Are Your Colours Too Colourful? Don’t Over-Saturate!

What IS wrong here... too much colour! Horrible.

Picture one: What IS wrong here? Too saturated! Horrible.

When your picture is dull…

A common mistake made by photographers doing their first few post-processing jobs is to over-saturate the colour. It’s very easy. You have a photograph that for some reason just does not seem to stand out. When something fails to stand out it is natural to want to pep it up. Should you change the saturation?

A picture with no vibrancy rarely has colour saturation issues. Usually it is something else. The light may be poor. The contrast between the blackest blacks and the whitest whites may be limited. There is also a high chance there are few tones between the colour variations (flat colours). Yet, when you put the picture into an image editor you can seem to make it pop off the page by raising the colour levels.

Well, here is a piece of advice. Don’t change the saturation except in very, very rare situations. Even then keep it to a minimum. In perhaps only one picture in 500 do I consider adding any saturation and then rarely more than one point on the scale.

Picture one (above) has poor, flat lighting. It has not been improved by bombing it with colour. In fact I have strongly over-saturated to make an example. However, even adding one or two points of saturation with your editor can really ruin the natural colours.

Here is another revelation. Many photographers getting started in post-processing often cannot spot their own over-saturation errors. Their eye is not well trained in colour matching. It takes very little to really unbalance the colours. Worse still, everyone else can see the colours are too strong. Whats going on?

Have you ever written a paragraph and someone tells you there is a mistake? Did you spot it straight away? Did you read it several times and still not see it? Wow! That’s happened to me dozens of times. And, it has happened to most writers. When it comes down to it – we are not good at spotting our own mistakes. In fact over many years working with writers and photographers I have found the same thing many, many times. Looking into your own work somehow makes you go a little blind. Colour vision is very much like text vision… you go a little blind when you are doing your own editing.

Here is the original of the picture above…

It is just poor light. Lack of contrast and flat lighting make this picture dull.

Picture two: Poor light, lack of contrast and flat lighting make this picture dull. It is not going to be improved by colour bombing!

If the light is poor, you are pretty stuck. Picture two above is straight out of camera. The subject is mundane with flat lighting and poor contrast and limited colour tones. Colour bombing it would not help. However, for those with little colour editing experience it might look better when you raise the colour saturation. But this is because you cannot spot the dizzy tones that come with over-saturating the colours. It is an illusion. You want to be proud and pleased with your picture. Sadly, it is just not a good picture – and you refuse to admit it to yourself.

What can you do about it?

Editing your pictures is a difficult task. Your pride-of-authorship is strong. You have a lot invested in your shot and you want it to work. So the first tip is… be very harsh with yourself.

Harsh editing is something that only comes with a lot of practice. One way to get that practice is to find someone who you trust and respect to be a critical friend. Ask them about your edits. Make sure they actually do tell you what they think is wrong. Train them to tell you what is right too. Ask them to be honest but supportive. Try not to judge them if they don’t like a shot. Find out what they suggest to improve it. There is no right or wrong here. Their opinion is valid even if you disagree. Try to see their point of view, and question your own actions in editing. Once you are able to ask yourself questions about your own editing you will be on the way to spotting your errors.

The second tip I give you is to check against the original as you work. When editing I normally have a copy of the original file open while doing the edits. It is then easy to have a point of reference. You can look from one to the other and see if you have strolled too far into the realms of editing fantasy. It helps you see what you have changed and how much those changes have impacted the original.

Editing is a skill. It takes time and effort to get right. No editing is perfect. Edits are judged by the viewer which is sometimes hard to accept when just starting out. Someone will always find fault. However, with time and the help of trusted critics you can gain a great insight. You will learn to spot the right and wrong moves when doing your processing. When getting started try to keep it real. Develop your skills from there.

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.

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