Photoshop CS4 Color Settings

Once, and for all

Never thought I’d blog about something as individual as PS Color Settings… Then again, there is so much conflicting, incomplete or downright inaccurate info on the web, I thought it might be time to set the record straight.


First of: Like more things in photography life there is no “Magic Bullet”. If that’s what you are looking for, better get used to this idea: You need a basic understanding of Color Management.
On the bright side: The settings in the Color Settings dialog box affect a number of things. However, unless done totally wrong, how your images are displayed is not one of those things.

Settings nobody should use

There is no “Magic Bullet”, but there is a “one size fits no-one”: The setting called “Monitor Color”.

'Monitor Color'. Don't ever use it.

What does it do? Let’s go through the main problems step by step:

It sets your monitor profile as default working space. So every time you calibrate your monitor (you do that regularly, right?) your default working space changes. And your default working space is limited to your monitors gamut. Not good if you are on a laptop for instance.
One additional problem is that equal values for R, G and B might not give a neutral gray. And there are other problems.

One of those problems is, that it sets all color management policies to “off”. Note that, contrary to popular belief, setting “monitor profile” does not turn off color management altogether: The one good thing in all this mess is that you are presented with this dialogue box when opening an image with an embedded profile:

Profile Mismatch. So there is some colormanagement going on.


The damage you can do here is very real:
If you tick the top option (“Use the embedded profile”), no damage is done. The image will be shown correct, and all data is retained. Not bad at all.
If you pick option #2 (“Convert to working space”), irreversible damage is done: The pixels in the image will be converted (changed!) to your monitor profile. Color numbers are converted (so colors will display correctly), but all colors out of your monitors gamut will be clipped. Poof! Gone. Forever.
If you pick option #3 (“Discard the embedded profile”), at least you won’t be damaging the file on import as in option #2 (it’s reversible by assigning the correct profile). But you will not be seeing the image correctly. So any “color correction” you do will be incorrect. The fact that the color numbers aren’t changed is a moot point because of this: What you see definitely will not be what others see.

Other problems

Yet another problem is that, even if you use embedded profiles, you will get no warning when you copy-paste an image into a new document (which by default will not have an embedded profile), or into an image with a different working space: The colors will change. See option #3 above.

So, I see no reason for anyone to use it. Not even web designers. Yes, I know that lots of browsers are not color managed. However, there are not lots of people using your screen, are there?
The only reason to temporarily set it, is when you need to check whether Photoshop is using the correct monitor profile.


Just about any of the other “presets” is better. These presets are grouped in a few categories. When you scroll trough them, you might notice a few things:

There are settings for Europe and North America. And in every region there are 3 settings: for “General Purpose”, “Prepress” and “Web/Internet”. When you tick “more options” Japan appears, which has the same trio but adds “Color For Newspaper” and “Japan Magazine Advertisement Color”. There also appear a few other “international” presets.

Rather then going into each one in depth, I’ll generally explain some differences and possible pitfalls: They are “presets”, but IMO none is perfect. You can use them as a starting point however.
I start of with “more options” unchecked. And the screenshots are for the European presets. However, the comments I give are the same for the other localisations.

General Purpose

'General Purpose'. It isn't all that general.

It Isn’t. It’s really that simple. Like I said: There’s no magic bullet.
Main drawback is that you get no warning whatsoever for profile mismatches: When you open two images in a different working space, and paste one into the other, colors will be converted. Which, as said, is irreversible and might give irreversible damage. If I’m going to damage my image, I damn well want to be notified.


'Prepress'. Quite okay actually.

Is quite a decent choice if you are doing prepress work. Profiles are preserved, you are warned when you get a mismatch, and reasonable profiles are chosen for CMYK, gray and spot. (depending on the area you chose, CMYK and dot gain are different.) Then again, if you are doing prepress work, I’d hope that you know enough about color management that you don’t need to read my thoughts on it…


'Web/Internet'. For limited use.

This is the only preset where converting to working space might make sense in my opinion: If you are just doing work for internet, anything should be sRGB. If you have to ask why: Read my blogpost on the subject. Then again, I’d like a warning if an image has no embedded profile: In some cases it might be because someone screwed up. This is largely a personal preference however.

Other presets

Are “more of the same” (two other Japanese presets only differ in CMYK, gray and spot from Japan Prepress2). The “Phase One” workflow is the odd one out: It sets a gray profile of Gray Gamma 2.2 which is quite sensible. Then again, the CMYK profile is “Euro-Catalog”, which I never need.
The other options (Colorsync (mac only), PS5) are obsolete legacy.

Create your own

Since everybody’s needs are different, it makes sense to make your own preset then, doesn’t it? Sure! But you need to know what each setting does. Some things are pretty straight forward, others not so much.

Default working spaces: RGB

Pretty much up to personal preference. The question “what RGB color space is best” I’ll leave be for now. Use whatever working space you use in your raw converter of choice. Two points I do want to make: If you don’t understand color management, do yourself a favor and use sRGB as a working space everywhere. On the other hand, if you are using a wide gamut color space (anything larger then AdobeRGB) do so in 16 bit per channel only!
Settings never to use are AppleRGB, ColorMatchRGB or GenericRGB. These are based on monitors that went the way of the dodo…

CMYK and others

For CMYK working space: Most people won’t ever print something on an offset press, so won’t ever be needing CMYK. When you do need it, make sure the printer tells you what profile to use, and set that as the default: It has some impact further down the road in PSCS4.
Don’t ever use GenericCMYK or one of the “old” Photoshop CMYK settings here: No good reason to. When in doubt, you probably won’t ever need it, so pick the “default” for your region.
Same goes for Gray and Spot working space. If you do a lot of grayscale images for web, gamma 2.2 is the best setting. If you print them to a specific Offsetpress and you know what dot gain to use, by all means do. But in that case you probably wouldn’t be reading this article… For same reasons as above never, ever use Gamma 1.8. It’s obsolete.

Policies and Notifications

Choose “Preserve Embedded Profiles”, unless as explained above, you are a web designer and have thought about the subject a bit.
I don’t see the need to tick the “Profile mismatch: Ask when opening” box, since I edit images from a known source, and the embedded profiles are what they are for a reason. So YMMV. I do tick the “Ask when pasting” and “missing profiles” boxes. The first because I want to be notified if an image profile is converted, the second because if there is no profile embedded, someone screwed up.

'Profile Mismatch': Are you sure you want to convert without checking for clipping that might occur?
Note that if you choose “Discard the embedded profile (do not color manage)” here, the image will be shown as if it had the default working space embedded. This has the same effect as assigning your default working space: The image won’t display accurate, but it is reversible (by assigning the proper profile).

'Missing Profile': It's likely that someone screwed up.

Another note (a big one) is that PS somehow doesn’t display this warning when pasting an image without profile into a document with an embedded color space! Colors will change.

Advanced: Conversion options

Engine: Leave at “Adobe (ACE)”. It’s the best choice, and if you have a specific reason why you would want to use another, you would not need my advice.
Rendering intent: Either perceptual or relative colorimetric for photographic images. Which is best will depend on the image. Not that this setting matters much: This is the rendering intent used by default when you go Image > Convert to profile (where you can change it in the dialog box) and it is used when going Image > Mode > CMYK for instance (which I would strongly advise against, since it offers no preview and no direct control)
The description says it all:

Description of Black Point Compensation

Always tick “Use Black point compensation” and also “Use Dither”: It makes banding or posterization much less likely.
The last option “Compensate for Screen -referred profiles” is only important if you make documents for Adobe After Effects. In that case: Tick it. Otherwise: Tick it as well, since it won’t matter then.

Advanced, but not to be used

“Desaturate Monitor Colors By” and “Blend RGB Colors Using Gamma”: Easy: Don’t tick those. They are not meant for photographers. Again: Read the description:

Description of 'Desaturate Monitor Colors By'

Possible pitfalls

As already mentioned, the settings set in the “Conversion options” will be used when changing from one color space to the next by going Image > Mode. So do not go there. Use Edit > Convert to profile instead. Yes you can also use it to convert from RGB to CMYK…

Convert from RGB to CMYK profile

Another, less well known fact, is that the default profile is what determines the values in the info palette (Color picker) for anything but the color space the image is in. So if you use a CMYK or grayscale color picker on an RGB image, the readout will be for your current default CMYK or gray working space!

Readout of the info palette is dependant upon Color Settings

Another of the stupid less-then-brilliant decisions on Adobes part was to have the Select > Color Range > Out of Gamut selection be based on the default CMYK working space. Makes no sense whatsoever and makes the tool all but unusable for anyone who prints at home, but there it is…
Here is an sRGB image, softproofed for my Epson R2880, using glossy paper. The Gamut warning is on and shows no out of gamut colors. Notice the selection?

'Select Color Range > Out of Gamut' is based upon default CMYK Working Space. Stupid.


After reading this, you should know enough about the subject to create your own settings. After you did, save them as your own preset. It might also be a good idea to add a description.
Here’s mine:

My settings

My settings

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3 Responses to “Photoshop CS4 Color Settings”

  1. steve Says:
    February 10th, 2010 at 04:49

    This is good stuff

  2. Fred C Says:
    September 18th, 2010 at 21:49

    Thanks for this. I’m having a hell of a time with CS4. Weird weird weirdness. when printing. Never had the issue with CS. Anyway, this helps me get to a good baselline. So again, thanks.

  3. Mike Says:
    January 7th, 2011 at 16:12

    Wow, this can get so complicated. But I know my monitor(s) aren’t calibrated properly and I can’t stand it.

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