Beautiful, but Believable

Photography, like other art forms, rarely has a right and wrong answer when it comes to an image. What looks perfect to some people, might look horribly wrong to others. One style which has become popular enough recently to almost be considered cliche is bumping the image saturation. That saturation slider in your photo app is oh-so-tempting, nudging you on to increase the saturation just a little bit more to make those colors pop.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with boosting saturation a little. Most cameras add a built-in saturation boost when creating JPEG images. Some cameras will let you adjust how much saturation is added via in-camera photo styles. If you are shooting in RAW format you won’t get that adjustment, so you’ll want to add saturation to compensate for the occasionally bland images that the RAW format generates. (The benefit to the somewhat bland RAW start image is that you will have a more even histogram and thus better flexibility while making color and exposure adjustments, but I digress.) Many RAW images look more like the scene you remember when the colors are saturated a bit.

The problem with boosting the saturation too much is eventually you get to a point where the colors shown in your photo are no longer believable. If the grass looks more neon than foresty, you’ve gone too far. Likewise, a person’s face being flushed is another indication that the saturation was overdone.

So what can we do as photographers to produce beautiful images with crystal clear blue skies that aren’t overdone? Well, there are a couple of options. First, if you are making a landscape image, try boosting the vibrance instead of the saturation. While the saturation control boosts all the colors, the vibrance control is stronger on the green and blue parts of the spectrum, so you can increase it without blowing the reds and other colors out of proportion.

The second thing you can do is purposefully back off on the saturation bar. When I’m developing an image, I increase the saturation or vibrance to where I think the photo looks best, but then back away about 30% of the adjustment. The amount is slightly different for each image, but purposefully making this second adjustment keeps your perspective in check and ensures that your images still look realistic when you share them.

Keep in mind that (unless you are purposefully going for a surreal look) you should be trying to make your photograph match the scene you remember as closely as possible. That natural feel is what will be most appreciated by your audience in the long run.

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