Photography Glossary

What is Saturation in Photography?

March 20, 2023 by

This is a guide covering color saturation.

Maybe you are a photographer looking to better understand saturation for photo editing or maybe you are an artist researching color.

In this guide, we use examples of photography, but the concepts apply to graphic design, art, videography, and any other art form that involves color.

With all that being said, let’s dive in!

Table of Contents

What is Saturation in Photography?

In very simple words Saturation refers to the intensity of a color in an image. Increasing the saturation of a color in a photograph will only increase the intensity or in other words the vividness of the color in the photo.

We can also define Saturation as manipulating the pureness of a color.

All colors that you see on your computer screen are made up of the three primary colors – Red, Blue, and Green.

rgb color
red, blue, green (RGB)

Did you know that every color that you see on your computer screen has a digital form? It is expressed by a number formed by three whole numbers.

In order for a color to appear as perfect red on your computer screen, the corresponding digital form is 255, 0, 0.

We can also say that this corresponds to the color red in its maximum saturation because there are no other colors (as indicated by the zeroes for the other color codes) in this mix.

Hue, Saturation, and Lightness are often referred to in the same breadth and are termed together as HSL.

Although we are not going to delve into the details of Hue and Lightness in this discussion, I am going to briefly explain those other two terms so that we can have a better understanding of Saturation in the context.

Why Is It Called Saturation?

The word Saturation means qualitative. When used in context with photography it refers to the purity of the colors.

The purer the quality of color the higher the digital number representative of that color.

Saturation affects all the hues in an image regardless of whether they are in the shadows or the highlights.

saturation in photography example
color hue of purple/pink

This is the reason why saturation has a global impact on a photograph. In that sense, saturation is completely different from Vibrance.

It is also important to note that Vibrance as a term is often confused with Saturation. Saturation and Vibrance are completely different.

While Vibrance only impacts the most saturated colors, Saturation impacts all colors in an image.

How Is Saturation Used in Photography?

The simplest and the most direct use of saturation in photography is to increase the vividness of the color(s) in a photograph.

Let’s take an example of a flower. If we increase the saturation of the colors representative of the flower, the flower will appear more vivid and therefore more saturated.

Let’s take another example.

Let’s say you’re photographing a landscape scene. By simply tweaking the saturation sliders you can make the sky appear bluer, and the foliage appears greener and more colorful.

saturation in photography example
high saturation makes these colors “pop”

Because saturation has a global impact on a photograph all the colors are impacted. Tweaking the saturation slider does not add any tint or color cast to a photograph

Difference Between Saturation and Hue?

By now we have a clear understanding of what saturation is. It is the purity of the hue in a photograph.

Hue is what everyone perceives color as.

So, saturation and hue are linked together but they’re not the same thing. At the same time, one would not work without the other.

Difference Between Saturation and Vibrance?

Along with the saturation slider, many photo editing applications also have another slider known as Vibrance.

The Vibrance slider sometimes tends to respond better when you’re trying to push the saturation up.

As we know the Saturation slider only works with the areas where there is a clear difference in the RGB digital number.

Meaning, that colors that are closer to middle grey will not get seriously impacted.

On the other hand, colors that are definitely redder, green, or blue will get seriously impacted.

Compared to this the vibrance slider does not have a similar approach to pushing the intensity of the color. At times it tends to do exactly what we want.

It pushes the saturation of the areas where we want it to go up and does not impact other areas where saturation is already present to a reasonable extent.

There is a difference in the algorithm between how the Saturation and the Vibrance sliders work. The best approach is to use both sliders and balance the effect according to our requirements.

Difference Between Saturation and Contrast?

As we have learned in this discussion, Saturation deals with the purity of the Color in question.

Contrast, on the other hand, deals with the difference between darker and lighter tones.

When you push the contrast in an image a considerable amount of difference is created between the darker and the lighter tones.

high contrast photography
high contrast image

We often refer to such an image as one that is having a lot of contrast (between the darker and the lighter tones). The lack of contrast in an image creates a washed-out look.

Some photographers often confuse contrast with clarity. It is important to mention here that the two are different and have different effects on an image.

While contrast affects the shadows and the highlights of an image clarity directly affects the Midtones.

What’s Better, High Saturation or Low Saturation

From a purely aesthetic point of view, as someone who prefers things neither overcooked, nor undercooked, both high saturation and low saturation are unacceptable.

You want to have the color saturation of your photographs as perfect and as visually pleasing as possible.

That means the saturation slider should be used with discretion and only to the point where it appears realistic.

The best way to achieve that realistic effect is to close the photo editing application and take a five-minute break after you are done editing it.

Come back after five minutes, re-open the photo editing application you are working on and re-open the image in question, and check if it feels cheesy.

If it feels cheesy then probably the saturation effect has been overdone.

Tips for Getting Good Saturation in Photography

When we talk about good saturation in photography, we mean acceptable saturation.

The reason being in nature it is very difficult to find pure colors because of the ambient light that shines on them and makes them less pure.

For example, the light of the sun falling on a red flower contains different wavelengths of light in a composite wavelength.

This makes the red flower appear less red than it is. If we attempt at tweaking the saturation of the red color in post-processing it will appear unnatural.

Another problem that we often face is getting any image that is uniformly saturated.

Depending on a large number of factors some colors are always oversaturated than others straight out of the camera.

Any attempts to tweak the saturation of the image will result in the oversaturation of the colors in question.

Therefore, it becomes important to keep an eye on the photographic composition to confirm which colors are already saturated. To avoid over-saturating them several different techniques are used.

1. Check RGB Imbalance

One of the simple tips that I use you should check the RGB imbalance in the image. When post-processing the image check for the digital values of the colors.

If the RGB values of each of the colors are pretty much the same there is very little possibility of the colors getting saturated when you tweak the saturation slider.

The greatest promise of saturation is where the RGB values are skewed.

2. Work the White Balance

Another simple tip to get a good saturation is to work the white balance of a photograph.

The greatest advantage of shooting in RAW is that you don’t have to set the white balance before the shot.

You can always tweak the white balance if you have a reference point.

When you adjust the white balance and make it close to the right color temperature you automatically render the colors in the photograph closest to being pure.

From this point onwards if you tweak the saturation slider you will be able to saturate the colors even more.

One of the favorite usages of the saturation slider is to convert a color photograph into a black and white one.

Believe it or not, this is one of the best ways to create a black-and-white photograph, especially when you combine the effects of the saturation slider with the lightness slider.

To further explore tips and cap off this article, check out this in-depth video by Sean Tucker in which he explains how to control color in your photos:

Final Remarks

Saturation has an impact on an image regardless of whether it is a black and white image or a color one. It enhances the purity of the hues, and at other times, subdues the vividness of the colors by converting them into middle grey as per our requirements.

Therefore it serves more than one purpose. When tweaking the Saturation of an image stay within reasonable limits and you should be fine.