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Color Profiles in Photoshop
by kp

Last month, I reviewed some basics about color management and how to calibrate your monitor for the best quality images. This month, I'm going to give a brief tour of color profiles and how they are used in Photoshop. To begin, let's review some of the color management terminology.

Monitors and printers use two different ways of producing color. Monitors use additive color created by light and have a wider color gamut or range of colors. Printers use a subtractive color method through man-made pigments. These pigments have a limitation on the color gamut they can generate. To find a solution to this issue, the ICC (International Color Consortium) has assigned "color spaces" to specific devices depending upon their output type. Since monitors and scanners use RGB, color profiles help them match up with printers using CMYK. These profiles can be designed by the hardware manufacturer, can be custom optimized, or left generic.

As mentioned previously, you can calibrate your monitor yourself to make your own color profile or stay with the manufacturer settings. This can be accomplished by utilizing your operating system's control panel or video card software. Another option is to use a colorimeter that can measure and adjust the monitor's settings to the surrounding light conditions. One example of a colorimeter is the PANTONE huey. Using an external USB meter and software, it creates a new color profile based on the ambient light levels within your monitor's area. Unless you work in a controlled environment with no windows, you may be surprised how colors can change depending on the light levels throughout the day.

Once your hardware is set up appropriately, it is time to move onto your image editing software. To illustrate how color profiles work, I am using Adobe Photoshop. There are many other photo editing programs available, but Photoshop offers the best features for managing color profiles for professional results. With this program, you can embed an ICC color profile into an image so that your pictures look and print consistently across hardware devices. For this example, I am using Photoshop CS2 on a Mac, so the menus may vary depending on your version. Please refer to Adobe Support for additional information on how to use color profiles in later software.

After starting Photoshop, open your image to edit. Go to Photoshop -> Color Settings. In this menu, there are many pre-defined color profiles already listed under the Settings drop down box.

Color Pref Menu

By default, the North American General Purpose Defaults may be selected. Depending on your final output, you can leave this as default or select another profile or create your own. When you move to another profile, notice that the Working Spaces and Color Management Policies change with each. You also have the option of adjusting each space or policy to suit your needs. This includes color syncing for dot gain in printing or gamma in web graphics. Note: Dot gain is the amount ink bleeds beyond its applied area when it soaks into paper. Coated paper has less dot gain than uncoated paper such as newsprint. Color profiles can assist in controlling the saturation of the ink and minimize dot gain keeping images looking crisp and clear.

You can import third party color profiles into Photoshop by clicking the Load button in the Color Settings menu. To find a specific hardware manufacturer color profile, go the manufacturer's web site or to the ICC's website. There is in-depth information on how to use profiles, participating manufacturers in the ICC program and even a free ICC profile inspector available to analyze a profile's settings.

With the profile set and image editing done, the final step is to save your image with a profile. To do this, go to File -> Save As. In the menu, select your format type and check the "Embed Color Profile" that you previously defined in Color Settings.

Save Color Profile

Now, you can use your image's custom settings to have a consistent output on other hardware.

Shop Online:
Adobe Photoshop CS3 Extended
Adobe Photoshop CS3 (Windows)
Adobe Photoshop CS3 (Mac)
PANTONE huey

References:
Adobe: Setting up your monitor for color management (PDF)
Adobe Tech Note: ICC profiles in Photoshop 6.0 and later
International Color Consortium

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