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Photoshop color settings

Once again, I’m not going into much detail here, as it will probably take ages to explain what this is all about. Color spaces, ICC profiles, assigning, converting – it’s a vast area of knowledge. Fortunately, for us humble catalogue retouchers it’s a bit easier. I know many people that don’t have the slightest idea about all the things I’ve mentioned above and it doesn’t make them bad retouchers. Why? Well, because when you don't have the slightest idea about something, you don't go and mess up all the settings, you mostly ignore settings at all. And that's good because the default Photoshop settings are actually quite decent. But it doesn’t mean you should ignore Photoshop color settings, as doing things properly is much better than just hoping it will go well on its own.

Before we start settings things up, I’ll try to explain the basics as fast as I can, as the subject is too vast to be fully covered in the catalogue retouching course and deserves its own course.

There are many devices that somehow produce colors, like monitors and printers. They all are a bit different. A color space is a set of colors. It’s also called a gamut. A gamut of your printer, for instance, is all the possible colors it’s able to print, and a gamut of a monitor is a range of colors it’s able to display. There are color spaces that are relative to the devices or even images, and they contain all the defects of the devices (if it's a device) as well as their gamuts. They are also called ICC profiles. When you calibrate your monitor, an ICC profile appears, and it can be used by color managing programs like Photoshop to display images correctly, taking the device defects into account.

When you have an image with an ICC profile attached to it, it contains information that can be used by any color management system (like the one in Photoshop) to interpret the data contained in the image itself, and help to display it properly.

There are also device independent color spaces that do not change and are standard, and the most popular are sRGB, Adobe RGB, and ProPhoto RGB. They are also called workspaces. The sRGB workspace has the smallest gamut of them all, and it’s the workspace of choice for images that are going to be used for the web. Adobe RGB has a larger gamut, and ProPhoto is the widest. If you work in some workspace, but forget to attach an ICC profile to the image when you save it, other applications like browsers or image viewing programs might have trouble interpreting the colors (if they can color manage at all). At the same time, attached ICC profiles often get ripped from images as they get uploaded on the internet to save some space. An ICC profile weighs about 2-4 kB, but if we talk about billions of images, it might be reasonable, and social networks usually try to reduce image weight as much as possible. As if that wasn't bad enough, not all the programs and browsers can color manage, that is – recognize and interpret ICC profiles. That’s why there’s a lot of talking about how colors look weird online and what to do – go to any photography or retouching forum and see for yourself. People want to know how come their nice images look so nasty on social networks and other websites.

The reason is that it really depends on what browser you use, which website you upload to, does it strip the images of their ICC profiles, were there any ICC profiles in the first place, and which working spaces were used when creating the images. Fortunately for us, product image retouchers, the situation is much more simple. We don’t expect anyone to see exactly what we see, because it’s just not possible. Our clients might view the images we produce on a good monitor, on a bad and old one, on a cell phone, on a laptop, on a tablet, on anything. We don't think we're able to transfer the real color of any garments the website is trying to sell, as it’s just not possible. There’s no such thing as a “real color”, as any color is a perception, an impression even, and even if there was such thing, it would not be able to get transferred via all these browsers and random devices unaltered.

The same image on the same screen

This image is a good illustration of what I'm trying to explain. It's the same shoe image opened in different browsers and image viewers. On top of the image, there is a row of color swatches, which are the color samples taken from the same spot on each copy of the image. Even on the same monitor, the colors would be different depending on which program you use to open images. Can you imagine how different they might look on different monitors, calibrated or not calibrated, TN or IPS or Retina, Chrome or Firefox? This is exactly the reason why you shouldn't be so naive to think that the images you are working with will be displayed in the same way and other people will see them just like you see them. You can't get the same color even on the same screen when using different programs. And of course, it's impossible to achieve this noble goal on different screens.

Somehow this simple idea evades many people. I’ve had a lot of pointless arguments when someone tried to make me and my team create images that will look the same on every device or somehow make neon pink clothes look exactly the same online. But if you think about it, it’s pretty evident. Think about monitors, for instance. Most cheap office monitors and laptops have twisted nematic or TN displays, and the image on this kind of monitors really depends on the angle of the viewer’s head. You can make images look brighter or darker without even touching your monitor, you can do it by moving your head. How crazy is that? Because many people are not consciously aware of what's going on, one of my standard reply to emails complaining about something being too black or too white was: “Please, make sure your screen is parallel to your face”. Most of the time it was a good solution.

And even if we skip the monitor part, there are a lot of other reasons why people see different versions of the same image on their screens – like browsers not being able to color manage properly. So there’s no point trying to make them all see the same image, as it’s just not possible, and instead of that, we’re concentrating on our side. We’re trying to produce images that will look normal when they are displayed on average monitors. We know that people will look at them from weird angles, we know their devices are random and have never been calibrated at all. They probably have windows and sunlight in their rooms, and that’s why they usually set contrast to 100%, blowing out the highlights and making the shadows pitch black. This is not our problem at all. We have enough problems on our side of the screen: to make sure the images are produced correctly.

As for the monitors, there’s no need to buy the best device on the market. But do yourself a favor and get a monitor with an IPS panel, so that the image on your screen will at least not depend on the orientation of your head. It will make things much easier. I’m not a snob though and you won’t hear any radical exclamations from me like: “You can’t retouch if you don’t have an expensive monitor, you can’t retouch if you don’t calibrate your monitor, you can't retouch if you don't get yourself a Mac”, or any other things like that. With a correct setup of whatever equipment you have and with a deep understanding of what's going on, you’ll be able to retouch on any screen. Getting a top-notch monitor can make things easier, and if you are ready to invest at least some money in your profession, getting an IPS monitor and probably a colorimeter is worth the trouble. At least you won’t have to constantly keep in mind that your face should be parallel to the screen, that your gray looks bluish, but it’s okay, and that there are actually some details in the shadows even if you see them pitch black. But the only thing you absolutely need to be able to retouch is Adobe Photoshop (there's no way around it, at least if you want Javascript support, and trust me, you want it). The rest is optional.

Having all that in mind, let’s try to understand how Photoshop processes images depending on their ICC profiles if there are any. Open the Photoshop Color Settings window by pressing Ctrl-Shift-K. As the standard RGB space used for the web is sRGB, it’s actually our best bet.

One of the most mindless things you could do here is set the RGB Working space to be your Monitor's RGB – especially if you have your monitor calibrated. DON'T DO THAT. You know, there's even a warning that Photoshop gives you in the Description window: “This setting causes Photoshop to behave as if color management were turned off. Use this setting if other applications in your workflow do not support color management”. I think that this kind of warning is kind of evasive though. They should've put something more obvious there, like: “DON'T DO THAT! The advice you got from the internet will ruin your workflow if you follow it!”

Now, why is that? And why would people want to do something like that in the first place? Well, there are two reasons. This approach seems to “solve” the two most widespread problems that people face when they color correct and retouch. If you can call something as lame as switching color management off a solution, of course (it's not).

So, problem number one is this: “When I open an image in Photoshop, I see one image, but when I use other applications like browsers and image viewers, I see different colors. I don't like that, I want to see one image all the time, I don't want it to be changed by stupid Facebook or browsers or anything”. As I told you before, this is impossible. For anyone who understands this whole color management idea, this is not even a problem, it's just a fact we live with. We work in sRGB and we attach sRGB profiles to all the images we save, and we hope that other people will use websites that can color manage, that's it.

But there's one rather funny way how you can achieve this “same image everywhere” result. Just switch the damn color management off! It's all because of color management that this even happens. So when you switch it off in Photoshop, you won't be able to save images with sRGB profiles anymore – it's either your monitor profile (which is pointless) or nothing. And when an image with a missing profile gets opened in browsers and image viewers that can color manage, they don't interpret it (because there's no profile to interpret). And when it gets opened in browsers that can't color manage – it's only reasonable that they don't interpret it as well (because they can't). And when you upload an image to some social networks, it's the same result, because they would have stripped the image of its ICC profile even if it had one. And when there's no profile, you know what happens in a browser: no management.

See, when you don't color manage anywhere, you'll see the same image everywhere. But you'll be the only person to see the image this way. All the other users will see whatever their monitors show them, and it will be total chaos. And color management is the only way to bring at least some order to this chaos. Don't switch it off.

Alright, that was one reason why people do it. There's another one: “I've calibrated my monitor, and the system got the profile, it's there in my operational system, no problem. I see decent images almost everywhere. But when I open an image in Photoshop it looks awful! Help!”

That's bad when it happens. What's worse is the advice that you can get online if you post a plea like this one. “To make Photoshop show you a good image set the Working RGB to your Monitor profile, or switch Proof Colors on, and set the Proof Setup to Monitor RGB”. And you know, it works. But it's a weird solution, and it's not even a solution, because when an ostrich sticks its head in the sand, it doesn't solve anything. Switching color management off doesn't solve color management problems (especially when you've spent time and money on monitor calibration – which is color management as well)!

The problem is not that Photoshop can't show you a decent image, while the rest of the image viewers and browsers that don't color manage can do it. It's the opposite. Your calibration profile is messed up, and Photoshop is able to recognize it and show you the result. Something went wrong during the calibration process, or maybe the calibration device was too old and its filter has degraded. Whatever the reason, you've got a faulty calibration profile and it messes up your images. So in this case, you can either calibrate the monitor once again or just delete the faulty profile from your system if your colorimeter can't do any good, like when it's old and broken. But if you do what they tell you on the internet, you just render the calibration useless, and the funniest thing about it, people do it and then they work with no color management at all and still think that their monitor is perfectly calibrated.

Not possible. Monitor calibration, monitor ICC profiles, image ICC profiles, color management within different programs – this is all parts of the whole big color management thing. You can't switch color management off everywhere you can reach and still think you're doing well and you're well calibrated. So whatever you do, don't put anything weird in your Photoshop settings. As the standard RGB space used for the web is the sRGB, it should be your Photoshop working space as well. Not your Monitor RGB, as it's not a benchmark for anyone and no one cares about your monitor and no one will be able to see things as you see on it.

Now when that's settled, let's continue with the rest of the settings. We have three possible choices for the RGB color management policies: the first one is OFF. It means that if you open images with RGB profiles which differ from your default RGB profile, Photoshop won’t say or do anything (like color manage) at all. Another option is to preserve embedded profiles, which means even if your preferred color space is sRGB, other profiles will be preserved and used and saved. Or you can choose to convert all the mismatching profiles to sRGB, no matter what exactly is going on.

Don’t set it to off, as it's the same ostrich like approach. “Off” means no color management, and this is always the worst choice.

So, now the choice is simple: to Preserve or to Convert? To answer that question let’s first think why and when we might encounter a profile mismatch. If you work with raw files, you won’t have to deal with profile mismatch or missing profiles, but if your hi-res images are jpegs, they might have other profiles, not just sRGB. It depends on camera settings, and I know that a lot of photographers love Adobe RGB because they think it’s just better this way. Or maybe because is the default profile in their camera settings.

For retouchers, of course, shooting with the same settings every time is better, and we don’t really want to get sRGB images mixed up with Adobe RGB images. But there’s nothing we can do about that because catalogue photographers shoot a lot, and they often twiddle with the settings so you get all sorts of weird images, not just the kind of images the management has agreed upon. But as our final result has to be sRGB all the time, we’d better make sure that any images with weird profiles attached will not get past us and not end up on the website. And, of course, we don’t want any windows popping up and telling us that someone has forgotten to switch to the correct profile in the camera settings. That’s why it’s preferable to choose “Convert to working RGB” in the RGB color management policies, and make sure that no checkboxes that offer to warn you about mismatches or missing profiles are checked.

I have to warn you that in some cases, this kind of set up is not appropriate. If you have an image that not actually made in sRGB and has no profile attached, by converting it, you can make it look ugly. But this problem mostly occurs with images that were already retouched, mostly by people that don't understand this whole profile story. They can work, for example, in ProPhotoRGB and then just omit the profile, so when you get such an image, you have to guess which profile it had initially and you have to assign this profile instead of converting to it, and then convert the image to your working RGB. It sounds complicated, and it really is.

Fortunately, in catalogue retouching, we don't really work with someone else's retouched images, so no profiles should be missing. With the settings that I described, when you open any images, Photoshop will silently convert them to sRGB, which is our default color space for the web, and it will try to preserve the appearance of these images, no matter which ICC profile they had assigned previously. And when you save images, the only profile they are going to get is sRGB, if, of course, you check the respective checkbox. That’s all we need.

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