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Want Better Colors?

Tuesday, January 18th, 2005 by | Filed Under: Digital Photography

Have you ever come upon a scene where the color was just magnificent? You know, it was like all the colors seemed to have been “turned up” a notch or two. The greens were vibrant, the blues were striking, the reds were intense—you get the picture.

If you’re like me, it’s almost impossible to keep your camera put away at a time like this, so out it comes and a shootin’ you go.

Now for the big question: After you get home, do the colors on your computer screen appear somewhat less than dramatic?

If your color intensity is on the disappointing side, you may just need to adjust your hue and saturation levels. Fortunately, a tool for correcting this is basic equipment for most imaging software.

So, run your favorite imaging program, open your image, and look for the Hue/Saturation adjustment. Since all software is different, and I’m feeling less than telepathic today, you’ll have to locate it on your own. I’ll wait here while you find it…

Got it? Good!

Most Hue/Saturation tools have the following adjustments:

Hue — Basically, this adjusts the overall color tone of your image. Slide it one way and the color becomes “warmer” and the other way will make it “cooler”. I tend to tweak this first, before any saturation adjustments.

Also, in my experience, I’ve found this rarely needs a lot of heavy-handed adjusting. Most of the time, messing with the slider doesn’t seem to help too much. However, there are occasions I’ve been glad it’s there. It never hurts to play with it just to see (hey, that’s what makes digital so much fun!)

If you find you can’t get the color tone you want using the saturation tool, you may need to try looking for a “Color Balance” tool in your software—or try adjusting different colors individually (see the Advanced part of this article in next week’s newsletter).

Saturation — OK, here the biggie. Once you’re happy with your overall color, work on the saturation. Drag one way, and the colors get more intense, drag the other way, your colors get less intense (or even B&W).

Although this is a simple tool, it’s easy to overuse. I usually don’t need to “pump up” the saturation too much in order to make the image look good. Too much, and the image starts to look “fake”. Oh, and no amount of adjusting is going to turn a poor quality shot into an award winner. Sorry.

Another thing to be careful of is what I call “Saturation Creep”. Nope, that’s not another one of my favorite “B” movies; it’s what happens when you increase the saturation too gradually.

You slide up the saturation, look at the photo a bit, and then increase it a little more. With each increase, your eyes “adjust” to the image. Before you know it, the image is overly saturated, but still seems “OK” to you since the change has been so gradual. Before you make a final decision on saturation, always back down to your original setting and compare that to where you are now. You might find that you’ve overcooked your saturation a bit.

Not enough saturation:

Just right:


Brightness — This setting is usually included on most hue / saturation screens and it pretty self-explanatory. Move one way to make the image darker, the other to brighten it up.

Note: the following examples apply to all the sliders on your hue/saturation control. To keep from writing a book on this, I’m going to give examples using the saturation control slider. Just note you can apply this technique to make adjustments to hue and brightness as well.

The first part of this article covered the basic adjustments you’ll find with most Hue / Saturation controls. However, yours may also have an option to adjust specific colors. Usually it’s in the form of a drop box somewhere at the top of the screen.

To work on the overall image, your drop box will probably be set to “Master”. This means as you change a setting it affects all the colors in an image. For most general image editing, that’s probably all you’ll need.

However, let’s say you have an image that, other than your greens, really looks great. Well, if you stick to the “master” setting, you have to turn up the saturation on the entire image in order to get the greens where you want them. This will probably make some of the other colors overly saturated and looking as fake.

So, instead, you simply select the “green” color from the drop box and make your adjustments. All the other colors should stay at the same saturation, with only the greens increasing.

Some programs will even let you adjust the range of a particular color (usually with sliders at the bottom). So, if you want to adjust only the darker shades of green, you can do it. It gives you a lot of control over the final look of your image. You may even find that you no longer use the “Master” setting once you get used to this. You may just adjust individual color sets, giving you more pinpoint control of the final image.

Another cool trick with this is to desaturate a single color, making it show up in your photo as B&W. For example, let’s say you have a fall photo featuring a red leaf on a moss covered log. Select the green channel and take all the color out with your saturation slider. Your leaf will remain red, but the moss will go B&W.


B&W Color Mix:

Again, try this with all three of the settings—Hue, Saturation, and Brightness. I’ve gotten some truly bizarre imagery with the Hue and Brightness controls when they are set to individual colors. Open up a photo and give it a try.

Example: This took all of 15 seconds. The leaves were red, so I selected “Reds” from the color drop box. Then I started sliding the Hue adjustment around. My daughter likes it, but I think I’ll pass (I like the dull, natural look). Still, it’s a powerful little tool to have at your disposal.

Oh, and if you find yourself using a certain combination of settings all the time, look for a “Save” button on the Hue / Saturation control. You may be able to save your settings and use them with other images (usually you open the settings with a “Load” or “Open” button). Handy if you always seem to need the same amount of saturation added each time.

Whew, that should be enough to get you started. It would be easy to go on and on with this, but I think you get the idea. As always, the best advice is to open up a photo and experiment with it. Just be sure not to save your changes unless you like ’em!

Happy saturating!


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