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 are good. The technical term for the amount of color 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. The 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, the saturation level as well as 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.


The Color Adjustments

Adjusting saturation is a simple matter of sliding the control that says saturation. How much to slide is what requires attention. For good results, each color should be handled separately. Before proceeding with correcting color saturation, the color temperature should be adjusted first. (Balancing Act (in Color))

These are the rough guidelines that I follow for individual colors, for getting good saturation –


Red Flowers

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. The aim while increasing the saturation of red (or the overall image containing red) should be that the texture and fine gradations are maintained in the red.

The image above has a predominantly red color, though it is should well be within a normal range, yet the reds appear blown out. The histogram says otherwise. So, it’s better to keep the reds within control! I had posted this image on Instagram. Due to the forgiving nature of many mobiles and also the expected bright colors on Instagram, this image looks fine there.

Just for your information – Cyan is its opposite color. Increasing Cyan reduces Red, leading to color-correction.


Greens are the pleasing tones and the saturated green hues of the foliage convey 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.

In the above image, the greens are well within the histogram, but, the blues are overblown. Even then the blues look fine but they affect the greens by changing the overall hue and making the foreground trees look too artificial.

The only place where I feel the need to change greens is when the light is getting reflected on to some other non-green surface. A local correction is needed then. Adding Magenta (opposite of Green) helps. This is color correction and not changing the saturation!


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. Just don’t end up turning them into some psychedelic blue which looks artificial. Also, make sure that the change in their saturation does not affect any other derivative colors. See how the blues have affected the greens in the above image.


Guidelines for good Skin Tones

Since our eyes are most sensitive to problems in colors of skin tones, some more tips for portraits –

  • Skins of babies look better when they are a little pinkish. Avoid cyan at all costs.
  • A little bit of warm touch makes the skins of adults look better but an excess of it can make them look sick.
  • In cases of mixed skin tones, it helps to increase the shadow and highlight details. The light skin should not get blown out and the dark skin should not be underexposed.
  • Darker skin tones have an increasing amount of cyan too apart from the regular mix of magenta and yellow. (Reducing the saturation further brings out the beautiful darkness of the skin tone)

There are a number of recommended formulas for reproducing skin tones accurately. Each image editor has its own recommended formula. These formulas are usually expressed as relative percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK scale)
One such common formula for adult white skin – find the cyan value, magenta should be double that of cyan, and yellow should be around one-fifth to one-third higher than magenta (20c 40m 50y).

Once again, calibrate your monitor, use the correct color-space and then experiment with what works for you. Remember with skin tones, a lower than normal saturation usually looks better than over-saturated.


Other Adjustments related to Saturation

Vibrance – This is a new tool that has come up in some of the image editing programs. This works only on colors that are under-saturated and increase 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.


As the name says, this one changes the overall saturation of the image. All colors and all levels are equally affected. Increasing it will increase the saturation of all the reds, greens, and blues, and obviously, all the colors formed by them (that’s the whole spectrum for you!). Reducing the saturation reduces the saturation for all the colors.


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. A classical case of going overboard with editing. )

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 are truly mesmerizing to look at. Use this technique for processing your images in a different way! Just don’t go overboard with it.


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