Color can be a Photoshop user’s best friend or their worst enemy. When you get that perfect edit, it’s a euphoric feeling that can only be deflated by the frustration of seeing your save file inexplicably desaturated, bearing a mysterious color cast, or looking just plain “off”. A few different things can cause this to happen, and without a firm understanding of post-processing color management you may feel at a loss. Fortunately, there’s an easy starting point for gaining basic knowledge of the right color settings for your files, and we’re ready to walk you through it!
Color spaces may seem complex at first, but they are one of the most powerful color management tools in a photo editor’s arsenal. When setting up a workflow, this little pocket of Photoshop is a great place to start, since it can affect the appearance of your image from the moment you open your file. Finding the correct color management setup for the work you do will give you a good start to every project, so let’s get started with a basic overview of working spaces and what they can do for you.
Before we dive into working spaces, it’s important to take a refresher on the different color modes (sometimes called color models). The two major color modes we’ll talk about today are RGB and CMYK. These color modes serve different purposes and it’s necessary to know which one will yield the desired result depending on the project you are undertaking.
RGB and CMYK color modes work in different ways to produce the color you see in your images.
RGB Color Mode
The first thing to remember is that light is additive, while pigments are subtractive. When you view your images on a screen, that screen is producing colors in the form of light. RGB color mode combines the primary colors of light (red, green, and blue) in different combinations to produce the colors you need. It is best used for viewing on a screen. If you fill each pixel with the most saturated version of all three colors, you will get white. Sounds counterintuitive, right?
Most people have been taught from their first elementary art class that the combination of all colors is black (or black-ish), and that’s certainly true when you’re mixing paint. Your computer screen is not a Crayola product, though. Your computer screen emits light, and light and pigment behave very differently, which is why it is in situations involving light where RGB (forgive a pun) shines.
Some printing services are optimized for RGB files, and that’s fine. You will probably get satisfactory results for run-of-the-mill prints with an RGB file. The colors may not be 100 percent true, but generally you’re not going to send an RGB picture of a cow to a professional printing lab and receive a blue cow back (unless the animal was, in fact, blue to start with). Especially so if you opt in for the color management option that most pro printers offer, and pro labs often have recommended settings for optimal results listed on their websites.
For magazines and other printed media, however, RGB may not always cut it. Such publications may have more specific submission requirements. That’s because, when printing an image, the ink (or pigment, as we called it earlier) is producing colors that work in a completely different way from what you’ve been seeing in your editing software. In these cases, you can sometimes request a customized color profile that is specific to their printing process.
CMYK Color Mode
This is where CMY comes in. CMY, unlike RGB, is subtractive. You’ll commonly see this as CMYK, as the mixture of colors will not always produce a reliable black without the addition of black (or K) itself. You’ll notice that I’m talking about adding colors to create black in this instance, because unlike RGB color, CMYK color is very much like your Crayola paint set. Cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks are layered or mixed to create the desired color.
It makes sense that this would be the mode of choice for printed media, since we’re talking about how the pigments used to print your images will behave. The challenge here is that you are editing these soon-to-be printed images on a screen.
Whether you’re editing for online display or tweaking an image soon to go to print, each screen has its own opinions about how a specific color should appear. Backlight, contrast settings, and other nit-picky calibration factors can affect your experience on a given device. To compound this, the output of a device’s screen can alter over time, so your settings from five years ago may be showing you something different today unless you’ve been diligent with your calibration.