Saturation vs. Vibrance

One question that is often asked when we talk about digital processing is “what’s the difference between Vibrance and Saturation?” In Lightroom and Photoshop, you find the vibrance and saturation adjustment sliders in the Presence section of the Basic panel.

First let’s look at what you’re doing when you adjust colors. We use a simplified color model to help explain this. The model illustrates Hue - a fancy term for the color, Saturation, and a brightness Value. Think of the center axis being brightness from black to white. Around that axis is the hue, or color. It begins with the primary red color at 0° and circles the lightness axis, passing through yellow, green, cyan, blue, and magenta.

HSV_color_solid_cylinder_saturation_gray.png
 In this image, color is not that important in the story that is being told. But, Tony didn't want a black and white image. Adjusting the vibrance downward removes the highly saturated colors but leaves enough to make this a wonderful image. 

In this image, color is not that important in the story that is being told. But, Tony didn't want a black and white image. Adjusting the vibrance downward removes the highly saturated colors but leaves enough to make this a wonderful image. 

 Saturated colors have been removed but it is not a black & white image. In this case, less saturation is more dramatic and appropriate for the image.

Saturated colors have been removed but it is not a black & white image. In this case, less saturation is more dramatic and appropriate for the image.

If you take a slice of that cylinder, you get colors that share a particular brightness. In the center of that slice, you have no color. It’s a value along the grayscale. But, as you move out from the center, you add saturation to a specific hue and brightness. Both the vibrance and saturation sliders adjust the saturation value of a color which pushes the color value either closer to the center axis (less saturation) or farther away (more saturated).

Adjusting Saturation

When you make a global adjustment to saturation, you tell the computer to adjust the saturation of every pixel the same amount, regardless of the original color value. This can create problems when you have a mix of relatively saturated colors and unsaturated colors in the same image. If you add too much saturation, you can lose details in your image. Too much saturation in skin tones can leave someone with orange and unnatural looking skin.

Adjusting Vibrance

Vibrance is the smart way to adjust the saturation in your images. It’s an intelligent tool that selectively saturates colors in your image. Colors that are already well-saturated receive minimal adjustment while more muted colors are adjusted more vigorously. Also, the vibrance adjustment tries to protect skin tones. You can make green foliage pop and still keep proper tones on someones face.

Which To Use?

Once the Vibrance slider was announced, my use of Saturation diminished greatly. Today, there are very few photos in which I add a global increase in saturation. I do like to decrease the saturation in many image where color is not important in the story that I’m telling. But even there, I often like to use the vibrance slider.

If I slide the Saturation slider all the way to the negative side, I remove all colors in an image. Essentially, I’ve made a B&W image. If I do the same thing with the Vibrance slider, you’ll find that there is still some color remaining in your image which is just perfect for some images. Be creative - you can’t hurt anything.