Saturation Sliders: Essential Tool or Evil Gimmick?

There is no question that digital photography has ushered in an era of creative control not seen since the hey-day of individual darkroom work.  Instead of sending our film to a lab where general processing is done, our computers are the new darkroom and software the new developing chemicals.   This means that the personal taste of the photographer is felt in the image itself. 

A common trend in the processing of digital images seems to be toward images that are bright and saturated in colour.  In the industry, these images sell because people are biologically attracted to colour:  a bright, red apple is more attractive than a whitish-brown decaying one, for example.  Some people like the fact that a photo can be processed in such a way that the individual’s style is clearly marked in the image itself and some prefer the more consistent ‘look’ you would achieve from film. (Although even then, speaking to photographers who are old enough to remember the days of film, there is a great fondness for the quirky richness of Velvia film!)  The problem is, sometimes a poorly composed image is judged better than it is simply because of saturated, vibrant hues.

Most of the time, when charges of ‘oversaturation’ are levelled at a photographer, the defense is “That’s what I felt it looked like at the time.”  Or:  “I shoot at sunrise and sunset and this how it looks at this time of day.”  What a subject matter looks like depends not only on the time of day, but also the material used to create the final photograph.  While a film such as Velvia may record the warm reds of a brilliant sunrise, it does so in a fairly predictable way in any given light situation.  With digital photography, the material (pixels arrayed on a sensor) allows a great deal of play in the colour of the final image.  Don’t like the garish red your camera recorded in that sunrise?  Change it with the hue and saturation sliders!

So here is where I begin musing.  I have photographed in the field with several photographers and seen their final images — we all come away with something different in terms of saturation and contrast.  I think that many digital photographs are brighter, more saturated and have more contrast than the actual scene photographed.  They are almost ‘too perfect’.  Is this bad?  Not necessarily….  But where does the ‘photograph’ end and ‘digital art’ begin?  Does a distinction even matter?  

While I don’t think we should be confined to imitating the look of film when processing our digital images, I do think we should be aware of our processing.  It is ok in my books to ‘interpret’ reality with a digital photograph — this is, after all, what we do in some sense everytime we press the shutter.  But intense colour processing should not ‘save’ a poorly composed image.  An essential component of the art of photography (as opposed to digital art) is the ability to make an exposure with the camera.  Along with learning high-end processing skills, we still need to capture a good photograph in the field.   

To illustrate this point, I’ve posted below some images with increased saturation from my normal processing.  Do they look too colourful?  Does the colour ‘save’ a boring composition?  Where is that line for you?



~ by Samantha on January 20, 2010.

6 Responses to “Saturation Sliders: Essential Tool or Evil Gimmick?”

  1. I think the saturation levels of those photographs is perfectly fine.
    I often check the gamut range against the profile of one of the printing labs I use, to make sure they can handle the amount of color in the photograph.
    Otherwise I see no reason not to boost saturation. As you said, its your creative control.

  2. I don’t think that any of these images appear to be oversaturated, and in fact I don’t think that they are anywhere near as saturated as most of the images that have the “Darwin Wiggett look”.

    To me it doesn’t whether he, or anyone else that tries to emulate his work, gets that look through post-processing, through filters, because of the time of day, or due to any other in-camera technique. Most people would agree that it is a desirable look in a photo.

    The same argument goes to the incredibly over-processed HDR look that is so popular today. They are bright, they are saturated, and they are very different from what the world really looks like. But that doesn’t matter at all because non-photographers love the look.

    Just go with it…

  3. I like the first, second, and fourth photo. The first one is very dramatic and that is my favorite one. I think one of the most important ingredients in a photograph is composition. If you don’t have a photo with a strong composition than regardless of the saturation levels, the photo appears weak and doesn’t catch one’s attention. I think of composition as the photographer’s foundation and then you can start building on rest but without a strong foundation, it’s nothing. In fact, this year I am planning to take classes all focused on the topic of composition only and then next year it’ll be something else.

  4. For me photographing is not about ‘capturing a scene as closely to reality as possible’ but more about feelings and emotions. If that means I have to push the saturation, then that is fine. A photo has to somehow touch you deep inside. If it doesn’t then it’s not a great image.

  5. I have to agree with the statements above. Post processing still exists with film Whether you use a filter on the lens at the time of exposure, push process a roll, dodge and burn a print, or increase contrast with gels. You photos are not unnaturally saturated or , from what I can tell, they are not over-sharpened either. In most obvious cases, the effect would bowl you over. In your examples the strong composition, and dramatic perspectives are served by the enhancement.

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