No matter how old this topic gets, queries about Vibrance vs Saturation will never really end. As we move almost fully towards digital media, it gets imperative that we understand the differences between such similar tools. The more you know, the better you will understand when, where and how much to utilize both in your editing process to make your images more lively.
Let’s dive into what makes them both so similar, yet so different.
In photography, the intensity of a color is known as Saturation. By defintion, Saturation is how a color appears due to the intensity of a specific wavelength/frequency of light emitted or reflected from a light source.
In this illustration you can see the difference in Saturation between the two tones of blue. The steep curve shows a blue with high Saturation. You can see that it is concentrated on a small area and rises high on the graph. On the other hand, the hill shaped curve shows a blue with low Saturation; here you can see that blue is spread over a wider area and is less concentrated.
Saturation in Graphic Media
In layman terms, Saturation is basically how much of itself a color is. It’s how ‘bright’ or ‘concentrated’ a color appears: how red is red, how green is green, how blue is blue and so on. The higher the saturation, the ‘purer’ a color appears to be and the more vibrant an image becomes. When Saturation goes down, the color appears muted or washed out and an image may appear dull.
Saturation in Adobe Lightroom
Since we’re working with Adobe Lightroom, this is what Adobe has to say about it, “Saturation makes colors more vivid (less black or white added). Desaturation makes colors more muted (more black or white added).”
This comparative image should make clear the idea of how Saturation works.
To better understand just how much difference Saturation can make, I’ll show the same values applied on a portrait.
You can see that the Saturation tool, before it even reaches the 100 value, begins to look uncomfortable and destructive on this photo. In fact, you’ll even notice clipping in some parts of the photo.
Keeping photo editing as context, Saturation is a little easy to define. However, you’ll be a little hard pressed trying to find the same kind of explanation for what Vibrance is. You might be interested to know that the term ‘Vibrance’ didn’t always exist in photography. It’s something Adobe introduced, sort of as a sister to Saturation.
Vibrance in Adobe Lightroom
According to Adobe, “Vibrance adjusts the saturation so that clipping is minimized as colors approach full saturation. This adjustment increases the saturation of less-saturated colors more than the colors that are already saturated. Vibrance also prevents skintones from becoming over saturated.”
It’s actually a pretty straightforward explanation of what Vibrance does. But, does it still feel a little sketchy to you?
If Vibrance and Saturation are sisters, you should imagine Vibrance as the smarter of the two.
As you have already seen, Saturation increases/decreases the intensity of all the colors present in an image. Also, when you go overboard with Saturation, you’ll notice clipping in your images.
On the other hand, when you use the Vibrance slider, it’s a little careful in the way it touches colors:
1. Vibrance is picky with colors
Firstly, Vibrance does not affect all the colors in the same way in an image. It targets colors intelligently in the way that it doesn’t oversaturate colors which already appear bright/saturated. It only bumps up those colors which it detects as muted. The Saturation slider has no such inhibitions regardless of how saturated colors already are.
2. Vibrance is good with nature
Secondly, Vibrance doesn’t affect reds and oranges as much as it effects cool colors like blues, purples and greens. It darkens blues, which makes for a much more pleasing effect for nature photography. The same can’t be said if they were saturated or ‘made pure’. In a similar fashion, when we use negative values in Vibrance, the blues are effected differently than they would be if they were desaturated; they tend to appear darker.
3. Vibrance is good with people
Adobe also claims that Vibrance “prevents skintones from becoming over saturated.” How so? Because Vibrance tries to keep tinkering with reds, oranges and yellows to a minimum. Skin tones in photos are made as a combination of these colors and the Vibrance tool was built to deal with them as smartly as an algorithm can. This makes it a tool to reckon when you’re working with portraits.
So in short, Vibrance brings out the richness in a photo while preserving any neutral tones or saturation that is already present. It tries to equalize the different levels of Saturation in a photo so that all colors are equally saturated.
Vibrance & Saturation at Work
After going through the difference between how Vibrance and Saturation function, it might appear as if Vibrance is the go-to tool to make the colors in your photo pop. That’s not entirely true. While Saturation may be a no-no when portraits are involved or people are a prominent part of a photo, it’s generally very helpful when you’re working with landscapes and, of course, other photos without people.
Still wondering when to use Saturation & when to use Vibrance?
Well, there’s no rule which prevents you from using both together either. Just be mindful of what you’re using it on and how much you’re using it. Like most things, it’s something you’ll develop instincts for with a little bit of experimentation and practice.
A useful little tip is that you can slightly increase the Saturation first. This increases the overall vividness of the image. A word of caution though: go experimentally slow! Then, you can start increasing the Vibrance. This won’t always apply to every photo you take, but it tends to work well with a lot of photos. Unless they’re portraits with a lot of bright warm colors.
However, this isn’t a rule set in stone.
Here are some other tips to give you a head start on Vibrance & Saturation:
Vibrance vs. Saturation for a Blue Sky
As I’ve already mentioned, Vibrance effects blues more than Saturation, so if you want to make that blue sky glorious, Vibrance is the way to go.
Notice how both effect the blues, but Vibrance makes the sky look richer as compared the full value of Saturation. For the sake of understanding, I exaggerated both sliders to 100, even though there was no need for it in the Vibrance tool. You can easily get pleasing results from Vibrance even under the 100 value.
Vibrance vs. Saturation on Skin
We already know that Saturation is best kept away from skin and has no regard for varying levels of saturated colors already present in a photo. Here’s a visual guide on how much difference both tools can make on skin and neutral colors.
Using Vibrance, the overall vividness of the image increases but skin manages to remain a natural, neutral tone.
In this image, you can see that Saturation greatly increases the purity of all colors present in the image. It does even more so than Vibrance even though both of them are notched at the same value of 70. There is also clipping taking place and the child’s skin has gone an unnatural tone.
Vibrance vs. Saturation on Black & White
If you want to transform an image to a complete black and white photo, Saturation is usually a better option. When you drag the slider to -100, it becomes fully desaturated. Vibrance doesn’t take out all the color details from the image. It usually leaves behind softer tones of the saturated colors from the original image, even at -100 value.
Vibrance and Saturation Together
Up till now it may seem like Vibrance and Saturation have been at war. But the truth is, their real power lays in working with them together. When you understand the strengths and weaknesses of both, you can use them together to cover for each other and bring amazing results.
To Get Equal Saturation on All Parts of an Image
By now, you know that using Saturation alone to make every color in your image appear equally saturated is going to be a bit of a task. Unless you’ve got the right kind of photograph for it, of course. Sometimes, the kind of boost we want isn’t what we’re getting from the individual capabilities of Vibrance either.
To tackle this, you can break your color correction into two parts:
- Adjust Vibrance
- Adjust Saturation
Deciding which one to increase and which one to decrease will depend on the kind of image you’re dealing with and what you went to enhance in it. It also falls into what kind of artistic or personal look you prefer.
To put this into practice, let me show you how much difference the two can make together.
Here’s an image I wanted to enhance against the adjustment I made. Since it has hands, I avoided using Saturation and went straight for Vibrance to bring out the colors of gold in particular. Unfortunately for me, a yellowish tint also appeared on the hands, particularly around the thumb joint.
To bring it down, I slowly dragged Saturation towards the negative value. Since Saturation does not discriminate, it takes away colors from all across the photo.
Here a bit of a back and forth process begins. You will have to move both sliders to preserve the colors you want while simultaneously removing those you don’t want.
In the final image, I managed to
- retain the gold color,
- bring the color of henna back from the orange-ish hue it took and
- also managed to reduce the yellowish tone of the skin.
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If your image has different levels of saturation for different colors, you can notch the Vibrance to a high level. This will bump up the saturation of all colors so they reach an equal level of saturation. Of course, they will end up looking oversaturated.
Then slowly drag the Saturation slider into negative values. This equally brings down the overall highly saturated appearance of the photo.
Another way to go is by dragging down the value of Vibrance. This way, when you notch up the Saturation, it gives an equal, powerful boost to all the colors across the board. Remember, Vibrance cannot make an image Black and white. It always retains some colors and you can take advantage of it.
Using these tools in tandem, you’ll notice you’ll have more control over the saturation of colors in your photo.
I have pushed Vibrance and Saturation to higher values than is advised for the sole reason of explaining their differences. As you use these tools more and more, you’ll realize that often you’re not dragging them all the way across and instead just lightly nudging them to get a subtle but perfect color.
Vibrance and Saturation aren’t the only sliders to improve color inside of Lightroom, but they certainly are two of the most basic and easiest to use. Simply understanding these two can make a world of difference on your editing process.