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I'm trying to export a short, 6 second GIF in Photoshop. It looks great on the canvas, but very washed out after the export. I know the GIF format has a maximum of 256 colors (and I select that) but is there a way to make it select 256 better colors? As is, it does a poor job.

Image (oddly enough it seemed to distort the colors as a still image as well, here's a screenshot):

enter image description here

GIF:

enter image description here

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First up, Dithering is your friend. It will certainly make gradients and highlights look better.

In your Export preview, check the different dithering options to find the optimal setting. Depending on the image, using a different dithering — "Diffusion", "Pattern", or "Noise" — can look better (or worse).

Next, make sure you export the gif using "Adaptive" with 256 colors for optimal color usage.

Last but not least… related to the fact you say that export does "distort the colors", I would like to point you to the color profile you are using. GIFs (in contrast to JPGs) do not support color profile embedding, so GIFs will always fallback on sRGB. To prevent related color-shift issues, check your Photoshop "Color Settings" (via Edit menu, or with Shift+CTRL+K) and make sure it is configured to use sRGB IEC61996-2.1 by default in "Working Space — RGB".

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I struggled with this issue as well. I found that using this shortcut:
Ctrl + Shift + Alt + S

pulled up the image in preview mode with the exact same quality as before, and ready to save as gif. I only had to hit Save and the result was my edited gif without any loss of image quality. Not sure why this works, but it did for me. Hope it helps!

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