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Don’t Touch That Dial!

The colors in 2006 were a bit “lack-luster”
Copyright Andy Richards 2006

Lately I have seen photos frequently posted that show significant overuse of the “saturation adjusment. I have certainly been guilty of this myself. We shoot a scene that seems magically colorful to us, but when we first see it on our computer screen, it just doesn’t “get there.” If you shoot raw, that is pretty normal. Most images need post-processing. So our first thought is often to use that slider adjustment in our post-processing software (and every software has it); the saturation slider. And 99% of the time that is a mistake! I see a disconcerting trend of overuse of the saturation slider (even among some of my “pro” acquaintances).  My friend, Al Utzig will be chuckling as he reads this. His most frequent critique of my imagery early on was that they seemed over saturated to him. Maybe. I have certainly made much less use of the saturation tools in my post-processing as I – and my software – have become more “seasoned”

Recently, I see a disconcerting trend of overuse of the saturation slider

Like any discussion, we should be sure we are talking about the same thing. A general definition of “saturation” says that “saturation is the state or process that occurs when no more of something can be absorbed, combined with, or added.” When speaking in terms of color and photography, “saturation” generally refers not to the actual color or its accuracy (“hue”), but rather to the intensity of the color. This is important. If you are trying to correct a color, more (or less) saturation won’t really do that (although it might help to improve the color’s appearance in some cases).

What I have learned over the years ….. is that what we are really seeking often has nothing to do with saturation

The problem with the saturation slider (and every software will have its own internal algorithms for this) is that it generally does just what the definition says. It adds (or subtracts) to the intensity of color. Unfortunately, the result is often counterproductive. The saturation slider is indiscriminate (it saturates all color), and too often, a boost in saturation results in a color cast over the entire image. For example, I have seen one Facebook poster recently who is boosting the saturation in fall foliage images and getting a reddish color cast over the entire image. And in most cases, it also generally results in the detail in the photo deteriorating. Try it. Find one of your images and magnify it enough on screen to see the detail, and then move the slider back and forth. The more aggressive you are with it, the more you will see the details go mushy. In many currently posted images it is obvious that the slider has been overused, as the picture looks unreal on our screens. The colors are intensean often, Just not believable.

It is a very real temptation to “goose” the colors to make them as brilliant as we wished they were. Using the saturation slider here boosts the foliage, but at the expense of a red “pall” over the remainder of the image
Copyright Andy Richards 2006

Of course, there may sometimes be reasons to boost saturation. You might actually be striving for unreality. Another is that the saturation on a projected computer screen is always more intense than when a print is made. I often push things a bit before sending them to the printer, to get as close as I can to the color I liked on screen. But even then, you must be very careful not to introduce a color cast effecting the entire image. There are generally better ways to “boost” the appearance of the image.

Here is a slightly more “selective” move, using only the red channel saturation slider. It is slightly better, but still creates a red color cast which can really be seen on the silos and the white house
Copyright Andy Richards 2006

The thing about photographic imagery is that it can often be very difficult to duplicate the “reality” that your eyes saw. For one thing, I believe that each of our eyes see color differently. But it is also the case that the attributes we see in a “good” photograph are often more based on appearance, than reality. Things like contrast, brightness, saturation and even sharpness, all influence the appearance of color. But when it comes to color, something that I have learned over the years using post-processing software is that what we are seeking often has nothing to do with saturation. I think it is important to add here, that I shoot and save all my images as raw files.  Without getting into the should or should-nots, I think nature images (the most common culprit of saturation slider overuse) will always benefit from starting with a raw file. The first step in making the captured image look the way you want it will always be done in the raw converter, and that is very powerful stuff.

Color was slightly better in 2010
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

Even if the image does call for increased saturation, a number of pixel gurus have referred to the saturation slider as a “blunt instrument.” I almost never touch it, except occasionally to de-saturate an image, or parts of it. There are other, better ways to achieve the color we saw in our mind’s eye. Often, getting color “right” is a matter of contrast adjustment rather than saturation. Contrast can be adjusted throughout the image, or perhaps a better approach; locally. I do use the contrast slider in ACR (but not usually later in Photoshop). There are numerous ways to adjust contrast locally, including the tried and true “curves” tool, used with layers (of course it can be used globally on the image – that will be a judgment you will make).

It is still important to resist the temptation to “overdo” with the saturation slider, creating a red color cast on parts of the photo (barn roof), as well as deteriorating already soft detail in the distant foliage
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

I have also found that a brightness change to an image can sometimes make the colors appear to “pop” more. Again this can be accomplished globally, or using an adjustment layer, or a plugin like NIK Viveza 2.

The Saturation Slider is indiscriminate

There is also a relatively new tool: the vibrance tool (Photoshop has it; other software may call it something different). This tool is a slightly “smarter” tool than the saturation slider, as it targets more muted colors to add saturation to them, while leaving already saturated colors alone. But again remember that the tool is action more or less “globally” on the image and that may be letting the computer make your decisions for you. I often add just a small amount of vibrance in ACR (5-15%), combined with small moves of the contrast slider.

The Burton Hill Farm is a favorite image of mine. There is so much going on in this image. I used Viveza 2 to selectively DE-saturate the clouds to take a bluish color cast out of them
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

There are some very sophisticated techniques which require digging under the hood a bit, like working with “luminosity masks” – essentially specialized layers and layer masks, (Tony Kuyper has a set of pre-programmed layers of you are interested). Some years back, I learned a technique espoused by Dan Margulis (his book is a wonderful textbook, but not for the faint of heart. It is technical and it is expensive). It involves moving your image into the LAB colorspace and making some opposite curves adjustments. It really is more of a selective contrast adjustment, but really works wonders to bring out the “snap” in a color photographs. These techniques require some effort. You will have a learning curve, and generally will spend some time on each image in more complex post-processing. Lots of folks would rather go out and shoot and have very little post processing and ease of use instead of having to become a software expert.

There is still a temptation to “goose” the reds with the red slider. But the result is not productive, with oversaturated, mushy reds in the distance and again, a color cast overall
Copyright Andy Richards 2010

This sentiment probably stimulated the many products available today as plugins to existing software. One of the first of these was the NIK plugins. Originally its own company, it was at one time purchased by Google, and for a period was actually free to download and use. Google eventually apparently abandoned it, and it was ultimately sold to the DXo folks, who now offer the package for $69.00. I use it on almost every image I post-process and for me that seems like a reasonable price. They say it is new and improved, but I cannot see any difference, and am still using my originally purchased package. So far, it integrates with Photoshop CC.

The Nik product that is most relevant to this discussion is called Viveza 2. It is all about local adjustments the easy way. They have found a way to locally adjust images using circles on screen and a slider. It is not going to be as particular as using luminosity masks, but for me, for all but the most problematic of images, it works very well. Caution: Viveza does have a saturation slider! Again, I rarely touch it. The sliders I find most useful are the brightness slider, the contrast slider, and sometimes the shadows slider. I have found that in an image that does not need additional color correction (because hue, not saturation is off), that these three sliders – applied locally to areas of the photograph, do everything necessary to render a colorful, vibrant, and realistic result.

This is an example of an image where I “pushed” the sharpening and color contrast in the LAB colorspace. It looks “crispy” on screen, but the natural smoothing process of inkjet printing made this work for a sharp print
Copyright Andy Richards 1997

Indeed, after I owned and learned this software for a while, I found myself going back to old images and completely re-working them. And I discovered that I was, indeed, guilty of SSO (saturation slider overuse). 🙂 . I like the re-worked images much better. If you look at some of your images critically, you might just agree with me.

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2 Responses

  1. You were right Andy. I did chuckle. I never thought I’d see the day that you were telling everybody about over saturating their images. I agree that selective saturation, or for that matter, selective anything in post-processing is better than global adjustments in most cases. I’m glad you learned to take your foot off the saturation gas.

  2. Well, in fairness, Al, a number of my images that you thought were “oversaturated” were post-processed using the techniques I noted above and there were others who disagreed with you :-).

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