When I first learned Photoshop, the saturation adjustment was one of the first tools I used.
Well, to put it simply, I already knew what saturation meant, and the tool was easy to use, with a simple slider to make adjustments.
It doesn't get much easier than that!
Of course, today's post-processing programs are vastly improved over whatever version of Photoshop I was using back in the day.
Yet, there's saturation, still hanging around, ready to help make my photos a little bit better.
There's another sheriff in town these days too - vibrance - that, when used appropriately, can give images an added punch as well.
Today, I want to give a quick overview of both of these tools to help clarify exactly what it is that they do.
When you work on the saturation of an image, moving the slider to the right boosts the saturation of all the colors in the shot. Conversely, moving the slider to the left diminishes the saturation of all the colors.
These actions are uniform - that is, saturation works on all colors in the same way, regardless of the point from which the colors begin. That means that if you have a landscape image in which the foreground has relatively dull colors, but the background has intense colors, all those colors will increase in intensity by the same amount.
You can see the problem...
Because changes are made uniformly, clipping can occur in the areas of the shot that are already color-intense. Clipping, in this case, is simply a loss of detail due to oversaturation of the colors.
There's another problem with going crazy with saturation: skin tones begin to look unnatural.
Look at the series of images below to see what I mean:
Note how with every increase in saturation, the colors get more and more intense. The problem, of course, is that the colors become too intense by the time you reach 100% saturation. In fact, I'd argue that the colors are too intense even at 50% saturation.
You can also see how increasing the saturation makes normal skin tones appear to be bright orange - certainly not a natural look.
Fortunately, the vibrance adjustment tool helps us get around this issue.
Where saturation works uniformly to boost the intensity of all colors, vibrance only works on muted colors in the shot.
In that regard, vibrance is a smarter tool than saturation because it can detect what colors in the photo already have enough intensity.
As a result, when you boost the vibrance, it only works on the colors that need it. Using the same example as above, if you have a landscape shot with dull colors in the foreground and highly saturated colors in the background, a vibrance adjustment will only address the dullness of colors in the foreground.
Another benefit of making a vibrance adjustment is that it has much less of an impact on skin tones in the yellow and orange regions. That means the blues and greens in the shot can be intensified without making people in the photo look like they've had a bad spray tan.
Just look at the following examples to see what I mean:
Notice that when using the vibrance tool, the colors become more intense - compare the blue tones of the car to see that - but the skin tones of the little boy remain quite normal.
Additionally, the vibrance tool gives the image a subtle color boost that makes it a better-looking shot. Vibrance is a more finely tuned tool to use, and will often get you more pleasing results across the board.
Beyond that, one look at the images at 100% vibrance and 100% saturation, and you can plainly see which option is better for instances in which there are people in the shot.
See Saturation and Vibrance in Action
The real difference between these two easy-to-use tools comes to life when you can see them in action in Photoshop.
In the video above from Howard Pinsky, you can see the difference that saturation and vibrance adjustments make to a landscape photo in real time.
Follow along as Howard gives a play-by-play of the impact these adjustments can have on your images.