7 Photoshop Color Settings That Are
Essential for Your Photos

7 Photoshop color settings

Cover photo by George Lebada.

Color settings in Photoshop are a feature most beginners are not aware of. Even some experienced artists overlook this essential part of their workflow.

Until it’s too late.

Today, you’ll learn why choosing the correct color setting is essential for your artwork.

Plus, we’ll go over why specific color settings should be chosen for different projects. Then, I’ll share with you how to set up your color settings.

So, what are you going to learn in this Photoshop color settings guide?

You’ll be happy to know this article will be more than just about “color settings”!

You’ll also learn about color modes and color spaces. Plus, I’ll share some pro tips on which color settings you should select and why.

Oh, and how to set them up in Photoshop too.  Once you learn about each topic, you’ll have a better understanding of how they’ll provide the color results for your creative vision.

Also, you may want to freshen up on some digital terms that will be used throughout this article.

So, are you ready to learn about the color settings in Photoshop

Awesome, let’s do it…

Why are your color settings in Photoshop necessary?

If your Photoshop color settings are set up incorrectly, then you’re going to spend a lot of time fixing what could have been avoided from the beginning.

Not to mention, your client or yourself will have to pay more money for re-doing the project!

In fact, Photoshop’s default color settings may hinder your creative vision from the very beginning.

How do the Photoshop color settings affect your photo or other artwork?

Photoshop color settings are used to display a range of colors for your photos (and other artwork).

The different color setting options, in Photoshop, apply a smaller or more substantial range of colors. Each of which will alter how your photo looks on your monitor and in print.

Have you ever wondered why what you see on your camera, smartphone, etc.. is usually not the same on your computer monitor?

The main reason is it’s because the color settings are different!

In fact, you could view the same image in Lightroom and Photoshop with two different results.

Before you can decide on specific color settings, you need to understand your choices.

Let’s start off with the basics…

Table of Contents

What is a Color Mode?

Before we get started on the Color Settings, let’s find out what a Color Mode is. This will help you better understand why it’s important to choose specific color settings before you start editing your photos.

There are 3 main color modes: RGB, CMYK + Grayscale. There are more, but those are the top 3 color modes most photographers and graphic designers use.

Each of the color modes serves a different purpose. The one you use depends on the project and the intended output.

Let’s say you edit your photo in the RGB color mode and send it out to a printer that prints in the CMYK color mode. The end result will not match what you see on screen.

Photoshop color modes includes 8 different options. In 29 years, I’ve only used three: RGB, CMYK and Grayscale.

Grab the arrows, in the middle, and slide left/right. Notice how the colors are much more vibrant with RGB. The CMYK colors are more muted or flat compared to RGB.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon.

The reason why is simple. RGB and CMYK provide two completely different ranges of colors.

So, let’s take a closer look at these three color modes in more detail.

What is an RGB color mode?

RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue.

In an 8-bit color file, you end up with 256 shades of Red, 256 shades of Blue, and 256 shades of Red.

When you multiply 256 x 256 x 256… that gives you…

 

0
...possible colors.

Sorry for the math.

The critical thing to remember, about the RGB color mode, is that these 3 primary colors are emitted with LIGHT!

Your computer screen emits light. Your camera’s LCD emits light. Your smartphone emits light.

That being said, the RGB color mode is perfect for photos, designs, and other artwork that are destined for posting online and even for print (like photographic prints).

However, not all RGB “working spaces” are created equal.

There are different variations of the RGB color mode, which are known as “color spaces”: sRGB, Adobe RGB, ProPhoto RGB, to name a few.

We’ll cover those in more detail later on in this article.

photoshop color settings
Image by Snap Wire

Pro Tip

Depending on the printing service you may be able to get away with sending an RGB file. Chances are the results will generally be o.k.

Although, the colors may not be 100 percent accurate. Your satisfaction with the final print will be based upon your need for accurate color.

If you don’t want to take a chance that your printed photo…

“of horse’s grazing, set against majestic mountains of the Colorado Rockies, comes back with a green color cast vs. the blue, cool colors of winter you saw at the time of capture… ”

…you may want to spend a little more time getting your Photoshop color settings in order first.

Which can be easily done with the help of your professional lab of choice. And I’m not referring to Walmart, Walgreens, etc… Those places are a crapshoot and you’ll be lucky to get consistent results.

Professional labs, on the other hand, will provide you with the proper color settings you should set up prior to editing.

In fact, some pro labs will even allow you to submit a few files for test prints (for free) prior to sending in an actual paid order.

My favorite is WHCC. Which I’ve been using for over 10 years.

Now, when it comes to printing on other types of media, magazines, brochures, business cards, and other types of printed media RGB is not the color mode of choice.

Instead, they’ll require a completely different color mode: CMYK. Let’s find out what it is and how it compares to RGB…

If you use the wrong RGB mode your photographic print can end up with a different color cast vs. what you were expecting.

What is a CMYK color mode?

CMYK is the color mode for printed materials on non-photographic paper. This type of printer is known as an offset printer.

Photo by Kaboom Pics.

Offset printers create images and graphics by mixing Cyan, Magenta, Yellow + Black (CMYK) with physical ink.

Unless you’re a graphic designer or require printed material for your business (brochures, business cards, etc..), you don’t need to worry about the CMYK color mode.

Unlike RGB, CMYK requires a black color to create a pure

black. You can mix a certain amount of Cyan, Magenta & Yellow (CMY) to create a close rendition of black.

However, it won’t be pure black. Which is why a Black (K) pigment is required to create a pure black.

The challenge is working on a device that portrays colors via RGB channels, with light, that is going to be outputted with inks.

The colors are not the same. Colors portrayed with light are brighter, more vibrant, and more saturated.

This is why it’s essential to have the correct color space set up before sending your project out to be printed.

Luckily, the CMYK color spaces can take your RGB image/design and simulate (in Photoshop) what the colors will look like when printed.

This will give you a better representation of what to expect for your final print.

What is a Grayscale color mode?​

There may be times when a Grayscale Color Mode is required for the job. Think newspapers or yellow pages.

Yes, newspapers still exist as of 2020. I think the yellow pages have gone the way of the dinosaurs, though.

Once upon a time, I ran ads for my design services in the local newspaper and yellow pages. Oh, and my photography studio too.

For those printing services, I had to design and save my projects in the Grayscale Color Mode.

Unless your newspaper prints in color you’ll need to use the Grayscale color mode.

Before designing your work contact the paper for the exact specifications you need to setup in the Photoshop color settings.

What Is a Color Working Space?

“Color working spaces are a collection of color spaces that tells Photoshop which one to use depending on the intended output.”

The most popular types of color working spaces are sRGB, Adobe RGB, and ProPhoto RGB. There are others. However, these are the most used by photographers.

So, how do you edit an image on one device so that it will give you the same color results on another device (color matching)? Well, it’s done with “color working spaces!”

Working spaces are used to preserve the color of your image across many different types of devices.

Imagine following a color recipe

Let’s imagine different devices need a specific recipe to output your desired colors.

Maybe your in-home printer needs 2 cups, 3 tablespoons, and 1 teaspoon to complete the recipe… those are the instructions.

However, you have no idea what the ingredients are to put into the cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons. Without the ingredients, you can’t complete the desired end result.

Color spaces are those ingredients! And Photoshop is instructed to display specific colors based on those ingredients.

Photoshop will output (to your monitor) your colors based on the color space you choose. When you save your file, a “color profile” will be saved with it to communicate to the output device, the instructions for that recipe.

The output device will then read the instructions, add the right amount of (color) ingredients to give you a tasty end result… i.e., matching colors from your monitor to your final print.

Let’s dive into the four most common color working spaces in more detail…

…but first, we need to get acquainted with another color term to understand Color Spaces better… “Color Gamut.”

There are so many color spaces that they all aren’t visible on my 27in iMac! I literally have to scroll to see them all.

No worries. There are 4 main color spaces that you’ll be using the majority of the time: sRGB, Adobe RGB, ProPhoto RGB and P3.

However, chances are you may only use 2 or 3 at most. These color working spaces can be found in the Photoshop color settings.

I’ll show you where later in this guide.

So, What Is a Color Gamut?

A color gamut is the full range of colors visible to the human eye or for a particular device.

Technology, as of today, is not able to display all the colors in the world.

Our devices… monitors, printers, digital cameras, smartphones, etc.. have their own way of outputting colors and are limited in the range of colors they can output.

Check this out… scientific studies have shown our eyes can

only see up to 10 million colors!

However, most monitors can display 16.7 million colors! Some, like the new iMacs, can display 1 billion colors!!

Will you even notice? Yes.

Even though we can’t see 983.3 million of the colors being displayed the monitor can show colors in far greater precision and accuracy vs. a monitor limited to 16.7 million colors.

See for yourself…

Due to over editing, the image without the couple, the banding is most noticeable in the top left of the sky. Compare each image and you’ll see the original doesn’t have the banding.

Photo by Parker Photographic.

Grab the slider, in the middle, and move left to reveal the banding on the image without the couple. You can see the color banding occurring the most in the top/left of the image. It’s also visible in other parts of the sky too.

Color banding occurs due to not enough colors available to create a smooth transition from one color to another.

What does all this have to do with color spaces? Here’s the short answer…

The color spaces represent a range of colors within the color gamut of the 10 million colors we can see.

Scientists have developed a color diagram that represents the colors humans can see. It’s called a CIE diagram (see image to the right).

Since technology is limited by a specific range of colors a color space defines the colors used for that particular device.

This means if you edit an image in one color space and output to a device that doesn’t recognize the colors…

…you’ll end up with colors different from what you created originally (like the image of the horses posted in a previous section).

The second CIE diagram has an overlay of popular color spaces. This shows how the color space ranges are different for each vs. the entire color gamut visible to us.

Ok, now let’s take a look at the 4 most popular types of digital color spaces you’ll encounter as a photographer and/or graphic designer.

Plus, we have 1 analog color space that will be important to graphic designers… or anyone doing printing with ink pigments.

CIE Diagram

CIE Diagram. This represents the color gamut (all the colors) that humans can see. Roughly 10 million colors! All CIE Images courtesy of Wikipedia, (public domain).

Three color spaces overlaid on the CIE diagram. Each rectangle represents the color range for that space.

The triangle represents the color range for sRGB. It has the smallest color range of the 4 digital color spaces we’re covering in this guide.

What is an sRGB color space?

Our first recipe or color space dates all the way back to CRT monitors from the mid-’90s. It was so last century! Or is it?

Of the 3 digital color spaces, we’ll cover it has the smallest “color gamut.” But, it is the most widely used color space.

The “s” in sRGB stands for “standard.” It can be used for both the printing of images (on photographic paper) and for online use.

Because it’s a “standard” color space, all modern browsers can use it. Which is a plus if you work in this color space to edit your photos, and display online.

Chances are good someone on the other side of the world or your next-door neighbor will see the same colors you are… in general.

However, there is a downside to sRGB. Most modern digital cameras can capture a wider color gamut vs. what’s available in sRGB.

This means if you shoot in sRGB, you’re not capturing all the colors that a different color space can give you!

What is an Adobe RGB color space?

The Adobe RGB color space contains a broader range of colors vs. sRGB. It gives you the ability to preserve more color information from your digital camera at the time of capture.

This is my preferred color space to shoot in. I’ll edit my images in this color space too. Then, when I’m ready to output for online viewing, I’ll convert to sRGB.

Warning: There might be a shift in colors when you go from Adobe RGB to sRGB. This is due to fewer colors being available in sRGB. If this happens, you may need to tweak your edits before posting.

The color range for Adobe RGB.

The color range for ProPhoto RGB. Notice how the color range exceeds what we as humans can see?

What is the ProPhoto RGB color space?

ProPhoto RGB is known as a wide gamut color space and is popular among professionals. Although it does have some drawbacks.

Due to the restrictions of technology, some of the colors can’t be displayed or even be seen by mere mortals… like you and I. This is due to the color gamut exceeding the colors visible to our eyes.

Another drawback is the fact you’ll need one heck of a workflow to manage this color space. If you’re not careful, you could experience some severe banding when working in 8-bit color.

You’ll be better off capturing your images with 10-bit color (if your camera can). But, you’ll also need to make sure your monitor is capable of displaying 10-bit color. Not all monitors can!

What is the CMYK color space?

The CMYK color space has a very low color gamut vs. the four digital color spaces we covered. The limitation is because ink pigments can’t reproduce all the colors that light can.

You’ll only need to use the CMYK color space if your project’s intended output is to a printing press (offset printer)… that uses ink pigments. Otherwise, you can focus on one of the 4 digital color spaces above.

CMYK is a sophisticated color mode with a variety of color spaces. All of which will be dependent on the specific printer being used to output your final work.

Whichever company you hire to do the printing for you can guide you on which CMYK color space to use for perfect color matching.

CMYK has the smallest color range of the other 4 we covered. It’s represented by the SWOP CMYK… purple outline.
choose color setting

Photo by Ivan Cujic.  Decision time.  Which color setting should you use?

Which RGB Color Space Should You Choose?

The “color space” you choose depends on your intended output. As well as your vendor of choice if you’re making photographic prints.

Which RGB color space for displaying your photos online?

If your intention is to post your image (s) online, then you’ll want to use sRGB (in most cases). This color space is the most often used for posting and viewing photos.

You could use another Color Space that offers a broader range of colors.

However, not everyone is going to be able to see the colors from a wider color gamut. It all depends on the device they are using to view your images.

Which RGB color space for print enlargements?

If you’re sending your photos out for photographic prints, then you’ll need to contact the lab that will do the printing. That is if you’re using a professional lab like WHCC.

Again, in most cases, they’ll request an sRGB color space. However, if they accept files in the Adobe RGB or (even better) ProPhoto RGB color space, you may want to choose one of those.

The reason why is those two color spaces offer a broader range of colors. This will give you a better print that reflects your creative vision.

If you choose to go to a non-professional lab, like Walmart or Walgreens, you don’t have to worry about “color spaces.”

They are not trained (most of them) to correctly “color match” your file with the printed photo. In that case, you can use the sRGB color space.

If you’re using an in-home printer, you’ll need to read the documentation to see which color spaces are available.

How Do You Set Your RGB color setting in Photoshop?

To set your preferred RGB color space, you’ll need to access the Color Settings dialogue box.

This can be found, in your menu, under “Edit.” Navigate to the bottom to find “Color Settings.”

From here, you’ll click on the “RGB” menu option in the Working Spaces section. Make your selection and click “OK”.

When you start working on a new project, you’ll need to remember to change the color setting as needed.

Otherwise, the setting will be applied to every new file you work on!

Click images to enlarge.

What Are the Other Photoshop Color Setting Options Available?

By default, Photoshop is set up with the following “preset”: North America General Purpose 2. 

At least for me, it is. If you live in a different part of the world, the default may be different.

Here is a complete guide on all the Photoshop Color Setting preset options and what they are best used for.

Click to enlarge.
Image by Oleg Magni

Photoshop Color Setting Options

Custom

This option allows you to assign your own specific settings manually.

As soon as you adjust 1 setting, you’ll end up with a “custom” setting. Which you can then save as a preset for future use.

Monitor Color

Best for screen images (online use) only. I’d avoid this for any type of document that needs to be printed.

North America General Purpose 2

As its name implies its a “general purpose” option for screen and print images in North America.

You’ll find that this preset uses the same CMYK, Grayscale and Spot working spaces as North America Prepress 2.

However, the difference is in the use of the web standard of sRGB for the RGB working space.

North America Newspaper

Is your project destined for a North American newspaper press? If so, this preset may be just what you’re looking for.

CMYK values are preserved, and all profile warnings are enabled.

North America Prepress 2

Check out this preset if your printing images in North America.

The color settings, from this preset, will preserve the CMYK working space and will provide any profile warnings to your attention.

North America Web/Internet

If your project will be mainly for use online (in North America) then this may be the color settings you’re looking for. It uses the sRGB (for the RGB) working space.

Europe General Purpose 3

Similar to the North America General Purpose 2, but the CMYK ICC profiles are updated for offset printing on coated paper.

Europe Prepress 3

Again, this one is similar to the North America Prepress except the CMYK ICC profiles are updated.

Europe Web/Internet 2

Guess what? Yep, similar to the North America version accept for the CMYK ICC profiles.

Japan Settings

Live in Japan?

If so, the remaining color setting options are similar to the European options above.  The difference is they are designed for those that live in Japan.

Now What?

Color settings, in general, are complex and vital to the accurate color of your images. It starts with capturing the color space of choice in-camera, using that color space in Photoshop, and making sure it’s compatible with your output device.

The complexity of it starts when you realize you’d like to output your image to several different devices… all with a different color space!

For example, you may want a canvas print form one pro lab, a few desk-size prints from your in-home printer, and post them on your blog. All three destinations are going to require a different color space.

My recommendation is to edit in the primary color space that is most compatible with the majority of devices.

Then, adjust the edit in the proceeding order of importance… dependent on the device.

In the above example, I’d capture the image in Adobe RGB and edit in the same color space. Depending on the pro lab, they may only accept sRGB.

In that case, you can tweak the edit for sRGB. Then, you can send the same file to the pro lab and use it for posting online too.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with all these choices, know this, your “color” education shouldn’t end here. This will be an ongoing journey that will require more time researching and learning about color spaces.

Over time, you’ll become more comfortable with everything covered thus far. Oh, and you might also be interested in learning what an ICC Profile is.

If you have any questions, please post them in the comments below.

Hello! My name is Chris Parker and I run this place.

But, more importantly, what’s in it for you? Well, my passion is to help you achieve your creative vision.

With 30 years experience I believe I can help you do just that. So, if you’re ready… let’s do it!

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