Quick Photoshop Interface Adjustment to Help You Avoid Perception Errors

I've taught something like 100 or so private or group classes since 2012, many of which dealt with retouching in Photoshop. The main thing I noticed about other users' Photoshop settings? They all kept the same default, dark interface that Photoshop comes set to. However, I don't think those settings are helping your work. Here's why.

First and foremost, let's get some technicalities out of the way. For one thing, every single human being has a slightly different perception of light and color, and every single one of those humans who owns a computer is using said computer in an environment that's different from everyone else. Second, some media productions firms, especially larger ones, have environments specifically created for optimum and consistent color and value perception, as well as color management specialists who help keep all systems reliably consistent.

That said, for those of who work on our retouching in our studios, office or at home, we often take for granted the small but important details about our work environment. While your physical environment while retouching is a subject for a future article, I've put together a super short video tutorial on changing the absolute most important aspect of Photoshop's interface: the value of the grey tool bar, palettes and windows. 

As mentioned in the video, the 18% grey card we all know and love (or totally ignore) exists for a reason. 18% grey is quite color and value neutral, and as such is an ideal baseline for determining white balance. Therefore, the next logical assumption is that 18% also doesn't distract or obstruct your eye's perception of color and value when it's in direct proximity of your image. 

I'm betting you've seen this optical illusion. But even if you have, try to imagine how this can radically affect your retouching approach. After all, if your mind thinks an image is too dark, simply because of it's immediate surroundings, you're going to edit it to compensate. While it will look good to you, at your desk, on your computer, in your room, it will almost certainly look different to most everyone else. Not to mention when you print it. 

No, this isn't a trick. The squares labeled A and B are, in fact, the exact same shade of grey. If you need to prove it to yourself, pull this image off your browser and into Photoshop, then use the eyedropper tool to compare the greys. If this isn't the clearest example of how proximity affects perception, I don't know what is. (If the animation isn't playing, refresh your browser.)

Before you panic, or hurriedly scroll down to the comments section to tell me you prefer a dark interface and have had nothing but success using it and therefore I have no idea what I am talking about, hear me out. 

Remember, everyone is different. But more importantly, it's a new world, and your photography is almost always going to first be seen on someone's computer. Like any web designer will tell you, trying to create artistic content that's has to be viewed on tens of thousands of varying environments, platforms and devices is an enormously frustrating undertaking. The best anyone can do is try to go for the most neutral approach that, ideally, accommodates the lowest common denominator. If your image is delicately balanced to look ideal on a nice even grey background, it does not mean it will look bad on a black or a white background. It will simply look different. However, if you tailored your image to look ideal on a white, or very light, background, it could look problematic on a very dark or black background. Finding that middle groove is the best option, and often the simple adjustment of changing your interface value (brightness) setting can help you tons.

Check out some additional perception test images/animations:

This one isn't an animation, but conveys the same idea. Look at either grey square for a few seconds, then casually glance over to the other grey square for a few seconds. You will see a marked difference in the perceived value of the grey when you do this, despite the fact that they are both identical. Here again, pull this image into Photoshop and eyedropper the grey boxes to prove it to yourself.

Apart from value, color and apparent size affect your perception as well. Notice how it "hurts" to look at the smaller grey square in the red area, and as you glance back and forth between the red and green panels, your eyes get "off", and your perception becomes muddy quick. Furthermore, extremely saturated color affects your perception radically as well. This is why my computer desktop background (wallpaper) is simply a solid, light-medium grey. I don't want anything to mess with my perception while I am on my workstation.

In this far more real world example, watch the animation while going back and forth from the left image to the right image. While both images are on white backgrounds, they appear simply as copies. When the black background appears on the right, suddenly the right image seems brighter. This is very apparent when you specifically notice the bedsheet's brightness.

Do watch the video, and let me know if you have any additional thoughts or questions on this!

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19 Comments

Paulo Macedo's picture

Why I never thought of this? Nice tip Nino!!
Is your wife doing better?
Regards!

Nino Batista's picture

Yes, thank you - we are taking it day by day!

Paulo Macedo's picture

Nice to hear that. Hang in there! :)

Joshua Pheneger's picture

I always love seeing how our eyes and mind take "shortcuts" - thanks!

Your article made me notice something odd: the medium grey is not the same in Photoshop as it is in Lightroom. Try it! With everything set to medium grey for the backgrounds they are quite different between lightroom and photoshop, wtf...

Nino Batista's picture

I don't use Lr, but I'll go see ...

See my post below: you can change PS to match LR's background color to true Medium Gray.

James Howard-Davies's picture

I've never given this issue a moments thought. I have always (since the newer versions) left the interface dark. I have just made the switch and must thank you, holy smokes what a difference. Its a bit easier to judge image brightness, contrast etc. It is also more comfortable on the eye, it has room to breathe and feels less strained (for me anyway). It seems my eyes were fighting the contrast of the dark background against brighter images. Thanks again.

Nino Batista's picture

I actually tried to research why Adobe set the interface to the darker value intentionally, reasoning they must have a fantastic reason I wasn't aware of (or didn't prefer). I didn't want to write this article or make this video in case Adobe had some amazing reason for the darker interface, and I'd look like a fool. However, after thinking about it further, I realized I DO prefer the lighter grey, and was going to write about it regardless, as I believe in using it, 100%.

Glad to hear it works for you too!

There were some comments asking for a dark interface IIRC on the Adobe Forums years ago, to "modernize" the interface. I'm sure you're also aware of Adobe's quest to unify the GUI's of all of their titles incl. Illustrator, Indesign, etc. a few versions ago. The "common" request was to go dark like Lightroom and Premier at the time.

I'm only speculating, but it appeared to me at the time that people were most often equating "pro" software with dark interfaces like those used in movie editing (FinalCut, Premier, AfterEffects) and 3D (Maya, Zbrush, etc.).

Considering that photos are still often printed (they are aren't they?) and a graphic arts discipline, it always made sense to me to have a neutral background. Whereas video, 3D and effects are almost always delivered and consumed on similar devices to where they are created (TV's and monitors of all kinds), making equal sense to use deep dark workspaces to be sure to pop the midtones /highlights and get the deep dark contrast that is so in vogue.

In summary, "reflected vs. absorbed light" workspaces... that at least Adobe gives us the opportunity to change to visually aid in producing a better end-product whatever that may be.

Dan Ostergren's picture

I just made the switch and noticed an immediate change as well. Great article, thank you for the tip!

Nino Batista's picture

I actually tried to research why Adobe set the interface to the darker value intentionally, reasoning they must have a fantastic reason I wasn't aware of (or didn't prefer). I didn't want to write this article or make this video in case Adobe had some amazing reason for the darker interface, and I'd look like a fool. However, after thinking about it further, I realized I DO prefer the lighter grey, and was going to write about it regardless, as I believe in using it, 100%.

Glad to hear it works for you too!

I see you're once again giving away all the pro tricks ;)

Actually.... IMHO this is the ONLY way to set up your workspace, although there is one more trick in the bag you haven't let out yet.... so I'll do it for you :0

Within any "screen mode" when hitting the tab key, you can change each background color to your liking by right-clicking on the background and choosing "Custom". Because I also come from a print background I feel most comfortable with using 50% gray, which is RGB 128/128/128.

RGB 128/128/128 is also the exact "Medium Gray" that Lightroom uses. You can also change the background in LR the same way by right-clicking. I of course see no reason to and keep it to true Medium Gray.

@ Alice Avenue - you're right: PS uses RGB 98/98/98 which definitely is NOT "Medium Gray". You can change that as I mentioned above to match LR.

NOTE: I also use RGB128 for my desktop background. This happens to also allow you to see when your monitor is in bad need of a calibration... or repaired, as was the case with my 6-month old iMac. :)

Thanks doc! Do you know if there is a way to change the backmost background in photoshop? You know, the one that never moves and is there even when no image is open?

Unfortunately the "Application Frame" as its called, is determined solely by the Interface preference setting. You'll notice as you switch interface tones that it takes on the color of the darker accent color of the toolbars, panels, etc. Truthfully I don't think Adobe could make it any other way. That they give you the chance to even turn off the Application Frame is surprising enough.

Brandon Silvera's picture

Ive had this dilemma for a while. I noticed that the interface can throw you off. Ive been using Ninos setup for months. People always ask me why. I can just show them this article now.

Aku Pöllänen's picture

Great article Nino! I've given this topic some thoughts also as I've noticed that the background color definitely affects on how you see the image. However, I'm interested to know if it also works the other way around. Now you are working with lighter image so the lighter grey background works better but I would guess that if I was working on a dark image the light grey background would give false feeling of darkness on the image. Am I right or does the light grey still work better in your opinion?

Nino Batista's picture

The opposite is definitely true. If you use a light, or white, background while you edit, I would wager large sums that you'll end up with an overexposed looking image.

Spy Black's picture

If you hang out in nightclubs a lot, you need to leave it dark...