It’s easy to get confused by Photoshop’s Color Settings dialog. I hope to simplify it for you. This is not a comprehensive analysis; just an explanation of what you do and don’t need to worry about.
Open the dialog
The first time you open the Color Settings (Edit > Color Settings, or Ctrl-Shift-K), this is what you see:
It looks a bit daunting, but the good news is, not much of it is relevant to you.
Keep your life simple
I want to start by saying: the default settings are excellent.
"North America General Purpose 2" is a great configuration. Adobe have done the right thing in making this the default, and thankfully they've never changed it all these years.
If you’re happy to trust me, just go ahead and close the dialog and enjoy safe colour-management.
There seem to be two main reasons why people adapt their Color Settings: (1) because they’re nerds who like to tinker; or (2) because their lab has advised them to do so.
Needless to say, number (1) is dangerous. Don’t change stuff unless you really understand it.
The trouble with number (2) is, despite best intentions, the advice from labs is often out-of-date, irrelevant, or just plain wrong.
But if you do feel obliged to change your settings, I hope this article will give you some guidance.
I won’t attempt to explain every complex colour-management principle behind every setting. There are excellent books available for that. I’ll just give you an overview, which will allow you to go away and research more thoroughly if you desire.
1. Working Spaces
This section is quite remarkable – not because of its importance, but because of its UNimportance.
RGB Working Space
People invariably get hung up on this one. But it makes zero difference to your workflow. The colour space of your images is dictated by your camera, or by your raw processor, not by Photoshop.
You might as well insert a profile called "HomerSimpson.icc" as your Working Space, for all the difference it makes. But seriously, leave it on sRGB.
There are only a few times when the Working Space is invoked:
- When you make a new blank image. But the Working Space is only a default, which can be changed to suit your needs.
- When you open an image without its own profile (known as "Untagged"). In that case, the Working Space is used to display the colours. Most untagged images come from your friends’ cheap point-and-shoot cameras, and as such, it can be fairly safely assumed that the space is meant to be sRGB. That’s why I recommend leaving your Working Space on sRGB, even if you yourself use a different space.
- When you set the RGB Color Management Policy to "Convert to Working RGB". I’ll discuss this further below.
The other Working Spaces
The CMYK, Gray and Spot spaces are about as relevant to photographers as they are to my cat. Leave them as is, and move on.
2. Color Management Policies
These policies control how your images’ ICC profiles are handled on opening. Needless to say, it’s best to leave them on "Preserve Embedded Profiles", to honour the profile which your camera or raw converter has embedded in your images.
NEVER choose "Off". This is a recipe for disaster.
"Convert to Working" is a tricky one. It does what it suggests – when you open an image, it automatically converts it to the colour space that you’ve designated in the previous section.
Some labs advise you to do this. They tell you to set your Working Space to sRGB, and your Color Management Policy to "Convert". I can see the benefit for them – it’s a foolproof way of ensuring their clients send them sRGB files, and therefore avoid the disappointing dull colours resulting from other colour spaces. It’s also easier than attempting to explain manual profile conversion in Photoshop.
But "Convert to Working" is a brutal blunt instrument, and I loathe it. After all, if you choose to work in a large colour space (eg Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB), you do so because of the ability to capture and reproduce wonderfully bright colours. But automatic conversion will simply delete those extra colours when changing to sRGB. If this happens, those colours can’t be recovered, and the results will be disappointing.
It’s much better to choose your colour spaces wisely, preserve them faithfully, and convert them carefully if required. Therefore, I strongly recommend sticking to "Preserve", even if your lab suggests "Convert".
Once again, the CMYK and Gray settings are irrelevant for photographers, and once again I recommend leaving the policies on "Preserve".
These checkboxes allow you a little more control over your profile handling.
Profile Mismatches: Ask When Opening
This will warn you when you’re opening up an image with a colour space that doesn’t match the Working Space. As long as your Policies are set to "Preserve" (above), this doesn’t really matter, and becomes more annoying than useful.
I leave this warning turned off, and simply keep an eye on my images’ profiles by turning on "Show" as I describe here.
Profile Mismatches: Ask When Pasting
This one is slightly more handy, and you may choose to turn it on.
If you copy pixels from an image with one colour space (eg Adobe RGB) and paste them into an image with another colour space (eg sRGB) this warning will pop up to tell you there is a mismatch, and allow you to choose your course of action.
If you make a lot of collages, involving a lot of pasting, this might be a good warning to have.
Missing Profile: Ask When Opening
No ambiguity here – if you open an image without a profile, it warns you.
Seriously, if you are habitually opening images without profiles, you probably should take a hard look at your workflow. Embedded ICC profiles are the basis of sound colour management, and images without profiles are nothing but trouble.
In any case, you can turn on this warning if you think it might help you.
4. The Advanced Settings
If you feel the urge to dabble with the Advanced Settings, you need to do a lot more reading than just this little article. There is some heavy stuff in there.
Otherwise, just leave them on default and ignore them.
Keep your life simple
I’m going to say this one more time!
The "North America General Purpose 2" settings are excellent. Don’t change them unless you have compelling reason to do so.
If you have a question about this article, please feel free to post it in Ask Damien.