Do 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 photographed 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.

The Advantage Of Perspective In Staying Objective

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.

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. But that's not because I'm no longer a kid.

It's because I've worked with and helped many thousands of people along the road to making better photographs. And you can bet I've learned a great deal from the work of other photographers, professional and amateur alike, along the way.

But critiquing images for the objective tutor is not an easy thing. It takes time and great patience and, from my experience, is usually best accomplished through suggestion and gently nudging folks in the direction that's best for their own individual creative journey.

It's not your own biases that you have to be concerned about. If you're any good you would have dealt with those years ago. 

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

The look of your pictures is influenced by a range of factors including subject choice, lighting, the colors with the frame and the relationships between those colors.

However the degree of saturation you could derive from an image, back in the day, was largely determined by the materials (i.e., film and paper) 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.

Most photographers, looking to achieve images with relatively high levels of saturation, would purchase a film that advertised that look.

If prints were required the photographer would choose a glossy surface as a way of maintaining as much of that saturation as possible.

Conversely, photographers looking for a more subtle, de-saturated color palette would usually opt for a film with inherently lower color saturation.

In the world of most wedding and portrait photographers those images would usually be printed onto a matte or lustre surface paper as a way of maintaining the relatively low saturation levels of the film in question.  

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.

Color Is Determined By The Photographer And Their Customer

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.

Professional 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.

Kodak, You Done 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.

Composition, rather than equipment or post processing, is often the best way to resolve high contrast.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

Of course, HDR and expert post processing can also deliver the bacon, but most folks work in JPEG and prefer the convenience of making images, in camera, with 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.

Film Was Made For The Needs Of The Market

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, no doubt, 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 printing from a slide. But in this case it was the shadows, highlights and overall crispness of the image that were adversely affected.

Negative films were made to be printed, while transparency films were made for projection or viewing on a light box.

However accessing a color negative was difficult due to the orange colored mask incorporated into the film's emulsion. That mask, a Kodak invention, was necessary as it improved the reproduction of colors within the print.

Due to the fact that transparency film was easier to view and also 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 (i.e., Ektachrome) 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 very high degrees of saturation and very high levels of contrast.

Many landscape photographers loved the way that film rendered greens and the very sharp images that resulted from the film's high levels of contrast.

But, as they say, with great power comes responsibility. Fuji Velvia was a devilishly difficult film to work with under high contrast conditions. But, under low contrast conditions, it could really save the day.

Street Performer and Elderly Lady, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argent

About To Travel?


In response to a preference for more highly saturated colors from the marketplace magazines were moving towards papers and varnishes that markedly increased saturation, as a way 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.

There's No Better Time To Be A Photographer

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 also 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 screens, 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. In fact they should be embraced.

Likewise my articles test all sorts of different criteria including topic title, relevance, article length (this is quite a 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. It’s 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.

But 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.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

What Amount Of Color Saturation Is Right For You?

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 love color and, when it comes to my own images, I most often prefer quite highly saturated color. But I do like to hold detail in my colors and to be able to hold detail in prints made from those images.

My images are highly saturated. That's an objective statement as the saturation of those colors can be measured. However, whether individual viewers prefer saturated or more pastel renderings of particular types of subject mater is subjective.

And that's an important distinction to make as the success of an image is often subjective and based upon more than one criteria. 

There's just no point arguing over obvious measurable data, unless of course the person arguing with you is wrong and you feel it's in everyone's interests that you sort it out.

But there may well be more personal, creative reasons why you've chosen to reproduce colors the way you have. And that may well be worth discussing.

In other words there is what’s, theoretically, correct and then there’s what is most appropriate to the image in question.  

I think it's true to say that my own images have become more saturated overtime in accordance with changes in the products and processes I've employed 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. Even those of us that call ourselves artists.

Reeds and their reflections form abstract designs in a pond in rural Iceland.

However, many creative folk find the need to be different to most other folk. The artistic process is, after all, about finding your own, individual creative voice.

So, take a look at where you are creatively. You've reached a level of proficiency and, perhaps, expertise. It may well be the time to pay less attention to the technical aspects of photography and embrace your creative self.

For so many photographers, enthusiast or professional alike, it's through that process that the great breakthrough occurs.

If you're still struggling with the technical aspects of making photos, don't worry, I can help. I run regular one-to-one practical photography classes in Melbourne. Just you, me and your camera.

What do we discuss? Whatever it is you need to know to be able to make better photos with your very own camera.

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