February 29, 2008

Make Photoshop sample colors outside the app

Thanks for all the feedback and suggestions about improving Photoshop’s color-picking tools.  I’ll reply to many of the comments once I get a few free cycles.

In the meantime, I notice that many people are asking for Photoshop to gain the ability to sample colors from outside the application.  That capability is there already: grab the Eyedropper Tool, then simply click and hold on a document, then drag elsewhere on the screen.  Notice that the foreground color on the toolbar keeps updating as you move your mouse.  When you let go, the sampled color will be your foreground color (or background color, if you were holding Opt/Alt when you clicked).  I’ve confirmed that this behavior works on the Mac, and I believe it’s the same on Windows, but I don’t have a machine handy on which to check.

Clearly this behavior isn’t very discoverable, but I’m not sure what would make it easier to find.  Some commenters noted that the color picker in Flash and other former Macromedia apps makes it easier to sample colors from outside the app: when you mouse away from the preset color swatches, it keeps sampling colors under the mouse.  That’s true, though I’ve often found that behavior annoying (i.e. I end up sampling things I didn’t intend to sample).

I’m glad the topic has come up, and I’ll bounce some ideas around with the UI and engineering folks.  Hopefully there’s a way to get the best of both worlds.

Posted by John Nack at 5:55 PM on February 29, 2008


  • Rob — 7:42 PM on February 29, 2008

    I can’t get my Windows version to do this. Maybe I’m not understanding your instructions correctly, but anytime I click with the eyedropper on another app, that app becomes active, and there’s no change in the foreground color.

  • Rob — 8:27 PM on February 29, 2008

    Ignore my previous comment; I misunderstood what you were saying. The trick, it seems, is not simply to click on a Photoshop document, but to click within the document. Then, with the left button still depressed, move over another portion of the screen. Nice tip. Thanks.

  • Andrew Smith — 3:58 AM on March 01, 2008

    I suppose a workaround would be to take a screen shot of your item to be sampled, place it in to a new Photoshop file, and take your sample internally that way?

  • John Waller — 4:44 AM on March 01, 2008

    “The trick, it seems, is not simply to click on a Photoshop document, but to click within the document. Then, with the left button still depressed, move over another portion of the screen.”
    Yes, I’ve now found this behaviour too.
    Must say I don’t find it at all intuitive though. I wouldn’t have found it without reading this blog post.
    I would much prefer the eyedropper cursor (and behaviour) to remain active wherever I move my mouse on the screen – not disappear as soon as I move the mouse outside the Photoshop document window unless the left mouse button is pressed.
    “when you mouse away from the preset color swatches, it keeps sampling colors under the mouse. That’s true, though I’ve often found that behavior annoying (i.e. I end up sampling things I didn’t intend to sample).”
    I’ve never had any problems with unwanted sampling with this behaviour. To me, it’s just a natural and expected part of the workflow.

  • greg Geisler — 8:19 AM on March 01, 2008

    I still like the system picker wheel and slider for picking colors. Why not toss this into a tab in the color panel?
    And a great example of a color-reader is xScope (the one webdev utility i cannot live without). Real-time feedback of the RGB, HSB and hex values on mouseover.
    I agree about the irritating aspect of the rollover eyedropper (Flash) but I still think that that approach is better than having to click and hold/drag. Why not- Select eyedropper, provide color feedback on hover (anywhere on screen), Click to select. That would make it more obvious to the user. And then toss in a modifier key to bring up the Loupe functionality of xScope! ;^)

  • John Larson — 8:54 AM on March 01, 2008

    Matt Kloskowski on Adobe Photoshop Killer Tips had a short video tutorial on this earlier this week.

  • Rob — 10:32 AM on March 01, 2008

    Two suggestions re this behavior:
    (1) Better document it in Photoshop Help.
    [You know someone who reads the help?? ;-) –J.]
    (2) Would it be possible to have Photoshop’s info window show the color values of the pixel(s) under the eyedropper not only when the eyedropper is on a Photoshop document but also when, using this behavior, it is sampling from other parts of the desktop?
    [I learned long ago not to ask whether something can be done, as the answer is usually, “Sure–it’s all just software.” The key questions things to ask are how much do you care, and what’s it going to cost? I can certainly ask about the cost. –J.]

  • Joe Lencioni — 10:53 AM on March 01, 2008

    That’s true, though I’ve often found that behavior annoying (i.e. I end up sampling things I didn’t intend to sample).

    To get around this, you could add a checkbox up at the top where all of the tool options are that says something like “Sample globally.” That way it would be more discoverable and out of the way at the same time.
    [Hmm… you’d still have the problem of determining how to get into and out of this state. You wouldn’t want to be unable to click to another app whenever the eyedropper is active & you’ve told it to sample elsewhere.
    The Flash color picker’s approach is that once you’ve clicked the color block on the toolbar, you’re sampling everywhere, and clicking anything will sample it (including bits of the Flash environment itself). If you don’t want to sample a new color, you have to hit Escape. Maybe we could take a similar approach and offer a checkbox for shutting off the behavior if it’s unwelcome. (Obligatory disclaimer: I should, as always, emphasize that this is just thinking aloud, not a statement that we’ll be able to make any particular change in a future release of Photoshop.) –J.]

  • Adam — 11:07 AM on March 01, 2008

    @ Rob: the info window doesn’t show this info outside of the PS document, but the Color window does. Just set the color mode to the one you’re interested in, and watch the sliders move all over as you drag the color picker around your screen.

  • thorsten wulff — 11:38 AM on March 01, 2008

    haha, excellent John, thats what I call a “powertip”, I would have never found that ;))

  • dd — 12:43 PM on March 01, 2008

    Thanks for great tip! I agree- you have to be careful with flash color sampler and after getting known this secret Photoshop feature- I’d probably vote this way is better :) ..The only problem- there is a very small chance one could find this feature naturally and somehow you have to be told it exists..

  • Adam — 2:39 PM on March 01, 2008

    @ rob above: The info window does not show the color information, but the sliders in the color window do update when sampling color from across the desktop. Just set that window to display your preferred model and you’re good to go!

  • Shangara Singh — 12:13 AM on March 04, 2008

    I did an article on sampling colours very recently. If interested, click on my name and then Category > Photoshop in the sidebar. I only just started the blog recently, so have only posted a few articles but more to come…
    Regarding usability, this feature is hidden but if it wasn’t, would people want to use the Crop tool to trim their browser window and Type tool to compose their emails? ;-)

  • Dave — 5:25 AM on March 05, 2008

    Speaking of feature requests. I would love love LOVE it if inside the Liquify filter I could make the brush much larger than the current (and somewhat outdated considering current image sizes) 600 max. Pretty please with a cherry on top :)

  • André Zimmer — 2:07 AM on June 11, 2008

    Thank you for this valuable and useful tricks. There is nothing better than to get a good tip and can work faster.

  • Dan — 5:58 PM on June 12, 2008

    I think it would be a great tool for Adobe to come out with a firefox extension to help with such things as color grabbing.

  • Scott Graham — 5:15 PM on June 13, 2008

    if you happen to be on a Mac, the OS comes with digital color meter which does what you want.
    I have not used it in quite a while, but recall that it may not be perfect :)
    Still it seems that it wouldn’t be that hard to implement in PS?

  • Alan — 3:22 PM on December 29, 2008

    it would be best if PS would have square brushes on its liquify filter

  • Meharwade — 4:46 AM on March 12, 2009

    How to get Adobe color picker in Flash CS3…?

  • hdpl — 9:25 AM on March 05, 2010

    i second this! thanks so much!!!

  • ionrane — 6:48 PM on May 06, 2011

    Ha, Ha.

    Thanks for the post.. I had gone through all combinations I could think of: click-drag, ctrl-click drag, shift-alt-click-drag (from the color spectrum..), etc.

    I always forget this shortcut because I try to use it from WITHIN the Color Picker Dialog Box.!

    Is it possible to add the same functionality to the Color Picker Dialog? This is the most useful workflow scenario..

    I love that PS is so versatile.


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