Color Saturation: Getting It Right
For the best color in your images, learn to use these techniques and don’t overdo it
While black-and-white photography has enjoyed a rebirth of interest, color is still how the world appears and is mostly photographed. Yet colors you see and experience often don't quite translate to the picture you compose. We also sometimes want to interpret the world's colors in ways that better express how we felt about a subject.
The computer offers us solutions for dealing with that. You can make adjustments to give you better and more accurate color or color that more freely expresses your photo experience. However, colors also can come out of the computer garish and unattractive. Here are some ideas on adjustments for better color.
When colors aren't right, many photographers first go to Hue/Saturation (or similar adjustment tools) and start working the color. I think that's a mistake. Good color needs a good environment first, and that means setting the blacks, whites and midtones. Without a solid black somewhere in the photo, you won't get the most vibrant colors.
You can do the identical adjustments in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop Lightroom, too-black is affected by the Blacks slider and white by Exposure. Lightroom, however, overadjusts whites if you use just the Alt/Option key. I usually adjust to the Threshold point, then back it off until the photo looks right.
2. Use Curves to make the image lighter or darker overall (you can use the middle slider of Levels if you don't have Curves).
The problem is that Saturation is a heavy-handed tool. It saturates everything, even already-saturated colors, and it quickly can make a photo look unnatural. This is especially true if the control is used before blacks and whites are set.
For that reason, I use Saturation sparingly. I'll use it to boost weak overall colors, but never more than 10 to 12 points. Vibrance is a new control in Camera Raw and Lightroom that adds saturation differently. It increases saturation, but not equally for all colors, plus it does the change in a gentler way. If I'm working in Camera Raw and Lightroom, I nearly always use Vibrance and almost never use Saturation.
Regardless of which control you use, you have to be careful about such global adjustments. A photo quickly can lose its color qualities and become harsh or even garish. It's important to watch what happens to all colors as you make adjustments so that you don't get fooled when paying attention to how a weak color is changed.
Working Colors Individually
Most of the time, colors in a photograph need to be adjusted separately. Cameras don't always capture every color equally. It's common to find that just a color or two needs tweaking when the rest of the colors look fine.
What you need is a control that allows you to work colors individually, such as making a red better without changing blues. All of the programs I've mentioned allow you to do just that.
4. In the Hue/Saturation dialog box, you'll see a drop-down menu that says Edit: Master. Click on that to select a specific color, and the program now limits its adjustments to that color (and other related ones). Here, you can indeed change a red without affecting a blue.
Yet you can target your adjustments even better. With the dialog box still open, move your cursor onto the photograph, then click on a part of the image that holds the color in question. The color bar at the bottom of the dialog box now shifts to better control that particular color. (You may notice the name of the color changes—ignore that.)
You can further limit the controls by adjusting the little markers under the color bar. Click and drag them closer together for a tighter color control, farther apart to include more variation. Be careful as you do this, and watch the edges of color change in your photo—because you can get too specific and colors will change too sharply.
Most of the time, colors in a photograph need to be adjusted separately. Cameras don't always capture every color equally.
Repeat this with other colors as needed. You can do as many colors as are seen in the controls. One thing to keep in mind is that colors aren't totally "pure" and isolated. As you adjust a yellow, for example, you'll also affect green and orange because yellow is part of those colors. The little color bar with its markers at the bottom of the dialog box will give you an idea of the range of colors being adjusted.
This same procedure, but using Hue, is a good way to correct colors that were recorded poorly by the camera. It's not unusual for flowers, for example, to appear with off-color due to the hue being improperly captured. Another common area is green in outdoor scenes-some cameras make the green look too yellow.
If you select that problem color as described and adjust Hue, you can interpret the color correctly. Usually, this is a small adjustment of just a few points. You also can do wild effects by changing the original color. One way you can use this idea is to change the color of an object. For example, you might have a photograph of a family member in a green jacket and wonder what he or she would look like in blue. Change it. Or maybe you wonder what your car would look like in a different color.
Advertising photographers use this technique all the time to keep up with changing client ideas (Could we make the model's dress red instead of blue?). If you need to limit change to a specific area, however, you'll probably need to select that part of the photograph before applying a change. If you make the selection and then use a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, you'll automatically get a layer mask that will limit the adjustment to the selected area. Use Gaussian blur (in Filter > Blur) to blend the edge.
Camera Raw and Lightroom go even further with this control. The colors are more specific. As you adjust greens, for example, yellows aren't as affected as they are in Hue/Saturation for the same sort of adjustment.
In Camera Raw, these individual adjustments are in a new HSL tab (for hue-saturation-luminance), and in Lightroom, they're in the HSL group in the Develop module. Adobe has created new algorithms for adjusting colors in these areas. Colors stay natural-looking, though you still need to be careful about overadjusting.
Another nice color adjustment in this HSL section of both programs is Luminance. Luminance makes colors brighter or darker, and it's part of Hue/Saturation in Photoshop. However, Luminance there is of limited use. You can use it for small brightness changes, but it isn't good beyond that. Colors start to lose their "chroma," or inherent color quality.
This is no longer true in HSL. The algorithms used there are good. You can go in and tweak individual color brightness quite effectively. You can, for example, darken a blue sky without affecting anything else in the photo.
Color adjustment isn't a precise science. We all see color differently to some degree. That means color adjustment is a craft...
For example, say your red wasn't quite right. You could click on Hue to get into that control and then click on the color and drag up or down until the color has the right hue. Then you select Saturation and click and drag on the color, going up for more saturation and down for less. Finally, go to Luminance and then click and drag up for brighter and down for darker.
Adjusting Color Is A Craft
Color adjustment isn't a precise science. We all see color differently to some degree. That means color adjustment is a craft-a tool to learn with practice and experience. Try different adjustments. Watch your colors carefully to see what happens to them. Understand that saturation changes aren't just about more color—sometimes you need to reduce saturation to balance a color in a photograph.
And don't be afraid to play with color and have some fun with your photographs. As you play and change colors in all sorts of ways, you'll learn the image adjustment controls and how you like to apply them.
For more imaging tips and techniques, including free video tutorials, visit Rob Sheppard's website, www.robsheppardphoto.com.