Color Saturation in Photography

Spirts of water, illiminated at night, spring from the ground at a fountain on the boulevard that runs along Southbank, Melbourne.

Color saturation is a critical element in great color photography. Some images require vivid color saturation while others are better suited to a more desaturated color palette.

If color in photography is important to you then it’s worthwhile investing some time to better understand the psychology of color.

With a better understanding of color saturation you’ll be able to employ color to make photos that will more successfully communicate your vision of the world and how you experience it.

This picture goes back a few years and was made with my original Canon 5D camera.

The subject is an illuminated water fountain which spurts straight from the stone pavement adjacent to Crown Casino in Melbourne, Australia.

The Yarra River, Melbourne Aquarium and an elevated railway bridge can be seen in the background. Walk into this area unaware and you might well cop a spray, as they say.

Color Saturation in Lightroom

As you can see the colors produced by the artificial light are really quite striking. But they’re so highly saturated that detail and subtle separation in tone are barely retained.

That’s the danger of overly high color saturation. It can result in near fluorescent color that appears to bleed outwards, like ink spilt on parchment.

In fact I've had to desaturate the most vivid colors so that, hopefully, they won't blow out on your computer’s monitor or the screen on your tablet or mobile device.

An image with an eerie painterly effect was achieved by photographing this young woman's reflection under a mixture of daylight and incandescent lighting.

High ISO and Noise

As the photo at the top of this post was made with the original Canon 5D camera, at ISO 800, and includes a number of very dark areas the original file displayed a fair amount of noise.

Likewise the photo of the young woman and her reflection in a mirror was made with the original Canon 5D camera at ISO 1600. Noise was also evident in darker areas of this image.

The good news is that, by utilizing Adobe Lightroom to push the darkest shadows into black, noise is reduced and a very acceptable result is achieved.

Nowadays ISO 800 is not to be feared when using modern DSLR cameras or mirrorless cameras, particularly when they’re of the full frame variety.

It’s certainly possible to produce near optimal results, particularly as part of a proper RAW workflow, with ISO 800 or ISO 1600 exposures.

And don't worry, even JPEG shooters benefit from the improved ISO performance of modern cameras.

People enjoying a drink amidst a vividly lit street scene in the old town of Salzburg on a wet summer's evening.

Wet Surfaces Enhance Color Saturation

Do you like particularly colorful pictures?

Have you ever noticed how wet pavements glow, particularly at night when they’re illuminated by artifical light sources?

Wet surfaces reflect the light that reach them and increase the inherent color saturation on the surface itself.

That's one of the reasons why wet nights provide such great opportunities for night photography.

As the image at the very top of this post was primarily about color and light I decided to employ my Canon 85 mm f/1.2 lens, at its maximum aperture of f/1.2, to blur any extraneous details.

In the case of the photo of folks enjoying a break at an outdoor eatery in the old town of Salzburg, I wanted a larger depth of field. That would normally required a physically narrow aperture like f/11.

The fact is, I was working without a tripod at night and, as I wanted to avoid both camera shake and subject movement, I achieved the impression of a large depth of field at an aperture of f/2.

The trick, first of all, is to use a wide angle focal length. I employed a 24 mm focal length lens, on a full frame camera, to make this image.

The next thing to do is to stand further back from the subject or scene you’re photographing and, rather than focusing on the main focal point or subject, think of the viewfinder as a grid and focus one third of the way, from the bottom up, into the frame.

Because of the way depth of field works, visually, you’ll find that the impression of relative sharpness extends one third of the way in front and two thirds behind where the lens has been focused.

Color In Photography

Is your photography all about making photos in camera or are you keen to develop your skills in applications like Adobe Lightroom?

Either way, to make great color photos color needs to be at the forefront of your photo making.

You need to compose your photos around color and consider the following:

  • Should your image be composed around harmonious, complimentary or monochromatic color?

  • Is a saturated or more pastel color rendition appropriate to the mood you’re wanting to explore?

A dynamic view of a statue reflected within and above a crucifix at the magnificent La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Improve Your Color Photography

Photography is great fun and, as one of the most easily accessible creative endeavors, it’s well within your reach.

So what are you waiting for?

Are you happy with the photos you make or have you lost confidence in how to use your camera?

Has the joy of photography deserted you?

If you want to be able to quickly improve your photography you can do so through highly targeted training that’s designed around your own camera and your very own creative needs.

Surely, that’s the best way forward. For a minimal commitment you’ll reap incredible rewards.

If you live in or near Melbourne, Australia feel free to reach out and we can talk about how, in a single 3 hour session, I can put you on the road to make substantially better photos more often.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru