The Image Saturation Balancing Act

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.

No Saturation

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.

Normal Saturation

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.

Don't Lose Your Balance.

Don’t Lose Your Balance.

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.

Max Saturation

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!

Please leave a comment.  If you find this worthwhile, please share it with your friends and sign up for more. This ain’t rocket science, but it is information that is many times overlooked. Take some time to get back to the basics and your photographic results will give evidence that you did.


About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook "Digital Color Photography: A Deeper Look" from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color Fundamentals video series at
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5 Responses to The Image Saturation Balancing Act

  1. Sharon A. Miller says:

    It’s sort of like eating: eat just enough to feel satisfied but eat too much and you get bloated, gassy and round.

  2. randall says:

    Very good article Herb and you’re spot on.

  3. Car Bell says:

    Best advice I have seen in a while. I will pass it on to the photo club. Carl

  4. Allan Harris says:

    A lot of images, particularly HDR images, on the web are oversaturated. It has become a cliche of presentation, which I’m sure will wane. I do add Vibrance in Lightroom but with a properly calibrated monitor you can judge the right amount, although the quantity is a matter of personal taste and subjective judgement. I’ve found this post useful as it clarifies my own thinking on this subject.

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