The Colors In Your Photos Really Stink

Light illuminates ice off the coast of Cuverville Island in Antarctica.

Where have all the nice colors gone.
Long time passing.

Where have all the nice colors gone.
Long time ago.
— Anonymous Photography Critic

Criticizing Photos And The Need To Remain Objective

I often here people poo-poo the work of other photographers as being too saturated, unreal and down right fake. I have the advantage of having spent most of my career, to date, in a film/darkroom based environment. Sure, there's loads of middle aged and older photographers from the days of analogue photography still around. But the vast majority of those folks had their images processed for them by commercial laboratories.

While I did hundreds of weddings and portraits where the work was processed by labs, all my newspaper, personal and the vast majority of my fine art work (including nine years of tertiary based study) was processed and printed, by me, in both black and white and color darkrooms.

I've processed black and white, color negative (i.e., C-41) and transparency (i.e., E6) films and, for many years, processed black and white and color prints (RA-4 and Cibachrome). I even go back as far as the Kodak Ektaprint system.

Penguins gathering around British flag, against a stormy sky, Port Lockroy, Antarctica.

Is any of this important? I only make the point that, while anyone can have an opinion, having a career that has encompassed a variety of genres, trends and technologies does give one the advantage of perspective. By knowing what was possible with traditional technologies I'd like to think that I can better appreciate and, hopefully, keep control of the image when dealing with the vast range of options available to me in the digital darkroom.

What's more, given a wide-ranging career spanning nearly 40 years in the photography industry, I think my opinions are about as objective and as they can be.

Glenn Guy, the Travel Photography Guru, unpacking the jeep prior to another auto repair on the road to Pangong Tso, Ladakh, India back in the early 90's.

The World Of Color | Then And Now

I think there's an important distinction to make. While there are numerous elements that control the look of your pictures (e.g., subject, lighting, the colors and the relationships between those colors within the frame), back in the day the degree of saturation you could derive from an image was largely determined by the materials with which you were working and the way those materials were processed. With the exception of quite severe and unusual forms of processing (e.g., cross processing) your ability to affect the saturation inherent to the film or paper in question was quite limited.

A dramatic and surreal photo that explores the notions of here and there, and day and night, at La Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Saturation In Photography | A Simple Definition

A highly saturated image displays rich, vibrant colors while a color low in saturation could be described as a pastel.

We can define saturation as a measure of the purity of a color.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

Needless to say there is no saturation in a black and white image, although some might use the term to describe the intensity of color in a toned (e.g., sepia) black and white print.

Varying Color Palettes

Back in the day, when it came to materials, some color films were more highly saturated than others. Amateurs, it was assumed, wanted bright, punchy colors so manufactures like Kodak put a lot of money and effort into increasing the saturation and sharpness of consumer films (e.g., Kodak Gold 100). But the professional division of the company was driven by different markets with very different needs.

Wedding and portrait photographers needed films that were less critical, less revealing. In response Kodak produced a range of color negative/print films (e.g., VPS and GPF) that were less sharp and lower in saturation than the company's consumer products of like film speed.

As a result wrinkles, skin blemishes and imperfections were less evident in images made with these particular professional films. And those good folk being photographed (i.e., customers) thought that was just great.

My friends Orley and Alexander photographed, on their wedding day, in the Melbourne Botanical Gardens.

Mamma, You Took My Kodachrome Away

The now discontinued Kodachrome transparency (i.e., slide) film was, for decades, the choice of the enthusiast photographer. These films were very sharp and displayed very accurate color (particularly the KR64 film) and faithful skin reproduction. But it was not an easy film to use.

All transparency films are relatively high in contrast so, when used under bright conditions, which is when most people make photographs, the shadows would photograph much darker than expected. An experienced photographer, when working under such conditions, would learn to change their composition to exclude large areas of shadow from the frame, thereby reducing the dynamic range (i.e., contrast) within the scene.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, fill flash was not widely used back then. Even today, with the exception of filling shadows in a nearby foreground, or dancing through the frame and painting with light during a long night exposure, flash is of little value in an expansive landscape image.

So, as is often the case, composition rather than equipment is often the best way to resolve high contrast. Of course, HDR and expert post processing can also deliver the bacon, but most folks work in JPEG and prefer the convenience of a single exposure.

Commercial (e.g., advertising, fashion, industrial and architectural) photographers, as a generalization, required sharper images for reproduction in magazines. They chose transparency film, largely due to the film's relatively high levels of sharpness and the preference of folks in the printing industry to work with original (i.e., transparency as opposed to negative) rather than second generation (e.g., photographic print) images.

Some of you would remember recording a record (i.e., vinyl) onto a cassette tape so as to be able to play your favorite songs in the car. You would also remember the loss in quality (i.e., bass and treble and overall clarity) that occurred as you moved from one generation to the next. Well, it was a little like that when a print was made. But in this case it was the shadows, highlights and overall crispness of the image that were adversely affected.

Without going into a whole lot of detail negative films were made to be printed, while transparency films were made for projection. But, because the transparency film was an original image, it was preferred by the printing industry, by which I mean commercial printers producing brochures, magazines and packaging. Commercial photographers moved away from Kodachrome to the newer range of Kodak Ektachrome, as well as process E-6 compatible films from Fuji and Agfa, due to the greater availability and the much faster service times offered by labs with E6-compatible processors.

The newer Ektachrome range, over time, included films with increased saturation. They were designed this way to meet the changing demands of the industry. Fuji moved in the same direction and, in most cases, to a greater degree. Fuji Velvia 50 is a case in point. It was a very sharp film with extremely high degrees of saturation and very high levels of contrast. Many landscape photographers loved the way that film rendered greens.

What's more magazines were moving towards papers and varnishes that markedly increased saturation, all to make advertising and front cover images pop off the page.

This move towards increased saturation is not just a recent phenomena. It's been going on for decades and predates the proliferation of digital cameras and the uptake of image processing, on the desktop, by millions of enthusiast photographers. It is what it is and the tastes of the masses simply change over time.

I think it's folly to suggest that just because things aren't what they were, in days gone by, they are somehow wrong. Initially it was near impossible for films to be highly saturated and, at the same time, relatively accurate in hue (e.g., it's a tuscan rather than a ruby red) when, back in the day, most color portraits were actually hand-painted black and white prints.

A reflection of palm trees in a rice paddy in rural Bali, Indonesia.

The Golden Age Of Photography

Over time most film types became progressively more saturated to meet the needs of the market. Over recent years the rate of change in photography has been extraordinary. In our digital age we no longer have to pay for film and processing. As a result there's a massive upsurge in the quantity of images made and, due to the success of social media, their proliferation via the internet is extraordinary. Put simply, we are living in a golden age for photography, and I'm by no means the first person to say that.

But, with the greater freedoms associated with the democratization of photography that has occurred during the digital age, it is only natural that some rules and conventions of bygone days are lost or ignored. I've come through, both as a student and as a working photographer, a controlled and regimented approach to the learning and application of photography. I am comfortable with my abilities and my understanding of the language of photography. It makes me a better teacher! But I've long understood the need to throw off the shackles of the past and embrace change. 

Are You Happy With The Saturation Of Your Own Photos?

There are all sorts of reasons why an image may reproduce differently than expected. Working on a laptop introduces a range of problems, as does printing outside of a properly color managed workflow. Working with highly saturated colors in a relatively small color space, such as sRGB; processing late at night; and playing with new techniques may all skew color reproduction. In severe cases over saturation is evident as blobs (i.e., color with little or no detail) of unrealistic, even garish color.

Magnificent 'God Rays' illuminate the landscape in the Highlands region of Central Iceland.

Photography Does Not Have To Be About The Recording Of Reality

For someone like me it's important to draw a distinction between an image posted on social media, from where it can be viewed on many different screen, and a portfolio image that's printed and displayed in a traditional gallery space. When it comes to the printed image I'm able to maintain significant control over the quality of reproduction. The same is not true for an image shared over social media platforms.

This blog, while the place where most folks interact with my images, is also a place for me to occasionally experiment with a range of techniques, processes and styles. All of those have the potential to change the appearance of the image.

But it's a photograph, not reality with which I'm working. And, for a photographic image to move from a simple documentary record towards art, experimentation and interpretation are perfectly acceptable.

Likewise my articles test all sorts of different criteria including topic title, relevance, article length (this is a very long post) and even the positioning of important words throughout the article. And let me tell you a secret: you are all part of that experiment and your feedback, which is always appreciated, is an essential element in my own creative journey. A journey that revolves around the practice, appreciation and educational aspects of photography.

By the way I've purchased a number of images over the years made by photographers who make a great deal of money selling prints. I sometimes find them to be over saturated. Do you think my opinion of the relative saturation of their images effects their bottom line? Not when it comes to the average customer, who is neither a working professional photographer nor a photography educator. And if you want to see, so-called, over processed images then check out many of the award winning photographs in various industry sanctioned competitions over recent years. This is no longer a trend. Saturated images have become mainstream, and that's been the dominant trend well before the digital age.

Someone recently volunteered to me that they thought my photos were very saturated. I was surprised, but then I though "Okay, I suppose they are." I could have countered by saying, "Compared to what". But there was no point in doing so and, frankly, the gentleman in question was right. And I'm okay with that.

I can see that, rather than a stylistic change, my images have simply become more saturated overtime in accordance with changes in the products and processes I've employed to make images and by being influenced, a little bit at a time, by the zillions of images I've seen over the years. And why should it be any different for you. We are all consumers, after all.

My advice is to get on board, make and share images in a way that makes you happy. You and your images might be better suited to bold, vibrant colors or, alternatively, you might go the other way towards desaturated imagery. Of course the beauty of black and white is never too far away, and there's always the option to go completely crazy and embrace film-based photography. 

As long as you're actually making images and getting them out there, into the world, rather than just taking cheap pot shots at those who do. Right!

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru