Vibrance Vs Saturation

Want to change the intensity of colors in your photograph? Most photo-editing applications provide two tools for doing this – Vibrance and Saturation. Though quite simple, these are still misunderstood and misused quite a lot. Here is a short and simple explanation.

(Snow-peaks with mild adjustment of Saturation and Vibrance)

What is the Saturation adjustment?

Saturation deals with the complete photograph. Each and every element that you can see! Changing the saturation changes the intensity of the colors in whole image equally. If you increase the saturation, everything will become more ‘colorful’. Some things that are already nicely colored will become even more so to the extent of loosing out the subtle details. This is called ‘saturated’, or for technically minded, this is where the clipping occurs in those already bright colors.

The change is saturation is applied uniformly across whole of the image!

(The image on the left is the original. It was captured on a cloudy day and the red cloth lost its impact. The one on the right is with Saturation tool. The cloth looks bright red, and a lot more beautiful then the original dull color. However, notice the skin color. Even that is saturated along with the cloth and as a result looks bad. And, this is when the slider was not moved to its maximum.)

What is Vibrance adjustment?

This is an additional tool that also impacts the saturation level but with more brains. Vibrance changes the saturation level of only those colors that are subdued in the original photograph. Colors that are near their clipping threshold (deeply colored), are not changed. So, increasing the Vibrance enhances the dull colors without blowing out the already bright/deep colors.

Another additional thing that I have observed is that Vibrance does is that it does not change the colors near the skin tone region too much. So, for increasing the background colors of a portrait, Vibrance is the go to tool. It won’t affect the skin tone as much as the subdued colors in the photograph.

Vibrance just changes the colors that need changing !  (This is easier to understand, especially in the present times when over-cooked photographs seem to rule the social media)

(Here, I have used the Vibrance Tool in Affinity Photo. It was pushed to its maximum. Notice how it has minimally changed the saturation of skin. Just a little bit of the cloth. Take a look at the green design in her cap! That has been nicely enhanced. Even the spots in the wall in the background are also sightly more saturated.)

What about reducing the colors?

Here, the saturation acts as expected. It reduces the overall ‘saturation’ of colors. Every part of the image is treated equally.

Vibrance ? Now, this is where the things get interesting. It initially reduces the overly saturated colors, without touching the ‘under-saturated’ colors, but after a certain level, it seems to reduce all the colors.

These are my personal observations with a couple of common image editing programs. As always, I recommend opening an image in your favorite image-editor and trying out the controls for yourself. Compare the before and after effects. Learn for yourself !

… and remember !

Don’t over-saturate or under-saturate the image. These look unreal and don’t hold a viewer’s attention for long. The right level works most of the time. Flip between the original image and the edited image to understand how much you have edited the colors.

If you are still confused and want to enhance the colors, go for Vibrance. It’s not as easy to go overboard with this as with Saturation tool.

I also advice taking a time off every now and then from photo-editing and looking outside at how the world actually looks. After staring at computer monitor for too long, our eyes adjust to the color saturation and extremely bright or dull photographs may start to look normal. Taking short breaks to admire the nature outside, brings the ‘color-adjustment’ in our eyes back to normal.

Terrace Farms

(This is a desaturated photograph. Somehow, to me, this combined with a slight adjustment of shadows gives a very ‘oil-painting’ like feel.)

What about Legends?

Experts use Layers and Masks too for better control, instead of directly applying Vibrance or Saturation.

But, Legends? Legends are a different breed. They use the Curves Tool.

Yes, playing around with saturation is possible with the Curves Tool too. This gives a far better control and a far more scope to spoil the image ! It’s good to use when you want to show off or if you happen to be a masochist. For ordinary folks like us (the non-Legends variety), Vibrance and Saturation are more than enough.

(Read this – Curves Tool at your service)

Further Reading:
Saturation – the ideal level
Our Eyes vs Camera
Have you overdone it?

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