Take command of your photo's color intensity

Discover the "throttle" that lets you vary colours from black-and-white to nuclear blast.

A million factors can affect the intensity of the colors that you see in your photos.

Well, perhaps not a million. But if you're shooting outdoors, the look of your photos can certainly be affected by such diverse factors as the time of day that you shoot, the weather, the presence or absence of cloud cover, and whether you use a flash. In the old days, it was even worse, since even the particular kind of film you used could affect the colors in the photo. Fuji's famous Velvia film was well-known for its highly saturated colors, for instance, and I used it often for an extra punch in my landscape photography.

These days, it's a snap to use your photo editing software to tweak the intensity of the colors in your digital images. I'll show you how to do it with Adobe Photoshop Elements, but the process is nearly identical no matter what software you use.

Saturation Explained

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Suppose you have a photo like this one. It's not bad, but it lacks a certain oomph.

There are a few ways to add life to a washed-out picture. You can use the Levels control to stretch out the histogram, for example. But let's say you've already done that, or perhaps you're just looking for a fast way to make a quick improvement. If that's the case, then you might want to try increasing the saturation.

The Saturation control allows you to increase or decrease the intensity of colors in an image, much like the saturation control on your television. Too much saturation can punch up the colors so much that it'll make your eyes bleed. But using the control in moderation can enhance an otherwise bland picture.

Bump Up the Colors

Let's give this a shot. In Photoshop Elements, access the Saturation control by selecting Enhance, Adjust Color, Hue/Saturation.

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Feel free to experiment with the Saturation tool--it's fun. Note that the Saturation control is the middle slider, sharing the dialog box with Hue and Lightness. Dragging the saturation slider to the left or right increases or decreases intensity in the colors throughout your photo.

Move the Saturation slider to the right a little--such as +20--and observe the results. That is often all you need to add some punch to your photo. Click the thumbnail above to see what my photo looks like now that I've pumped up the saturation.

Go to Extremes

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Now drag the slider all the way to the right. You can see in my sample image that maximizing the saturation slider makes the colors turn radioactive. That's fine for a special effect, perhaps, but probably not something you can use for practical photo editing.

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Sending the slider to the left is a lot more useful. You can bleach all the color from your picture and turn it into a black-and-white by reducing the saturation to 0. Or try one of my favorite effects: reduce the saturation to a low level, so the image is almost monochromatic, but still has some hint of color.

The resulting photo, linked above, could be a scene from a misty morning, or near dusk.

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Dave Johnson

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