Saturation – the ideal level

The world around us is colored. It is not a surprise then that colors attract us. The colors in photography however assume a very important role. It is therefore important to understand how much of colors is good. The technical term for the amount of colors is saturation. Photo-editors of today use powerful algorithms to change the saturation and can vary it between zero (which is practically black and white) to such a high extent that it becomes a pain in the eyes to look at. Ideal saturation level is the one that brings out the beauty in the photograph without looking too artificial.

Fog on the hills

(Fog on the hills – a difference in saturation in the trees in the foreground and the ones on the hills gives an idea about the fog. The dark foreground also gives a sense about the late time of the evening.)

The saturation visible in the final photograph is a result of settings starting from the way the light is handled, all the way to the final print. Getting it right the first time is what makes a photograph attractive.


Capturing the colors

The effort to get the best colors starts from the time of clicking an image. Time of the day determines the overall colors and the light itself gives the correct hue. For increasing the saturation there are various tools that photographers use. Polarizers and colored filters are very useful for this (Polarizing Filters). However their excessive use can look artificial.

Camera settings do not make much of a difference if you are clicking raw (Raw files – what affects them). For jpg files, saturation level as well the color space can have an impact on the final saturation of the image.



The first step is selecting the correct color space. If in doubt, select sRGB color-space as the default. Adobe RGB is quite popular now but it is still not the default color space across electronic devices. So, the best option is to stick with sRGB. (Color Management)

Next is to correct the daylight balance and exposure compensation. Now the image would start to look slightly better than before. Saturation can now be adjusted.


Adjusting saturation is a simple matter of sliding the control that says saturation. How much to slide is what requires attention. These are the rough guidelines that I follow for getting good saturation –

Reds are the most prominent ones in any picture and these are the ones that quite frequently get blown out. Keep an eye on the histogram specific to the red color and make sure that it doesn’t get clipped at the extreme right. Even a slight increase in saturation can blow out the reds so be very careful if you are planning to increase the overall saturation.

Greens are the pleasing tones and the saturated green hues of the foliage conveys a clear atmosphere. Electric green may look very attractive initially but it is not the real thing. Look around you. See how the natural greens look like especially in the early morning sunshine, after a thunderstorm. Try to get the same saturation in your images. It is a good idea to keep the green histogram centered. Avoid pushing to any of the sides. Incidentally our eyes also are the most sensitive to greens. Any change in greens, which makes the photograph look even slightly unnatural, tend to stand out like a sore thumb.

Blues are a different matter. Since the only place where blue hues are seen in plenty is the sky or reflection of the sky in the water-bodies, these can be darkened to your heart’s content (Deep Blue Skies). Whatever seems good to you if fine. No rules are required for the blues.

Vibrance – This is a new tool that has come up in some of the image editing programs. This works only on colors which are under-saturated and increases only their saturation. Normal to well-saturated colors are left alone by it. Use it only when there is need to increase the overall saturation without blowing out any deep colors or when the skin color is to be minimally disturbed. For all other scenarios, leave the Vibrance untouched.

Reducing Saturation – Apart from increasing the saturation, there is a huge scope for reducing the saturation as well. Some of the dramatic effects that are available with various filters depend on these. Even the so called ‘drama’ filter in the mobile photo-editing app, Snapseed, tries to reduce the saturation slightly while adding graduated ND filter for the sky. A lot of beautiful looking portraits, especially with dark skin, have reduced saturation. This tends to add a touch of silvery grey to the images which is truly mesmerizing to look at. Use this technique for processing your images in a different way! Just don’t go overboard with it.


Torn net and the hills

(This photograph was processed using Snapseed app on a phone. Drama filter was applied. Notice the reduced saturation and prominence of grey tones. An almost 40% reduction in saturation here makes the image look artificial to me though my readers somehow love this image.)

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