Saturation is a founding member of color’s sacred trinity of color elements; hue, saturation, and brightness. Hue is the color of color, or what differentiates red from blue, or green, or orange. Brightness deals with light; how bright or dull a color appears, largely a matter of light and dark. Saturation is the measure of how intense or diluted the color is; the difference between pungent and pastel.
Everybody likes nice rich pictures, they are the eye-candy of life. But there is an important balance that must be struck between that brilliant color and the image’s overall tonality. Tonality is the form of an image; the skeletal structure that gives purpose and definition to the color. Think of tonality as the Christmas tree structure that supports the lights and ornaments. That structure retains the shape or definition of the image.
Great care should be taken when boosting saturation in a digital image simply because of the thin line between optimal saturation and tonal range damage.
Photographic saturation has a scientific definition and a common definition. I believe we need to understand both in order to accurately balance saturation with its counterpart, tonality.
Photographic saturation is basically color intensity, expressed as the degree to which it differs from black and white. Get the picture? It’s what differentiates a grayscale image from a color image. A color image without saturation is just luminance (tonal structure).
Now consider the more common “household” definition of saturation: the state when no more of something can be added. Combining these two definitions actually provides a very practical guideline to the use of saturation in digital imaging. It’s called “too much of even a good thing is still too much!” In a practical sense, there is a balance point in which too much saturation actually robs the image balance and definition. If your image lacks highlight detail, consider backing off the saturation level.
Try this simple exercise to understand the the function of saturation. Open up an image in Photoshop and pull up the Hue/Saturation dialog box. Now slide the Saturation triangle all the way to the left. See what you have left? A grayscale (what we use to call black and white) image… all form and no color. Now slide the triangle back through the middle and all the way to the right side of the scale. After you pull your eyeballs out of the back of your head you’ll notice that the image’s form is now pretty much destroyed… overboard color and distorted form.
We all enjoy very colorful things. Current television programming confirms this. Note: I grew up in Miami and can’t remember ever seeing a perpetual state of late afternoon lighting like I see on the Miami crime shows. God gave us an imagination that is very rich and colorful. And frankly, sometimes really dull digital images need a little boost in color. But take great care in the exercise of your imagination as it can push your pictures beyond “believable.”
Here’s a tip on how to how to maintain the “best” of a good thing. Go back to the Hue/Saturation adjustment dialog and carefully slide the Saturation triangle to the right but stop short of losing any tonal definition. You must strike a balance. If you enjoy more saturation, try backing off the luminance (brightness) channel to achieve the same result. Just like other issues in photography, more saturation in an image isn’t necessarily better, it’s just… more!
Think about it!
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