What is color saturation in photography (beginners guide)

Saturation in photography refers to the purity, or intensity of the colors in an image. Colors with less intensity, in other words with more gray in them, are referred to as desaturated or muted. While color saturated images are striking, energetic and grab attention, desaturated colors are considered calming, even melancholy.

So, like sound, photo saturation can be loud or muted and works the same way for getting our attention.

Understanding saturation in photography and how to use it effectively will take your portrait photography to the next level. So today we’re looking at:

  • What is saturation in photography
  • How color saturation affects images
  • How to capture saturated or desaturated colors
  • Editing techniques to optimize color intensity in photos

What is saturation in photography

Saturated colors are pure colors that haven’t been diluted with any gray, white or black. So a saturated red is as red as it can get. If you add gray to the red it becomes less gray, more pink, and the red color intensity reduces.

Natural light portrait with high color saturation

Although the golden glow of the late afternoon sun makes this image look warm, it was actually quite cold, so the model put on her jacket between shots to warm up. As soon as I saw the vibrant red we changed position so that I could photograph her against the blue sky for maximum color saturation in the photo

How does saturation affect a photo?

Color saturation in photography impacts the mood of an image:

  • Highly saturated images are bright and dynamic and convey energy
  • Low saturation of colors in photos creates a calm, still and sometimes moody feeling

A highly saturated color in an otherwise low saturation image grabs the viewer’s attention and draws the idea directly to it. So, in portrait photography, dressing the subject in bright clothing is a great way to draw attention to the main focal point of an image.

How to capture saturated colors in photos

The trick for successful portraits is to match the mood of the image with the colors in the environment. And striking the right balance of color saturation is the key.

We all love a good sunset image and the reason is because of the intensity of the colors at sunset. Or sunrise for that matter. The higher saturation of colors at sunset is much more interesting than dull overcast skies.

However, you can also create beautiful, moody and emotionally deep images on dull days by harnessing the visual effects of desaturated colors on these days.

So, here 6 tips for better results with saturation in digital photography…

1. Photograph in RAW

Photographing in RAW format allows you to do more with saturation adjustments in post processing, because RAW files contain much more data than JPEG images.

So you can make color adjustments to RAW files in post processing without degrading image quality.

2. Set your picture profile in camera

The great thing about digital photography is that your digital camera offers various picture profile settings to create different looks in camera. So for more vibrant image colors you can choose a vibrant picture profile.

On my Nikon the most vibrant picture profile is called Vivid. For muted colors, I use Neutral or Flat.

Even when photographing in RAW it’s helpful to set a picture profile so you can see what the overall effect will look like after processing the image.

With JPEG format, setting the picture profile sets the colors of an image in camera and this is how they’ll appear straight out of camera. Only JPEG files look the same straight out of camera as they did on the camera’s LCD screen.

3. Select a vibrant profile in Lightroom

When you import RAW files into Lightroom, or other photo editing programs  your images won’t look the same as they did in camera. The editing software applies a color profile on import.

In Lightroom the standard profile that’s applied to images on import is Adobe Color, but you can change this at any point in the editing process.

Portrait against saturated orange wall

For color saturated photos look for colorful walls to use as backgrounds. The background is the exterior wall of a house that I scouted the day before. I chose the time of day carefully for when the the sun would be behind the building so we’d have open shade for a natural light shoot

4. Use the environment to make the most of color saturation

Understanding how the intensity of a color impacts an image, means you can plan the look of an image ahead of time.

While color saturation can be enhanced with camera settings when taking a photo, as well as in post production, it also depends on the colors in the scene. If a scene lacks strong colors, you can’t do much to create a saturated photo.

Low saturation portrait with pale colorsThe gray wall and the model’s pale pink jacket with gray stripes is in complete contrast to the highly saturated image further so has a different feeling and is much less eye catching. I used open shade natural light

How to use colors in the scene:

  • Make the subject stand out:  Because vibrant colors grab our attention, have your subject wear bright colors in a dull environment to make them stand out. Bright red, yellow and orange are all great colors for getting attention.
  • Create peaceful images: For dreamy, romantic, harmonious photos have your subject wear neutral or pastel colors in a neutral environment, like the beach in golden hour.
  • Capture dramatic images: For moody, subdued images have your subject wear dark colors in a low saturation environment like you’d find outdoors on a dreary day. Think Wuthering Heights, or to be more contemporary, the Twilight Saga.

Natural light portrait with hard direct sunlight for intense colors

I used only the hard direct light of a low sun to light this portrait and had scouted the location the day before when looking for colorful backgrounds. The model’s blue top works well with the dark green background and the red of her shoes add a wonderful pop of color to the photo

5. Impact of light source on saturation

Both the brightness and color temperature of the light source affect the intensity of all colors in an image. So natural light, artificial light and ambient light all play a huge role in a color’s saturation.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Bright and direct sunlight increases the saturation of colors, making them appear more vibrant
  • Dull light on cloudy or overcast days decreases saturation, making colors appear more muted
  • Different light sources cast different colors of light, affecting the color saturation in photos differently. So you need to compensate for the light source with your camera’s white balance settings. For example, tungsten light is very warm while fluorescent bulbs can be quite cool.

6. Saturation levels of highlights and shadows

Saturation in photography is affected by the amount of light and it’s distribution in an image, particularly in the highlights and shadows.

If you recall at the start I mentioned how adding gray (or white or black) to a color dilutes it? This is how light impacts the brightness of colors, and therefore the tones in the image.

Proper exposure in both highlights and shadows creates optimal saturation and tonal range in photos. Think of your last very overexposed or underexposed photo – not much color anywhere.

Exposure factors to consider:

  • Overexposure in the highlights makes highlight colors whiter and therefore less saturated. For example, red becomes more pink and ultimately white.
  • Underexposure in the shadows makes shadow colors blacker and therefore less saturated. For example, red becomes more maroon and ultimately black.

You need to understand the relationship between saturation and light for more visually appealing portraits.

Mixed flash and ambient light portrait with saturated sky

I used flash to light the model so that I could expose for the sky to capture the saturated colors of the end of sunset

Photo editing techniques for better color saturation

Saturation is a key component of color photography, so it’s also an important element of digital photo editing. With photo editing software you can really bring out the saturation of colors, particularly in RAW files.

By adjusting an image’s saturation levels, you can create a more vibrant and lively image or a more subtle and muted one

However, it’s easy to go too far with image processing, so take a break from time to time. Walk away from the computer and let your eyes refresh. When you come back to the computer you’ll see your image differently. Warning – this can sometimes be a little horrifying, possibly even scary.

Oversaturation can create an unrealistic and artificial look, but undersaturation can look a bit dull and lifeless. So use saturation carefully.

Lightroom offers different ways to adjust color saturation in digital images for different results. They are:

  • Saturation slider in basic panel
  • Vibrance slider in basic panel
  • Saturation slider in HSL panel
  • RGB tone curve tool
  • Saturation sliders in calibration panel

With any of the saturation sliders, move the slider to the:

  • Right to make colors more saturated
  • Left to left to make colors less saturated

Now let’s take a closer look at using Lightroom’s saturation tools to achieve the level of saturation you want in images.

Lightroom basic panel with vibrance and saturation sliders

1. Lightroom saturation slider (basic panel)

The basic panel saturation slider allows you to adjust the overall saturation of your image.

This slider needs to come with a big warning! The saturation slider adjusts the saturation levels of all colors in an image, even the already saturated colors. So if you use it, adjust the slider by small increments.

Even, better, rather use the vibrance slider.

2. Lightroom vibrance slider

The vibrance tool is similar to the saturation tool, except it adjusts the saturation of less-saturated colors first.

Lightroom’s vibrance tool is a better option for portrait photos, as it protects skin tones in an image. Unless of course you push it too far, in which case people will look weird and over saturated.

I won’t go into detail here as I’ve written a full tutorial on using Lightroom’s vibrance vs saturation tools. The best way to use these basic panel sliders is to adjust the vibrance slider first and, if you still need more saturation, then use the saturation slider.

Saturation slider of Lightroom HSL panel

3. HSL panel saturation adjustments

HSL stands for hue, saturation, and luminance in digital editing. The advantage of Lightroom’s HSL sliders is that you can adjust the saturation of individual colors in your image. 

  • The HSL saturation slider is a much more targeted way of adjusting color in post processing and gives you greater control over the colors in your image.
  • Altering color brightness with the luminance slider to make a color brighter or darker adds either white or black to the color, diminishing the purity of the color. So, if a color is too bright or too dark, use the luminance slider to correct the brightness and improve the purity of a color.

So, while the saturation slider is the main HSL slider for saturation, adjusting color brightness in your image also changes the purity of color.

Lightroom RGB tone curve panel

4. Tone curve saturation setting

Speaking of brightness levels, Lightroom’s tone curve tool also impacts the purity of colors in an image.

If you add points to the tone curve at the shadows, midtones and highlight areas then click and drag a point down to darken or up to brighten it you’ll affect the brightness levels. By doing this you could also decrease the intensity of colors.

Lightroom calibration panel with RGB saturation sliders

5. Calibration saturation sliders

The calibration panel sliders are very powerful, so require very small adjustments for big impact.

It’s another way to adjust the red, green and blue colors of an image overall. Except with the calibration sliders you affect the RGB values of every pixel in the photo.

Each color also has a saturation slider to help you dial down or up the intensity of each slider.

Saturation in image processing for portrait photographers

A portrait photographer’s use of saturation in image processing depends on their artistic style and vision, so there’s no right or wrong saturation level.

However, the saturation of a color, or colors, needs to look cohesive and intentional, not simply a random dialling up or down of various colors.

Color saturation for a natural look

For a natural look in portrait photography, use subtle tweaks of the color editing tools. Too much saturation can spoil a portrait.

White and Asian skin tones fall into the midtone area of the tonal range in photos. Because saturation affects the midtones of an image more than highlights and shadows, you need to keep an eye on these skin tones in photo processing.

Another way to alter the saturation of a specific color in the editing process is with the use of color theory.

Refer to the color wheel to find complementary colors, then create a brush with the right color to color correct an oversaturated color. For example, a green brush will neutralize red skin.

Creative use of color saturation in photography

When using saturation tools for creative photo editing you’re not limited to keeping the photo realistic. In which case:

  • You can push the saturation level more for striking, deeply saturated images with a high energy feel
  • Or decrease saturation dramatically for equally striking, but desaturated images with a dark and moody feel

Leave a comment

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

Also, I love good news, so if my color saturation tips have helped you to edit color in photos, share that too.

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