How To Master Saturation In Your Images

Saturation Is An Essential Key To The Success Of Your Images
One of the most distinctive features of a visual artist’s use of color is their use of saturation. When you think of Ansel Adams’ photographs you think of neutral images rather than highly saturated ones. When you think of Matisse’s paintings you think of supersaturated images rather than neutral ones. Think of your use of saturation as an essential element that will help you define your own signature style.
One of three elements of color (luminosity, hue, and saturation), saturation can give your images specific qualities of energy and light. Here are five things you can do with saturation: one, increase energy and impact; two, add complexity by revealing hidden hues; three, restore life to listless hues; four, calm colors that are distracting; or five, produce softer semi-neutral and pastel palettes.
Read more about Saturation here.
Together, Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop offer an impressive, almost overwhelming, array of possibilities for controlling saturation. Do three things before you choose a tool to adjust saturation with. First, understand and develop your eye for saturation. Second, adopt a consistent strategy for exploring the possibilities it offers your images. Third, understand the differences between the tools, both how they function and the effects they produce.
Know What To Look For
Knowing what to look for will help you choose a direction, a tool, and how far to go with it. It will also help you evaluate the results you produce – and quite possibly improve them further.

Three key concepts will help you visually evaluate saturation relationships.
One, the saturation of a color is tied to its lightness; change one and you’ll change the other unless you make additional adjustments to compensate or a tool does this for you on the fly. A color can seem bright because it’s light or saturated or both.

Darkening or lightening a color past a certain point will change its saturation.

Two, an important but not often discussed quality of a color is described as weight. Darker colors tend to feel heavier but hue and saturation can change this.

Colors with hue variation appear more three dimensional.

Three, contrast within an area of color (internal contrast) will make an area of color appear more complex and naturalistic. No matter what element of color adds contrast (luminosity, hue, or saturation), without internal contrast colors appear flat. In photographic images, this often gives the impression of being over-processed or false.

The same color will appear to be different when surrounded by different colors.

Contrast with other colors near an area of color (external contrast) may produce an optical illusion that a color is more or less saturated. Surround a color with similar and/or more saturated colors and it will appear less saturated. Surround a color with complementary and/or less saturated colors and a color with appear more saturated.
Read more about color theory here. 
Saturation is different. While luminosity either lightens or darkens, and hue either warms or cools, saturation either makes colors richer or more ethereal. When taken to extremes, it disrupts realism much faster than the other two elements of color; we don’t see the world in black and white or in super-saturated color. “How do you know whether you haven’t gone far enough or you’ve gone too far?” is an important question, because somewhere in between lies your answer.
Incubation X
Incubation X

Oversaturated colors show telltale artifacts. 

Watch For These Four Signs Of Over Saturation
There are four telltale signs that an image is suffering from increased saturation; noise, posterization, clipping – and possibly realism.
Color noise will likely be accentuated. (Take additional steps to subdue color noise first with the Detail panel’s Noise Reduction sliders or if it requires an industrial-strength solution with another software like Noiseware.)
Push saturation hard and you may produce posterization, which is most visible in image areas with smooth gradations. If this happens, you’ve hit the limit. Noise reduction won’t help you here.
Similarly, very saturated colors may clip losing tonal separation. If this happens, you’ll see this in the histogram of one or more channels. If this occurs during Raw processing find a more localized solution either reducing the saturation of those areas with the Adjustment Brush or reducing global saturation to prevent clipping and then saturating select areas locally. Avoid trying to cure clipping in Photoshop, there are times when it can’t be done and when it can it’s rarely as pretty as well-processed Raw data. In Photoshop, if you encounter clipping due to saturation, try changing the blend mode of the adjustment you’re using to Saturation; this will prevent luminosity shifts and may recover tonal separation in very saturated areas.
Some colors may look unnaturally saturated (like you’ve never seen in real life) and become distracting. If this happens, back them off if you want to direct viewers’ attention to other aspects of an image; color can quickly steal the show from content. Find another way to make your images feel brighter; try more luminosity contrast and/or warmer colors. If unnaturally saturated color is what you like, ask yourself, “Why not take more liberties with more colors?” and “Why not transform hue too?” Make your choices seem intentional.
Whether A Color Is Under-Saturated Is Relative
Unlike over-saturating colors, which produces one palette and many technical flaws, under-saturating colors produces few technical flaws and many palettes.
In a full color palette, under-saturated colors may seem dull, dirty, gray, ashen, or even dead. They may also appear less three dimensional or flat because of their lower internal hue contrast. But all of these liabilities can be turned into assets in the right contexts, in the context of other colors within an image and in the shared context between other images.
You can’t say whether a color is under-saturated or over-saturated until you determine its context or establish a dominant color palette. There are five color palettes that all work well with other images of their kind, but not with others; neutral or black-and-white (essential), monochrome, semi-neutral and subdued (antique), full color (realism), and super-saturated (hyper-realism or expressionism). Think of them as different genres of literature – or even realities (Kansas and Oz). On their own they’re all wonderful. Combine them and you produce confusion, a mixed message. It’s not that you can’t successfully produce image in multiple palettes; it is that they’re more successful when presented separately. When you’re producing images in a particular palette the upper and lower limits within that range can be determined by when colors pass into the next color palette. (Accent colors can be used with out ruining this recipe, if they are used strategically.)

4 distinct palettes – highly saturated, full color, subdued color, neutral

A Strategy For Adjusting Saturation
Set Luminosity Before Saturation
Set luminosity contrast before you set saturation. Unlike Photoshop, where blend modes can be used to eliminate saturation shifts, during Raw processing increasing luminosity contrast increases saturation. Sometimes setting luminosity contrast will move saturation closer to your desired result but doesn’t go far enough, so use the Saturation and/or Vibrance to go further. Other times, saturation will rise too much, so use Saturation and/or to pull back to a desired appearance. (Often, blue skies will become over-saturated while other colors will look just fine, maybe even better than fine. If you see this happen, you can quickly cure this with the HSL panel’s saturation sliders for blue and cyan.)
Go Global Before Local
Set global saturation and then balance the relationships between different hues. Very often your best global solution will be found in some combination of both Saturation and Vibrance sliders. Set this by eye to your taste; there are no ideal numbers, nor is a specific ratio to achieve between Saturation and Vibrance, and there is no one solution that will fit all images or individuals. Explore your options; deliberately under-saturate and over-saturated, then pull back to your preferred solution. Be bold. You won’t know if you’ve gone far enough until you’ve gone too far. Then go with your gut. Just be mindful of how others are likely to respond to your final solution but don’t let that determine your solution for your images. And if your solution is too challenging for most then find other ways to build bridges back into your work.
Often, you’ll find that while you set overall saturation well, specific hues remain either under-saturated or over-saturated. Address these imbalances locally with the Saturation sliders that target eight separate ranges of color in Lightroom and Camera Raw’s HSL panel. The HSL enables you to adjust both luminosity and hue in addition to saturation, which can affect the final saturation solution you find.
Finally, if you choose to adjust saturation in specific areas of an image, use the Gradient Filter, Radial Filter, or Adjustment Brush. With this final step, you’ll only have one slider – Saturation.
If you still want more color adjustment or selection options, move into Photoshop. Look particularly at Hue/Saturation and Select By Color Range.
5 Go To Tools
What are the tools you can use to adjust saturation? Adobe offers five go to ways for precisely controlling color’s third element saturation; Lightroom/Camera Raw’s Saturation, Vibrance, and HSL sliders and Photoshop’s Hue/Saturation and Vibrance adjustments.

Lightroom / Camera Raw’s Saturation Slider at 100%


Lightroom / Camera Raw’s Vibrance Slider at 100%


Photoshop’s Vibrance Slider at 100%


Photoshop’s Hue/Saturation’s Saturation at 100%

Confused By So Many Options?
If you’re not confused about the differences between Adobe’s many saturation and vibrance sliders, you probably haven’t spent the time to look carefully at their results and dispel the illusion that they’re all the same. They’re not. They each generate different results, sometimes subtle and sometimes dramatic.
If you are confused, you know that there are two sliders named Saturation and two sliders named Vibrance; they exist both in Lightroom/Camera Raw and in Photoshop. And into this mix, you get to add HSL’s eight saturation sliders.
Be mindful that the sliders in Lightroom and Camera Raw can be applied in two ways; first during Raw processing and second in Photoshop as a filter. Use the Camera Raw filter in Photoshop if you want to apply the sliders to localize it with a mask or make it more precise / remove a side effect with a blend mode, two things that don’t exist in Lightroom and Camera Raw.
What a relief! The same sliders in Camera Raw and Lightroom and Camera Raw produce identical results. (They’re the same algorithms wrapped in a different interface.)
Now, maybe, you’re less confused.
A little more detail will shed a little more light.
How Do You Choose ?
Is it the devil or God that’s in the details? This depends on whether or not you pay attention to them. Understanding the differences between these five tools will help you choose which to use, when, and why. Here’s an in-depth look at Adobe’s five go to tools for adjusting saturation.

Vibrance and Saturation can be found at the bottom of Lightroom’s Basic panel.


Vibrance and Saturation can be found at the bottom of Camera Raw’s Basic panel.

Saturation – Lightroom & Camera Raw
Saturation excels at brightening more saturated colors.
The Saturation slider affects all colors equally. Unlike its Photoshop counterpart Hue/Saturation it has an upper limit built into it to prevent clipping or loss of tonal separation in very saturated areas. The color relationships it produces tend to feel lighter and airier than those produced by the Vibrance slider.
Vibrance – Lightroom & Camera Raw
Vibrance excels at intensifying under-saturated colors and producing weightier effects.
The Vibrance slider affects less saturated colors more than very saturated colors. It also produces reduced effects in flesh tones (and similar colors) to prevent oversaturated “sunburned” appearances. The final results tend to feel darker and heavier. (If the colors were reproduced with paint it would be applied more thickly.)

Photoshop’s Vibrance Adjustment

Vibrance – Photoshop
Photoshop’s Vibrance adjustment does the same things that the sliders in Lightroom and Camera Raw do as an adjustment layer, which can be further refined with a blend mode and a mask.
Photoshop’s Vibrance offers two sliders; one for Vibrance and one for Saturation, which produce identical results to those found in Lightroom / Camera Raw. These Saturation sliders can only go half as far as the Saturation slider in Hue/Saturation, for worse (They’re limited.) and for better (They produce fewer artifacts and rarely clip.)

Lightroom’s HSL Panel


Camera Raw’s HSL Panel  

HSL Sliders – Lightroom & Camera Raw
HSL excels at producing results targeted to specific ranges of hue.
While Lightroom and Camera Raw’s HSL tool offers no single slider that will affect all colors simultaneously (To do this you’d have to move all eight sliders equally.) its many sliders will allow you to target effects into eight separate color ranges – Reds, Oranges, Yellows, Greens, Aquas, Blues, Purples, and Magentas. For times when you don’t know what range a color in an image is you can use the targetted adjustment feature (the little bullseye in the top left) to identify it by clicking on it in the image; often, this will produce changes in more than one slider.  The effects it generates can be subtle or substantial, and yet with them, it takes some doing to overdo it. Changes in saturation can be customized for single ranges of hues; use it to preserve or produce a desired balance between colors after global saturation shifts. Changes in hue can be significant but are not capable of transforming one hue to another; they remain within the same color family. Last but not least, changes in luminosity do not reduce dynamic range or tonal separation, making it one of the best ways to lighten or darken a single hue.

Photoshop’s Hue/Saturation Adjustment

Hue / Saturation – Photoshop
Photoshop’s Hue/Saturation tends to produce brighter, lighter, airier effects. It excels at controlling transitions between adjacent hues.
Photoshop’s Hue / Saturation adjustment offers three sliders; Hue, Saturation, and Lightness. The Hue slider is best suited for making dramatic hue transformations rather than subtle adjustments; use it to change one color to another. While it lightens or darkens the Lightness slider reduces dynamic range removing typically desired tonal separation; use it only for flat fields of color, if at all. The Saturation slider (more intense than any other) is where this tool truly shines.
The key to this tool is that you can use any of these sliders for all colors (Master) or for six individual color ranges – Reds, Oranges, Yellows, Greens, Blues, and Magentas. While there are two fewer sliders than Lightroom / Camera Raw (no Aquas or Purples), unlike Lightroom / Camera Raw each of the color ranges can be customized. When you drop down from Master to a single range of colors two triangles surrounding two lines will appear in between the before (above) and after (below) rainbows at the bottom of the panel. Colors inside the two lines will be 100% affected by any adjustments of the HSL and this effect will fade off gradually to the triangles; what’s outside the triangles will be completely unaffected. You can adjust any of the lines (decreasing the range to affect fewer tints of a color or increasing the range to include more tints and even multiple hues) or triangles (making transitions more abrupt, sliding them closer to the lines, or gradual sliding them further away from the triangles). You can redefine a range of colors using the Eyedropper Tool to click on an area of an image and even expand it with the Add To Sample dropper or contract it with the Subtract From Sample dropper. Now that’s precision!
Use this tool with care. With it, you can easily overcook your colors. However, if highly saturated unrealistic effects are what you want to produce, this is definitely the tool for you. Hue/Saturation can go where no other tool dares to go.

Photoshop’s Blend Modes as found in the Layer’s palette.

Photoshop Offers Blend Modes
There are no blend modes in Lightroom / Camera Raw but there are in Photoshop. You can use Photoshop’s blend modes to modify the effects of any adjustment, filter, or tool. While few users will use them all, too few users use or even know about them. You’ll find them at the top of the Layers palette and you can access them in the Edit > Fade command. At a minimum learn the four blend modes that specifically target the three elements of color found at the bottom of the Blend Mode drop-down menu –  Hue, Saturation, Color (a combination of Hue and Saturation), and Luminosity. With them, you can increase the precision of most color adjustments and eliminate many unwanted color side effects.
Read more on Blend Modes here.

 Contrast added – Normal and Luminosity blend modes compared.


Hue adjusted – Normal and Hue blend modes compared.


Hue adjusted – Normal and Color blend modes compared.


Saturation added – Normal and Saturation blend modes compared.

In Conclusion
I’ve given you a clear roadmap into this critical element of color, saturation – develop your eye for it, adopt a consistent strategy for editing it, and understand the differences between the best tools available to edit it.
Now, take this to heart.
Be more concerned about how your image looks than your choice of tools. Tools are just a means to an end. So is color. Take the time you need to do the exploration, find out what’s possible, decide what you like, and why you like it. Your personal sensibilities and intentions are what will give purpose to your images – and no amount of technique will ever be a substitute for that. Above all, make the things that are meaningful to you.
The way to get better color in your images is to get better at seeing color and developing a personal relationship with it. Love it. Pay close attention to it. Test it. Explore it. Play with it. Spend time with it. Give it the care it deserves and you’ll breath new life into the colors in your images – and by extension into your soul.
You can develop your eye more quickly and deeply by putting your observations into words – so you can avoid your past failures, repeat your past successes, try new targeted experiments, make new discoveries, connect them to other things, and know what they mean. Ask why. Ask why again and again … and again. You’ll be surprised by the answers you’ll find. They may become very personal.
Look carefully. Think critically. Feel deeply. Respond appropriately.
Read more on Color Adjustment here.
Learn more in my digital printing and digital photography workshops.

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