, you just live with it as you can’t change this fact.

Now, pay attention, as I'm going to say the most important thing: there’s no such thing as “right” or “correct” color, as any color is merely a feeling. You see colors as your brain interprets them, not as your monitor shows them. Different internet browsers might show different colors depending on their color management systems (which they can have or not) and image profiles (which they can recognize or omit). If you retouch for the web, sRGB is the right profile to use for all your jpegs.

You see, there’s a lot of statements, and if I have to write why each of them is true, it might take quite a while. And I know that many people don’t really pay much attention to the things I’ve mentioned. You might ask: “So if I have a really expensive professional monitor, can’t I just skip this part? Am I not getting proper images?”. Well, the answer is yes and no. It’s true that a very expensive professional monitor will probably get you good images even if you use factory settings, and it doesn’t require much calibration and setup. But when you ask me if some knowledge is not necessary or not, I can only say one thing: “The more you know, the better. When your desire to learn ceases, you die”. So if you want to hear something like: “Sure, you don't need that. Don't bother learning”, you should probably ask someone else.

I would encourage you again to search and read articles on the matter so that you would be able to answer all the questions, but it this particular situation it's not such a good idea. Why is that? You can't imagine how controversial this subject is, and there are many people that would eagerly tell you how exactly you should set up your Photoshop. The problem is – what they say might be true or it might be a load of rubbish. But how can you know what's right and what's wrong if everyone claims to be a professional? Other people follow the advice and they end up not just working with wrong settings, they also think they have all the color management problems dealt with. So I'll try to prevent that from happening.

There’s some absolutely vital knowledge, and I will explain which color settings you have to stick to in Photoshop and how to determine if there’s something off with your monitor. But you'll have to trust me on that because I don't have the time to neither convince you of my outstanding professionalism or explain everything in detail to prove it. But when we finish this chapter, you’ll have enough information to decide if you need a new monitor or a colorimeter. Or maybe you need to work in a different room or stop wearing red clothes, or maybe everything’s fine and you’re already doing great. Just keep on reading, and sorry – there's a lot of technical stuff and almost no images in the following articles. My readability plug-in is already mad at me.

Color and tone perception tests

It’s very important to know if you are able to see enough colors and tones on the monitor you work with. So let’s run some basic tests that will help to determine if everything’s fine or not. You don’t need any fancy gadgets to do so, just Photoshop. Let’s see if you can see details in the darkest and the brightest areas.

There's a gray rectangle here. Can you see it?

The images on this page are just sample images I've made myself. You have to make your own to make sure you're seeing things right. Create a new document, and choose your monitor resolution as its size in pixels. The easiest way to do so is to press the Print Screen button on your keyboard, then press Ctrl-N in Photoshop to create a new document. It will automatically offer you to create an image of the same size as your monitor. Fill the background with white if it’s not white already, then use the Rectangular Marquee Tool to draw a rectangle in the middle of the image and fill it with a color that is just a bit darker, like 252:252:252 in RGB. Now remove the selection, make the image scale 100% and switch to Fullscreen by pressing F. Have a look: can you see the rectangle, or does the image look totally white? If you see it, that’s good. If not, well, that means you can’t see much detail in the bright areas. This might lead to problems when retouching white objects and clothes: you will probably make them darker than necessary, otherwise, you just won’t be able to see anything.

There's a gray rectangle here as well. Can you see it?

Now let’s repeat the process, this time we’re interested in black and the darkest gray. Fill the canvas with black and make a dark gray rectangle in the center. Pick a very dark color, like 3:3:3. Can you actually see it? If yes, well, congratulations. I know a lot of monitors and laptops that will not show any difference between colors that dark. If you can’t see any difference between 0:0:0 and 3:3:3 or 4:4:4 – you’re in a bit of trouble. You might make your images less contrasted, especially in the shadows, and you might make black objects look gray, otherwise, you’ll perceive them as too dark. This happens a lot with gaming laptops, and I know a lot of retouchers use gaming laptops because of their great performance and cheap IPS panels. I use one, too, when I'm on the go.

This gradient is not so perfect. Make your own!

The third test requires you to make a gradient. Reset the foreground and background colors to black and white by pressing D, pick the Gradient Tool and drag a line from the upper left corner of the image to the lower right. Once again, you have to see it in Fullscreen mode and the image scale should be 100%. Now I don’t know what exactly you see there, but I can tell you what a good image looks like. Examine the gradient. Is it black and white or does it have any color tint, does it look bluish or a bit pink, or green? If it looks colored, even a little bit, it means your monitor’s white balance is off, and that’s bad. If your screen has a greenish tint, you’ll color correct images with too much magenta as a result. If it has a blue tint, your images will probably be reddish after your correction, and vice versa. You might think that the images are bluish, and they might be, but the tint your monitor creates doesn’t exist in the images, and you will most probably make them look worse without even realizing that.

Yet before you jump to conclusions, make sure you’re not wearing a bright colored t-shirt, because it can get reflected in your monitor and alter your color perception. Same with colored walls and other colored things around you. If you’re color correcting, it’s a good idea to avoid any colored objects, no matter if you’re looking at them or they are around you, or it’s the way you are dressed. It might not be evident, but looking at colored objects might and will alter the way how you perceive colors, and it’s better to avoid that.

Now let’s look at the gradient again. Is it smooth, or do you see stripes? Is it even, or do you see clusters? If you do, that’s bad. You can also google a “monitor calibration table” and get special test images that people use with the same purpose. They might look a bit different, but it doesn’t really matter which one you use. They’ll help you to see if your monitor is okay or not. Now, what if it’s not?

Monitor settings

You can try to twiddle with the monitor settings to make it show you a decent picture. You can adjust brightness, contrast (even if it’s a laptop) and sometimes even RGB channels. A monitor calibration table can help, but don't expect it to work as well as calibration with a good colorimeter. The deal is that a human eye is a lousy tool when it has no correct samples to compare with. That’s why you need a colorimeter. A colorimeter is a special gadget that does exactly this: it helps you to set your monitor up and it fixes colors and tones by measuring and comparing them with the standard color samples and then adjusting them by creating a monitor profile that your software can use to help overcome the device's display defects.

Is it worth buying one if you don’t have one? It’s up to you to decide. I can hardly imagine a professional retoucher working without one, but many people do and they feel fine. You won’t die without a colorimeter. Remember: even if your own monitor is calibrated, your images will be viewed by random people on random devices that have never been calibrated or even set up. They will sometimes see a crude resemblance of the original image, and sometimes they will complain about it being too dark or too bright or they’ll claim the color is wrong. There’s nothing you can do about that. But having a well-calibrated monitor makes life much easier, and at least you’ll be sure that your images are fine.

If a calibration device is up for the task, of course – it might be too old and broken, and if that's the case, you might get worse results than your monitor's factory settings. Yes, I'm not kidding. I've seen it many times – when calibration results were worse than it had been before, especially when an old cheap monitor or a laptop was calibrated with an old cheap colorimeter. So if you wanted to buy a monitor and a colorimeter, and the budget is very limited, spending it all on just a monitor would probably be better. Depends on the device, of course. But I'm not calling any names here, as I'm not advertising for anyone.

If the aforementioned black and white tests are not enough for you, you can take other tests, like 100 hue test – you’ll find it if you google it, and it's free. But please remember, that online versions don’t really evaluate how acute your color vision is, it’s more about your monitor ability to display colors.

Basic color correction by numbers

If you can’t afford to buy a colorimeter or hire someone to calibrate your monitor for you (that's expensive by the way, but some people do it), it doesn’t mean you can’t work. There’s a great thing to help and it’s called color correction by numbers. Even if you’re sure that your monitor is fine, color correcting by numbers is a useful skill for any retoucher, and I will explain how it works in product image retouching (only!). The idea is that it doesn’t matter what kind of image you see on your monitor, you can still perform well if you set the white balance correctly and if you make certain colors meet certain RGB values. So if you see something that is truly gray, as not gray, but colored, it doesn’t matter unless you try to make it look gray on your faulty monitor. It’s easy to make sure that it’s truly gray by checking the numbers. There’s the Info panel in Photoshop that will show you the corresponding RGB values as you drag the Eyedropper tool or any brush over the image. Truly black and white images should have equal values in all three channels.

This gray background is truly gray no matter how it looks on your monitor

By the way. Remember the gradient we’ve drawn for one of the tests? Funny thing, but it’s not exactly black and white, at least if you had the “Dither” box checked – now if you drag your mouse over it, you’ll see that sometimes the values are not equal, one channel color values might differ from the other two. But this is how the color smoothing works. Uncheck the “Dither” box and draw another black and white gradient: this time it will be truly gray, although striped. There will be visible banding, which is not a good thing to have on your images.

You should also keep in mind that the Eye Dropper tool settings are important. The sample size is something that matters: point sample will show numbers of particular pixels, while samples based on average numbers will show average numbers, the larger the sample area, the more uniform the numbers. For product images, your best bet is 3 by 3 or 5 by 5 sample size depending on your image size. But if you change the settings here, the same sample size will be automatically transferred to the Magic Wand. So whatever you choose, make sure you feel okay with the same settings for the Magic Wand Tool, as it's one of the most useful isolation tools for product image retouching in the whole Photoshop.

So, what can we do with the brightest and the darkest areas? There are some average numbers that allow people on most monitors see details in highlights and shadows. Normally, anything from 0 to 15 will be perceived as very dark and black. When we retouch black clothes and other items like that, we usually make sure that the numbers on black surfaces, not somewhere in the shadows, but in areas filled with light, are not less than 20, otherwise, customers might not see anything at all. It depends greatly on the material the particular garments are made of. Some materials, like velvet, are supposed to be much darker than others, like cotton. And of course, different materials require different retouching techniques. But it’s true that black items unless made of suede or velvet, should not be less than 20 on average in every channel, or you’ll get many complains. And if they are lighter than 30, they will be perceived as gray, not black, so keep your general black between 20 and 30, and keep your suede between 10 and 20, and you’ll be fine. Same for the white: unless it’s a shiny material, no garments should be brighter than 245 in average, and darker than 235, otherwise people might have trouble seeing them at all or perceiving them as white.

That was really short, but there's actually a whole separate chapter dedicated to black and white items (LINK). We'll get there eventually.

Now see, if you can maintain the white balance and make sure your black is not pitch black or gray, and your white is not too bright or gray, you can retouch product images, and it doesn’t matter what your monitor shows. White balance provides you with correct colors, and managing black and white things properly provides you with decent contrast. That's all we need. Problems arise when you try to alter images based on the color you perceive, so if your monitor is wrong, your images will be, too. As we're not doing much color correction and even if we do it, we don't play around with color, we don't depend on our monitor as much as other retouchers, which is a good thing.

Next: Photoshop color settings


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