The importance of Colour Management settings in Photoshop

Figuring out how to manage colour is not always easy. I have recently changed to a new computer that came with a wide gamut RGB LED screen that supposedly has fantastic colours. I also upgraded to the latest version of Photoshop.

(On a side note: If you are in the US you can only upgrade to the latest Adobe Photoshop CS6 if you have Photoshop CS5. If you have CS4, or older, you have to buy a full licence. New rules from Adobe since last year. Previously you could upgrade two versions back. However, if you are in Europe, you are more lucky: You can upgrade to Adobe Photoshop CS6 from CS5, CS4 and even CS3! On the other hand, in Europe Adobe Photoshop is much more expensive to start with…)

Getting everything set up appropriately is not easy. First issue is the wide gamut monitor that takes some getting used to. It makes non-colour managed applications look horrible. Garish. That is a good reason to start using the Mozilla Firefox web browser, since it can manage colours. You just have to figure out how to turn colour management on in Firefox. It is turned off by default. (There’s a nice little add-on to do it.)

I quickly needed to do some pictures for a web article. They looked terrible. Like this:

kb16-2138.IMG-PROC-FIRST-CONVERSION, copyright BKWine Photography

This was originally a raw picture from a Canon EOS 5D Mk II processed in Phase One Capture One to create a tiff. It had a brilliant blue sky, bright white house, and lush green lawn.

I then processed in Photoshop with the Image Processing tool (using the options ‘convert to sRGB’ and ‘include ICC profile’) to prepare it for web publishing.

Poor colours, grey, dull, dark. As shown above. (If you don’t see this on your screen see the note (*) at the bottom of the page!)

What was wrong?

It turns out that I had not taken care to set the colour management settings appropriately in Photoshop. It was set by default as the “monitor” profile which was a calibration profile created by the X-Rite colour calibration device i1 Display Pro.

I changed the colour profile in Photoshop to AdobeRGB (1998) and the result came out much better:

kb16-2138-img-proc-conv-to-sRGB-incl-ICC, copyright BKWine Photography

Much better. Looks close to the original tiff.

The settings in the Photoshop Image Processor was: Convert to sRGB and Include ICC Profile.

I then did some experimentation with different settings in Photoshop. Here’s what happened:

Settings in the Photoshop Image Processor: Convert to sRGB and Do NOT Include ICC Profile:

kb16-2138-img-proc-conv-to-sRGB-NO-ICC, copyright BKWine Photography

In Adobe Bridge this and the previous image look identical. On the web it may be different depending on what the web browser does.

Settings in the Photoshop Image Processor: Do NOT Convert to sRGB and Include ICC Profile:

kb16-2138-img-proc-NO-conv-to-sRGB-incl-ICC, copyright BKWine Photography

Since there is an embedded ICC profile in the image my guess is that a colour managed web browser will display this correctly. A non-colour managed browser may not.

Settings in the Photoshop Image Processor: Do NOT Convert to sRGB and Do NOT Include ICC Profile:

kb16-2138-img-proc-NO-conv-to-sRGB-NO-ICC, copyright BKWine Photography

In Bridge this looks a noticeably duller than the other photos. The three previous ones look almost identical in Bridge.

Instead of using the Image Processor I also tried the Save As dialogue directly from within Photoshop:

Settings in the Photoshop Save As: Save With ICC profile (Adobe RGB):

kb16-2138-save-as-with-ICC-AdobeRGB, copyright BKWine Photography

Settings in the Photoshop Save As: Save With ICC profile (sRGB):

kb16-2138-save-as-with-ICC-sRGB, copyright BKWine Photography

Settings in the Photoshop Save As: Save WITHOUT ICC profile (Adobe RGB):

kb16-2138-save-as-without-ICC-AdobeRGB, copyright BKWine Photography

In Bridge, the two images with a colour profile (Adobe RGB and sRGB) look closely similar. The one without an embedded profile looks noticeably duller.

So, take care with your colour management settings and profiles!


(*) How these images display vary dramatically depending on what web browser you use, which again underlines the importance of using the colour management. For instance, looking at this page in Microsoft Internet Explorer the images without any ICC profile (that I have said are “dull” in the text above) display as vibrant or even over saturated. It is an easy test to do. Open the page in IE Explorer, Firefox and Chrome (for instance) and compare each image. And try it with colour management turned on and off in Firefox (select that it should manage all images). You will notice big differences. I can only hope that more and more programs will be colour managed. With modern wide gamut monitors many programs display colours very badly.

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