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Photography

Want Better Color? Use Neutral Gray Themes in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom

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Working in the proper environment for post-production work is important for consistent and accurate results. In the ideal setup, you want a work in an area that's not too bright or too dark, walls as neutral as possible, and controlled lighting. Second you want to work on a properly calibrated monitor. And finally, you want to process your images in your application with a neutral grey background.

That last part is really important if your monitor isn't properly calibrated. You shouldn't be working in Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, or any other graphics application with an interface that has funky colors or is very light or very dark. This will affect your ability to perceive colors, and even size accurately. The juxtaposition of these elements can cause optical illusions and lead mistakes in your post-production work.

In the real world we don't always get to control our working environment. If you work in the field or on a laptop screen, your workspace can still serve as a limited reference point for color-correction, even though the conditions aren't ideal. Monitor calibration, color checker charts, and grey booths are the best methods, but sometimes we just have to make do. A neutral background in your applications will help.

In this tutorial you'll learn which neutral grey user interfaces you'll want to use for photography: one in Adobe Photoshop, the other in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

Optical Illusions

Our eyes can play tricks on us and certain patterns and juxtapositions of contrast and color can fool us into seeing something that isn't there. An improperly colored workspace can cause Adelson's Same Color Illusion, affecting our ability to properly perceive color. There are others, but we'll focus on Adelson's since it's the most relevant example.

Adelson's Same Color Illusion

In this illusion the relative brightness or darkness of a background and the subject affects our perception of the subject's color and even its saturation, even if the subject is the same color in both situations. This is why colors seem more vibrant against black backgrounds than against white ones.

Adelsons Same Color Illusion by Edward H Adelson MIT
Although the blue circles are exactly the same color, your eye perceives them differently due to relative contrast of their surroundings.

You can verify that the colored circles are the same RGB value if you view the image in Photoshop and use the Eyedropper Tool (I) while viewing the Info Window (F8). Here is a real-world example. Same subject, different background.

A pomegranate on white and black backgrounds
A photographic example of Adelson's Same Color Illusion. (Photo: Daniel Sone Photography)

This same effect can happen if your workspace in Photoshop or Lightroom is too dark or too light. A dark interface -- Lightroom's default -- makes colors look punchy. Photoshop used to have a lighter interface which made colors appear flatter. Now, it closely matches Lightroom.

Neutralizing Your Workspace

For photographers, 18% gray is important. It is our reference point, a middle ground, in the world of exposure and color neutrality. So, we're going to set up our application's workspace to that value: 18% gray.

An illustration showing 18 50 and 100 gray squares
(left to right) An 18% gray, 50% gray, and 100% black square. (Image: Daniel Sone Photography)

It's not entirely necessary to make your entire application 18% gray, but the part that is in direct contact with your image is the most crucial.

Photoshop

It's pretty straightforward to go from Photoshop's default, or whichever appearance you currently have, to the neutral 18%. It all can be done from the Preferences Menu (Commad+K) in the section for Interface.

Preferences Window in Photoshop CS6
This is the Preferences Window in Photoshop showing the Interface options. Here you'll adjust the appearance of Photoshop's user interface.

Within the Interface portion, there's a section for Appearance where you can setup your color options for each display mode within Photoshop. We'll choose Select Custom Color... to bring up the Color Picker window.

The Appearance section of the Interface menu in Photoshop
You can choose a custom color for the various display modes in Photoshop: Standard, Full Screen with Menus, and Full Screen.

In the Color Picker window, clear out the values in the CYMK fields. Enter 18% in the K field to make 18% grey since "K" means black. The values in the other fields will automatically adjust to match in RGB, Hexadecimal, Lab, and HSB values. If the unequal RGB values are a problem to you, simply type 214 in each RGB value.

Color Picker in Photoshop
I set the black color in the CYMK section to 18% since it is the most relevant to grey in printing. For electronic/online display, you can use R = 214, G = 214, B = 214 for the same effect.

Click Ok in the Color Picker and then click Ok in the Preferences Menu. Photoshop's appearance will be changed to 18% grey.

Lightroom

Unfortunately, you cannot customize the appearance of Lightroom's interface like you can in Photoshop, including specifying an 18% grey. However, you can get close with one of the preset color schemes in the Preferences Menu (Command+,).

Lightroom Preferences Menu
This is the Interface section of the Preferences Menu in Lightroom 5.

The closest -- very close -- to the 18% gray setting in Lightroom is the Light Gray setting. This will only change the area immediately surrounding your image, but the rest will remain the same. Your selection is automatically applied.

Gray color options in Lightrooms Interface menu

Try It Out

Neutralizing your workspace is important if color perception is important to you. You'll be able to make better judgments when "eye-balling it" and believe what your monitor is showing you. Try this out and you'll see how your photography changes. You can also use Adelson's optical illusion when presenting your images online, in print, or video.

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