Design, Photography, & Fashion

Learn About Color: A Guide to Color Saturation in Photography

Written by MasterClass

Jun 26, 2019 • 3 min read

Learning to play with color is a key part of developing your skills as a photographer. One of the primary things to think about when approaching color in your work is saturation. Saturation affects the overall composition and mood of your images in profound ways and is worth exploring as you grow your photography portfolio.


What Is Color Saturation?

There are three primary ways we evaluate color: hue, value and saturation. Color saturation is the intensity and purity of a color as displayed in an image. The higher the saturation of a color, the more vivid and intense it is. The lower a color’s saturation, the closer it is to pure gray on the grayscale.

Why Is Understanding Color Saturation Important to Photographers?

Understanding color saturation is enormously important for photographers at every level. Saturation levels affect the overall composition and mood of your pictures. Consider the following effects of saturation:

  • Muting: The level of saturation in an image can have the effect of making the image feel more muted or vibrant. High saturation can bring an intensity to an image and make it appear more vivid and alive. Conversely, when you desaturate an image, you dull the colors, producing a more muted affect.
  • Differences in lighting: Colors are not constant. The level of saturation will affect the way that colors appear in different lights. For example, color swatches will appear differently depending on the saturation level of the original color and intensity of the light it’s under. Understanding how a color will change in different light based on its saturation is incredibly important, especially when working with artificial lights.

How to Adjust Image Saturation

There are many different methods of adjusting saturation, and you have many choices of how and when you make your adjustments. You can change levels proactively before you’ve taken a picture, or wait to edit the finished product. You can also play with saturation in film photography using different film stocks and exposure techniques. Some of the most common ways of adjusting exposure include:

  • Camera presets: Most cameras have color settings so that you can change the saturating in your image from the camera itself. Many DSLR cameras also have readouts that indicate the saturation point of an image and the basic color levels present. Playing with saturation is also incredibly popular in phone photography. The basic filters provided by phones or social media apps allow users to play with hue/saturation as well as rgb color levels and other color properties.
  • Digital editing: Digital editing is where most professional photographers adjust saturation coverage and fine tune the original color in their images. Programs like Adobe Photoshop give you tools, like color models, to analyze the saturation of your original image. With this information you can play with saturation to further increase the vibrance of your picture.
  • Film stock: If you are using a film camera, different film stock will yield different color saturation. Because you can’t see your images until they are developed, learning how to control saturation with a film camera requires a fair amount of trial and error. Experiment with different types of film to play with saturation in your work.
  • Development: Saturation can also be manipulated in the development and printing process. When film paper is exposed to the image you are printing on it, there are different filters and lights you can use to adjust the intensity of colors (primarily cyan, magenta, and yellow). If you’re printing your own film images, play around with different exposure times and filters to manipulate the saturated colors in your images.

How Does Saturation Affect Your Photos?

Great photographers think about saturation and how it affects the overall composition of their images. As you grow as a photographer, it’s useful to think about how saturation plays into your work and how to manipulate saturation to increase the emotional impact of your pictures.

  • Emotion: Saturation has an impact oh the emotion of a photograph. A muted image typically conveys somber or constrained emotion, whereas saturated colors generally connote extreme feeling and passion. Think about what sort of emotional impact you want your images to have and how increasing or decreasing saturation can help you achieve that aesthetic.
  • Oversaturation: Oversaturated images tend to feel hyper-realistic or heightened. They give the impression of artificiality and can be very striking when used effectively.
  • Undersaturation: Undersaturation can sometimes be used selectively to highlight certain aspects of your image. Choosing specific areas or colors to saturate while the rest of your image is undersaturated can help direct the viewer’s eye to elements of your image you wish to emphasize.

Become a better photographer with the MasterClass All-Access Pass. Gain access to exclusive video lessons taught by photography masters, including Jimmy Chin, Annie Leibovitz, and more.