As a photographer, understanding color and how it impacts your work is extremely important. It can mean the difference between an “okay” image and an outstanding image. What is saturation?

This guide will take a look at color saturation in photography — what it is, why it’s important, and how you can use it to your advantage.

High Saturation

What is saturation?

The definition of saturation is the purity or intensity of a color. The more saturated an image, the more intense and vivid the color. On the contrary, the lower the saturation of an image, the closer it is to grayscale. In fact, black and white images have none, since they include no color information.

How does it affect your photographs?

Understanding saturation is extremely useful because it has such a profound effect on the composition and mood of your photographs. Photos that are highly saturated are intense, vivid, alive, bright, colorful, energetic. On the other hand, photos with low saturation can be dull, muted, moody, sleepy, serene, calm, or spooky. See how color saturation can help tell your story?

Notice the very saturated image of the tree at the beginning of this article. Now, take a look at the image below with much lower color saturation. Although they are quite similar in composition, see how saturated an image is can completely change the “feeling” of the image?

low saturation
Lower saturation

You can choose specific parts of your image or colors to saturate while under-saturating the rest of the image to add emphasis to those areas of the photo, like in the image below.

selective saturation
Photo by Nancy Bourque from Pexels

How to adjust image saturation

There are several ways to control and adjust the saturation of your images. Some adjustments can take place while you’re shooting, while others will happen when you do your editing:

  • In-Camera: Many modern cameras have presets that will automatically adjust your saturation. This is especially popular with phone photography. Most phones and social media apps provide a plethora of built-in filters ranging from highly saturated to black and white.
  • During Post-processing: This is, by far, the most common way professional photographers adjust the saturation of an image. Applications like Adobe Camera Raw, Photoshop, and Lightroom all have tools that allow you to analyze and fine-tune how saturated your image or selective parts of your image are.
  • With Film: if you shoot with film, different types of film will produce photos with different levels of saturation. Experiment with different film stocks to achieve the desired level of saturation in your photographs. You can also adjust it during the film development process.
high saturation
Photo by Cleyton Ewerton from Pexels

Be careful with overdoing it

In the right amounts, a boost in saturation can enhance your image, making an average-looking photo more colorful and more pleasing to the eye. But, it’s very easy to overdo it.

In particular, scroll through social media and you’ll see endless examples of photos that have been oversaturated by phone presets without the intention of a thoughtful artist’s eye.

Images that are oversaturated are dripping with intensity, beyond the point of being pleasant to look at. It’s important as a photographer to know when enough is enough. Though, this is largely subjective.

Final thoughts

Now that you know what a profound effect saturation can have on your photographs, try increasing or decreasing it in of some of your photos.

Notice how the mood or feeling of the photo changes. Do you like what you see?