Color Saturation – What is the limit?

I’m sure you’ve see what you think are “over-saturated” photos — those with too much color. But how much is too much?

The traditional way to judge this is purely subjectively by your own opinion and taste. Maybe you like more saturation or maybe you don’t. Maybe it fits with a particular subject and not with others. There are many variables to this and each needs further explanation and a breakdown. You’ll see, you have some decisions to make and a few tools that will help you:

  1. Type — Are you going for a “high-key” or “low-key” type of photo? If it’s one of these, then your saturation is limited. But, let’s say it’s a “normal” photo. Then you have more to decide…
  2. Light — Is there “cold” or “warm” light? Traditionally, warm lighting needs some additional saturation in my opinion. There never seems to be enough warmth in the light to take the photo out of the middle ground of “average”. Cold light is harsh and bluish, and rarely is it necessary to increase that blue look.
  3. Luminance Histogram — Is your histogram spread widely for the photo? If so, then you will have a broad range of light available to work with and the colors in it will all be available to you. If your histogram is bunched up to the right side (exposed to the right), then you will not have color in the highlights and bright areas of the photo. This is why it is better to shoot the shot a bit darker (expose to the left) because you can never recover the color in the highlights, but you can bring out the color in the lowlights (dark areas). If you’re properly exposed to the left as mentioned, then you’ll be able to up your saturation and vibrance sliders so you can get the most color out of the photo.
  4. Color Histogram — Are the peaks of your histogram near the top of the chart or just bumps along the baseline (or somewhere in between)? If your histogram has peaks for each individual color (RGB) and they’re near the top, then you have some very good color in the photo and probably not much more is needed in way of saturation or vibrance. This, by the way, is an excellent tool (the color histogram) for determining if you are wasting color by over-saturating your photo. Look for the peaks to be chopped off at the tops and it is a sure sign that you have too much saturation. Also if you go over in saturation, then you will see the peaks decrease again. Watch the histogram as you increase and decrease the saturation in Lightroom or some other program, and you will see exactly what I mean. The trick is to get it so the color peaks, then back it off a bit. Same goes for the vibrance slider in Lightroom where it will spread the color histogram and the trick is to spread the color peaks until they increase in amplitude.

A few (of my) words about adjusting the Presence sliders (3) in Lightroom:

  • Clarity: Adjust it first to your liking. I find anywhere from 20 to 50 works for me, depending on the photo.:
  • Vibrance: Adjust it second. Spread the histogram peaks with values around 40 max.
  • Saturation: Adjust it last. Rarely go above +10, but watch the histogram and increase the peaks to just below the top.
  • Readjust all of them to your liking.

It really is all about subjectivity here and you should saturate the color in your photos to your and your audience’s liking. However, there are some guidelines and some tools that can help you judge this limit, the color histogram being one of the most valuable of these.