Photography Editing Terms Camera Settings & Specs Photography Color Theory

What is Saturation in Photography?

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Written By Nate Torres

This is a guide covering color saturation.

You may be a photographer looking to understand better saturation for photo editing or 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!

What is Color Saturation?

Simply put, 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 the colors on your computer screen are made up of three primary colors: Red, Blue, and Green.

rgb color
red, blue, green (RGB)

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

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

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 will briefly explain those other two terms so that we can better understand 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 that represents 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 is often confused with Saturation as a term. 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 a flower as an example. 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 appear 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 should have a clear understanding of saturation. 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 in areas where there is a clear difference in the RGB digital number.

This means that colors closer to middle grey will not be seriously impacted.

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

Compared to this, the vibrance slider does not take 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, however, deals with the difference between darker and lighter tones.

When you increase the contrast in an image, a considerable difference is created between the darker and lighter tones.

high contrast photography
high contrast image

We often refer to such an image as one that has 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.

High Saturation vs Low Saturation

From a purely aesthetic point of view, I prefer things neither overcooked nor undercooked, so 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, reopen the photo editing application you are working on, reopen the image in question, and check if it feels cheesy.

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

Tips for Getting Good Saturation in Photography

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

The reason is that 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 sun’s light 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 to tweak 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 many factors, some colors are always oversaturated compared to others that are straight out of the camera.

Any attempts to tweak the image’s saturation 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 I use is to 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 color 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 bring it close to the right color temperature, you automatically render the colors in the photograph as closest to pure as possible.

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:

Controlling Colour in your Photography (Hue, Saturation and Luminance)

Final Remarks

Saturation impacts an image regardless of whether it is a black-and-white image or a colored 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 an image’s saturation, stay within reasonable limits, and you should be fine.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does saturation affect an image?

Saturation is the intensity or purity of a color in an image. Increasing saturation can make colors appear more vibrant and eye-catching while decreasing saturation can make the image appear more muted or subdued.

How do you know if a photo is too saturated?

If a photo is too saturated, the colors will appear intense and vibrant, and the image may lose detail in the highlights and shadows. To check for this, you can compare the image to a reference photo or adjust the saturation levels until the colors look balanced and natural.

Does saturation mean brightness?

No, saturation and brightness are not the same things. Saturation refers to the intensity or purity of a color, while brightness refers to the overall lightness or darkness of an image.