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Color Management Answers for Photoshop Elements

In creating Photoshop Elements, Adobe has tried very hard to create a product that can provide a quality image editing environment that is at the same time powerful enough for real work, yet scaled down enough not to eat into their full-version Photoshop sales. In my opinion, the two biggest features Adobe decided to leave out are Curves and support for color management profile conversion. Having recently taken a look at adding support for Curves to Elements, it's time to do the same with color management. It turns out it too is actually in there, buried beneath the covers, waiting to be let out.

Photoshop Elements Color SettingsAs with Photoshop itself, Elements provides an Edit >> Color Settings menu option. Compared to the full thing though, the Elements version looks a bit Spartan, offering only a single setting: a choice between "No Color Management," "Limited Color Management," and "Full Color Management." What each does though is never fully explained by Adobe.

"No Color Management" simply discards any embedded profiles on files we open and never tags new or saved documents with profiles. As such, all images would be both displayed and edited in the color space of your monitor profile since your operating system will still use it to show you what they look like. You do not want this option.

"Limited Color Management" uses sRGB as our working space profile and any new images will be tagged and edited in the sRGB color space. Elements will correctly honor sRGB profiles embedded in files when we open them, but unfortunately will discard any other embedded profiles it encounters. As such, files opened with Adobe RGB or anything other than sRGB will be treated as "Untagged RGB" and displayed just as "No Color Management" does. If you are committed to using sRGB only, this would work fine, but as we've already seen, this is severely limiting if you ever want to print. Opening an untagged image in Full Color ManagementFor this reason, I really can't recommend Limited Color Management either.

Based on its name, "Full Color Management" sounds like the winning ticket, and it is, in fact, our best choice for how to manage color. It uses Adobe RGB as our working space, but will honor the ICC profile of any documents you open that have one. If you open a document without a profile, Elements will prompt you to assign either Adobe RGB or sRGB, or to leave the document unmanaged. This does indeed cover most our needs; we'll take a look later at how to address what it doesn't.

When we print from Photoshop Elements, the Print dialog lets us convert from the document profile to our printer profile by expanding the "Show More Options" checkbox near the bottom of the window. While it would be great if Elements supported soft proofing, we can still select the desired profile and rendering intent while printing here. Source Space is automatically set to any embedded profile contained in your image so can't set it wrong.

The one thing that Elements truly lacks is the ability to convert from one profile to another, or at least so it would appear. Adobe does not give us the familiar "Convert to Profile" and "Assign Profile" menu options but clearly can convert profiles internally since it does so when we print. Photoshop Elements Printing dialogThe darned Adobe Color Engine (ACE) is embedded in Elements, but Adobe doesn't give us any knobs and dials to directly access it. It's not often we truly need to do this, but we have to in order to create images for the web since web browsers (for the most part) are not color managed and the web runs on sRGB by default. Even if we standardize on Adobe RGB, we still need a way to convert to sRGB. I really think Adobe goofed by not providing this as part of Full Color Management.

To address this deficiency, we first need a way to tell what color profile is associated with each image we open in Photoshop Elements. We've already looked at one by selecting "Show More Options" at the bottom of the Print dialog. The other one I am aware of is at the bottom of the "Save As" dialog. A check box allows you to preserve the profile for the document you are saving and is kind enough to list that profile. Either of these will let us verify exactly how what we do affects the profiles or our images. This is also what allowed me to confirm what each choice under Color Settings actually does. To double check, I also tested with a file saved using the ProPhoto RGB color space which has an even wider gamut than does Adobe RGB. If the profile ever got discarded, the image immediately took on a decidedly washed out look that let me know what I did to cause it wasn't a good idea.

I've read articles on other websites outlining confusing ways of switching to No Color Management to strip off profiles, then re-opening in Limited Color Management to trick Elements into treating the file as sRGB. But this flat out won't work. Simply discarding one profile and adopting a new one is the equivalent of assigning the new profile, not converting to it. The data in the file is not changed but is instead merely interpreted differently, causing its appearance to shift. Not what we want at all.

But there is a way to do it. When we copy and paste between two images that have different profiles, Full Color Management will indeed convert from source to target color space (Limited Color Management and No Color Management merely ignore the source profile). First, we need a blank document in sRGB color space the same size as the image we want to convert. If we don't have one, we can make one by switching temporarily to Limited Color Management, creating the needed file and saving it with the checkbox to embed the sRGB profile checked in the Save dialog. We then need to close the file, switch back to Full Color Management and re-open it. Although the saved version will have been tagged as sRGB, we must still close and re-open it since the original document would be Untagged RGB, having been created under Limited Color Management. As an alternative, if we have any sRGB files lying around, we can use Image >> Resize >> Image Size to change it to the needed size. Next, with both our Adobe RGB image and same-sized blank sRGB document open, we can simply hold down the Shift key and drag and drop our image on the blank document to convert it. The blank layer can then be deleted to give us the final file we can save for the web. Problem solved, even it is still a bit convoluted.

If you are looking for a more straightforward solution, you might want to take a look at Qimage by Digital Domain, Inc. Having grown from its humble beginnings as a way to print more than one image on a page, this $45 stand-alone program is a veritible Swiss Army Knife of image processing functions. Included among its many features is support for ICC profile-to-profile conversions. Qimage can read jpeg, tiff, Photoshop PSD, and many other image file formats.

Update 2/21/2005 - Elements users might be interested in a great new download from Ethan Hansen, the color mangement guru at Dry Creek Photo. The free program will convert any tiff file you may have from one ICC color profile to any other. Thanks Ethan!

Update 10/06/2005 - Photothop Elements 4.0 is out now (Windows only) and there are some welcome changes with regard to color management. Most notably, version 4.0 allows you to convert back and forth between sRGB and Adobe RGB. I'll be posting some updates within the next few weeks once I have time to check things out in more detail.

Date posted: January 23, 2005 (updated October 6, 2005)


Copyright © 2005 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Previous tip: Stealing Contrast with Photoshop Curves Return to archives menu Next tip: Color Management: The Eyeglasses Analogy

Related articles:
Color Management: Feeling Lost?
Color Management: Color Models, Color Spaces and Color Profiles
Color Management: A Question of Intent
Color Management: Photoshop Color Settings
Color Management: Monitor Profiling
Color Management: Printing Without Pain, Part 1
Color Management: Printing Without Pain, Part 2
Color Management: Converting versus Assigning
Color Management: Troubleshooting Common Problems
Photoshop Curves: Stepping Up From Levels
Curves (and Other Goodies) for Photoshop Elements
Color Management: The Eyeglasses Analogy
Color Management Changes in Photoshop CS2
Color Management: Scanner and Digital Camera Profiling

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