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The more attention you pay to the color in your photos, the more aware you’ll become of how vibrance vs saturation impacts color when editing photos in Lightroom and other editing software.

Color is one of those subtleties that you need to learn to see and the only way to do this is with practice. Just like with light. As a new photographer you’re not aware of light direction and quality, but with time you start to notice light and shade.

With practice when processing and printing images, you’ll start to see the subtle differences in color. After a time, these color variations will be glaringly obvious…and that’s when you go back and re-edit old photos!

It happens to all of us. So, if you get to the point where you’re looking back at old photos and you’re cringing, congratulations! You’ve advanced in your photography journey.

But back to color…

Colors create an emotional response, so it stands to reason that how we use color in photos is really important for the mood of a photo. We’re drawn to vibrant colors and because of this you’ll often see/hear photographers discussing how to “make colors pop” in photos.

A big part of this is adjusting saturation and vibrance.

Further reading: Color in photography – the ultimate guide

Lightroom vibrance and saturation sliders

On the left vibrance was reduced to -100 in Lightroom and left saturation at 0, while for the photo on the right I reduced the saturation slider to -100 instead and left vibrance at 0.

As you can see, both vibrance and saturation can be used to increase or decrease color intensity, but they do it differently. As you’ll see lower down, it’s very easy to go too far when you don’t know when to use vibrance vs saturation

So let’s take a look at using vibrance vs saturation for better editing of color in photos.

What does saturation mean?

Saturation refers to the intensity of colors in an image. When an image is highly saturated colors are rich, bright and strong. When saturation is low, colors appear washed out and, as they become more desaturated, they veer towards grayscale.

This is as true for painting as it is for photography.

how light impacts saturation in photos

On the left she’s wearing pale yellow and is backlit, so the sky is not saturated. The photo on the right was taken 1.5 hours later, just before sunset, so the sky is a beautifully saturated blue and the light on her is a golden yellow. In addition, her clothing is deep orange and yellow and she’s lit from the side, so it’s a much more saturated image.

How do you capture saturated colors in photographs?

Saturation in photography is a result of light. The angle, direction, quality and quantity of light affects the saturation of colors.

You can easily test this out yourself with the torch on your phone and a colorful sheet of paper.

  • Hold the torch close to the paper so that you can see a round circle of light.
  • Colors at the center of the beam, where it’s brightest, are desaturated, or washed out.
  • They become more saturated away from the center and are especially saturated beyond the edge of the light.

When you photograph with the sun behind your subject, colors will be less saturated than if the sun lit the subject from the front (behind you).

Another big factor affecting saturation is the color of the light source itself. The clearest example is sunrise and sunset vs blue hour vs midday:

  • During the golden hour, the atmosphere filters out blue light so the color of light is warmer with yellows, oranges and reds. As a result these colors are most saturated in photos.
  • The blue hour is great for saturated blues in the sky, because the light is blue.

Further reading:
Golden hour photography – when is it and why is it so amazing?
Blue hour photography tips and tricks for creative photos

What is saturation in photo editing?

When you decrease or increase the saturation slider in Lightroom, you affect all the colors in the image. It’s a heavy handed tool that will adjust colors, regardless of how saturated they already are.

This can result in some very unnatural looking colors, depending on what you’ve photographed. In addition, if you get carried away and oversaturate an image, you could lose detail in some colors and cause posterization (more on that in a moment).

Skin tones go orange when the saturation is set too high, so if you photograph people, you need to be very careful with the saturation slider.

difference between vibrance and saturation

Here’s an extreme demonstration. On the left the vibrance slider is all the up to +100 and saturation is on 0. For the right image I did the opposite – saturation is at +100 and vibrance is at 0 …and she looks like she’s just rolled around in a bag of Cheetos!

What is posterization?

Posterization occurs in post production.

Another term for posterization is banding, because when an image is posterized, we can see distinct bands of color in areas that should be smooth, like the sky. You’ll also see spikes (like a comb) in the histogram when an image has been posterized.

So go easy on the saturation slider – it’s one of the main causes of posterization.

What does vibrance mean?

Vibrance as a photography term is used in photo editing and, like saturation, also refers to the intensity of colors. However, vibrance is something that’s adjusted in post processing only.

Vibrance is not something that you can control when capturing an image.

Lightroom color processing

Here’s a more subtle adjustment of vibrance and saturation. On the left vibrance is -25, saturation 0. Then on the right, vibrance is 0 and saturation is -25. In both photos the colors are less vibrant, but on the left, her skin retains some color.

What does vibrance do in Lightroom?

The vibrance slider in Lightroom is much more subtle than the saturation slider. It’s also quite clever.

While adjusting the saturation slider is a broad change across the whole image, the vibrance slider will first alter only colors that are under-saturated. So if you already have well saturated colors, they won’t initially be affected when you increase vibrance.

Only once you’ve increased the vibrance to the point where the image is evenly saturated and then increase it further, the saturation of the entire image increase. It will then be oversaturated. Obviously, like anything, when vibrance is pushed too far it’s going to create iffy colors that don’t look good.

For portrait photographers in particular the vibrance slider is often a much better choice than the saturation slider, because you can adjust colors without skin tones being affected. Unless of course you take the vibrance slider too far and then of course skin tones will start to look odd.

advanced vibrance and saturation techniques

How you process a photo is a matter of personal taste and style. These two versions of an image show how just a few small adjustments can make a big difference to the overall mood.
In the image on the left I increased the vibrance (+11) to make the muted colors more saturated, then I reduced the saturation (-32), to reduce the overall saturation equally and made all the colors pop.
For the image on the right I increased the saturation (+11), which affected all pixels equally, and brought down the vibrance (-32) which muted the less saturated pixels.

Tips for using vibrance and saturation in photo editing

  • When editing in Lightroom with either slider, it’s best to toggle between before and after versions of your photo, because your eyes adjust to the colors you see. When you view the unedited image, you can see just how far you’ve taken your vibrance or saturation. As it’s very easy to take it too far, on reflection you might realise that you need to dial it back a bit.
  • Remember that the natural world isn’t saturated to the max. Saturation varies throughout a scene, depending on light. For better photos, keep your color adjustments subtle so that color doesn’t overpower the image.
  • When adjusting contrast and/or exposure, keep an eye on the colors as both of these sliders will affect color saturation and you may need to make further adjustments to both saturation and vibrance as a result.

Online Lightroom workshop for professional photo editing

Summary of vibrance vs saturation

  • Just to underline the vibrance vs saturation point in relation to photo editing – the difference is about subtlety in color processing. You could call vibrance a “smart adjustment” – not every pixel gets changed like it does with saturation.
  • Vibrance relates purely to editing a photo – it’s not something you can control when you capture an image.
  • Saturation of a scene is affected by light when taking a photo, but saturation can also be adjusted when editing photos.

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If you have any questions about vibrance vs saturation, let us know in the comments.

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By Jane Allan

Jane is the founder of The Lens Lounge and a professional portrait photographer living on the “sunny” south coast of England. Obsessed with light and composition. Will put her camera down to go landsailing.

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