Color Management in Adobe Photoshop® part 1:
Color Settings: Introduction and
Choosing a Working Color Space

Adobe Photoshop is one of the most versatile digital imaging tools available. As such, it’s handling of color management is quite sophisticated. In order to take full advantage of Photoshop’s advanced color management, it is first necessary to configure Photoshop’s color settings correctly. (Please note: color management is only available in the full version of Photoshop 5.0 or later. Photoshop Elements, LE, and Light do not support multiple profile color management.)

Adobe Photoshop is utilized by a wide variety of imaging professionals from web designers to film special effects artists. For this reason Photoshop ships with color settings that are easy to use but less than ideal for those of us concerned with precise color management for printed output. (The information in this paper does not refer to color management for the web). To access the color settings, go to Edit> color settings… (Windows) or Photoshop> color settings… (Macintosh). This brings up the color settings dialog box:


The box contains many settings that will affect the way that color is handled and displayed. A shortcut to setting most of them correctly for print color management is to go to "North American Prepress 2" (called “U.S. Prepress Defaults” prior to CS2) in the “settings” pull down menu at the top. Next click the "more options" box (called “advanced mode” in CS1 and earlier) . This default setting will configure Photoshop with very good basic color management settings. Some individual options (such as working space and rendering intent, for example) can now be changed to customize the US prepress default for your specific situation. (This will change the “U.S. Prepress Defaults” setting to “custom”).

If you are looking for a quick and easy general setting recommendation, just copy the settings pictured above by selecting North American Prepress 2 from the settings pulldown. These settings will work adequately for most users. You can get simple explanations of each setting option by holding your cursor over the setting. The explanation will show up in the description section at the bottom of the color settings dialog box. The section that you would be most likely to change to configure Photoshop to your personal workflow is the next one down the dialog, "Working Spaces".

The working space used for a color mode is often thought of as being a more critical setting than it actually is. Contrary to popular belief working space has no effect on the way that a given image is displayed when color management is being used properly on tagged files. At any time Photoshop can accurately display color from any color space regardless of the current working space. Another common misconception is that printer profiles only "work" with the specific color working space that was set at the time of profiling. This is not true; working space has absolutely no effect on profiling if profiling is done correctly. Working space only comes into play in certain situations in which a default color space is needed, such as creating a new document or opening an untagged one. In essence, 16-bit LAB is actually always the “working space” for Photoshop since that is where all of your color management conversions and lookups take place. Many users just set the working space for each color mode to the space that they use most often with that mode to simplify thier workflow.

Choice of working spaces also affects how Photoshop interprets color information from sources like the color picker and pattern manager. For example, if you use the eyedropper to "sample" an RGB color into the color picker, then try to paint that color into a document with a different color mode, Photoshop uses the color meaning of the numbers in your working color space, regardless of the space that they actually came from. In fact, a change of color modes is the only time that the color picker actually is color managed. You can see that the color picker is not color managed by sampling a color in one RGB space and painting it into a file with another RGB color space or RGB profile. Photoshop will paint in the RGB color numbers from the first file, which in the second file's color space would have a different color meaning, thus giving you a different color. If you plan to sample and paint from file to file on a regular basis, then you should be aware of this and you should probably choose the working space that matches most of the files that you deal with.

Almost all digital capture devices, scanners and digital cameras are native RGB devices. CMYK color spaces typically describe a range of printing press conditions and are therefore more similar to a profile than a true working space. As such they generally have comparatively small color gamuts. Since each conversion to another mode involves at least some loss of color information, and converting to a small gamut space like most CMYK spaces may lose a lot of color information, many experts argue that RGB is the ideal color mode for Photoshop. CMYK and Grayscale working spaces are unimportant in this scenario since they are never used. Unless you have a specific reason not to do so, it is usually best to adopt this RGB only workflow and to leave the CMYK and grayscale working spaces set to their U.S. Prepress Defaults. For a graphic designer who is creating work destined for an offset CMYK press, however, It may be perfectly reasonable to convert to CMYK as early as possible. People in this situation should have a pretty good idea of what conditions their press is set to emulate, and can set their working space to the profile associated with those conditions.


A typical CMYK color space, SWOP Coated,
(red/orange) compared with Adobe 98 (yellow).


Click here to go to Part 2: Advanced Photoshop Color Settings