Vibrance vs saturation is a popular photography debate. Right up there with Nikon vs Canon, or mirrorless vs DSLR.
Which tool is better? Which one should you use? Which one will make your images even better?
In short, saturation dramatically enhances colors. And vibrance is its subtler counterpart.
But there is more to these tools than definitions. If you understand the difference between the two, you’ll be able to make your photographs stand out even more.
Vibrance vs Saturation: What Do They Mean?
Thanks to the saturation tool, the right side of this pet portrait looks more colorful and interesting.
Saturation affects color intensity, and enhances every color in an image.
Vibrance is a little more specific. It saturates the parts of a photo that aren’t that colorful. This allows every color to stand out without making the composition look too busy.
These definitions are somewhat similar. So why is it important to know the difference?
Some photographers avoid vibrance and saturation because of their intensity. But you’ll miss out on valuable creative opportunities.
If you use them incorrectly, you’ll end up with unflattering photos. And these will discourage you from experimenting with these tools again.
Knowing when to use one over the other will help you avoid these mistakes.
Once you familiarise yourself with both, you’ll know when to use them. You’ll also know which tool is more appropriate for your photography genre and style.
For example, portrait photographers gravitate towards vibrance because it doesn’t oversaturate skin tones. Macro photographers might prioritise saturation to highlight every color detail.
Which Program Do You Need to Adjust Vibrance and Saturation
To increase your photo’s vibrance or saturation, all you need is an editing program. And, of course, a few photos to experiment with.
The vibrance and saturation tools look different in every editing program. But they usually work exactly the same way. To create the examples below, I used the vibrance and saturation sliders in Adobe Lightroom. You can find both of them in the Basics panel.
In Photoshop, they’re located in two different sections. Go to Image > Adjustments > and select either Hue/Saturation or Vibrance.
The Visual Differences Between Vibrance and Saturation
Here are a few examples of what vibrance and saturation can do to different kinds of images.
Setting the saturation slider to +100 made every color stand out. You can see why portrait and wedding photographers prefer not to use the saturation tool often. Overly saturated colors aren’t very flattering.
The surroundings look vibrant. But the subject’s skin color has completely changed, creating an unnatural look.
Setting the vibrance slider to +100 resulted in a less dramatic effect. Vibrance focuses on enhancing dull colors.
In the original photo, the surrounding flowers and t-shirt are duller than the subject. This is what the tool prioritised.
The subject’s skin tones and hair haven’t been affected too much. This is because they were already vibrant in the original image.
Vibrance enhanced every muted color in this photo. That includes the grass, background, and the subject itself.
If it were set to a less dramatic number, like +50, the result would look great.
Saturation enhanced every color regardless of how muted or colorful it was. This made certain colors, like the leaves and dog fur, look a bit too saturated.
But the result would look much better if the saturation were less intense. Like the example above.
Let’s see what the photo would look like if the vibrance and saturation were set to +50:
Both results look less dramatic now. As you can see, saturation at +50 is much more colorful than vibrance at +50.
Which version do you prefer? Your answer will give you a better idea of which tool you should use in your own editing workflow.
Vibrance prioritised the blues in this landscape photography shot, which are quite muted in the original photo.
This created more contrast between the colors and made the image look darker.
The original image doesn’t have any overly colorful subjects (except for the sky). That’s why the saturation tool enhanced every color evenly.
This made the location look brighter than the one edited using the vibrance tool only.
The original macro photo is already quite colorful. The vibrance tool didn’t create a dramatic effect, even though the slider was set to +100!
The saturation tool didn’t dramatically enhance this photo, either.
In this case, the saturation and vibrance examples look almost identical.
When working with photos that are already colorful, avoid using the vibrance and saturation tools. Unless you want a small boost of color.
If you increase them dramatically, you’ll end up with visually unappealing results.
So When Should You Use Vibrance vs Saturation?
The beauty of photography lies in its flexibility and openness to all kinds of ideas. It’s likely that your preferences might not match with someone else’s.
Nonetheless, here are a few general rules for using the vibrance and saturation tools:
- If your photo is already very colorful but needs a few enhancements, use the vibrance tool;
- If almost all the colors in your photo are muted, use the saturation tool to give them a boost;
- When editing portraits, don’t overuse the saturation tool. Your subject will end up looking unnatural;
- Once you increase your vibrance or saturation, immediately check your before and afters. The eye tends to adapt to what’s in front of it. You might not notice that your results look too dramatic unless you look at the original photo; and
- Even though I set the vibrance and saturation to +100 in the examples above, I don’t recommend doing the same thing when editing your photos. Subtle changes will give you the best results.
Extra tip: you don’t have to use vibrance and saturation separately. Some photographers like to slightly decrease saturation and increase vibrance. This creates a photo whose colors work in harmony.
The effect is very subtle. But it will add that extra pop of color to your photos without ruining their original tones.
Saturation will enhance every color in your photo. Vibrance will find and enhance the dullest parts of your photo. If you use both of these tools in moderation, your photos will stand out.
The most important thing you should remember is subtlety. Whether you prefer saturation vs vibrance, make sure you don’t overuse them. Treat them both like salt and sugar.
If you use them excessively, your work won’t look good. If you don’t use them at all, the absence of that colorful spark will be visible. If you use them with care, your photos will look perfect.
Compared to a tool like curves, vibrance vs saturation might not seem that important. But if you learn when and how to use them, they’ll become invaluable parts of your photo editing process.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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