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How to Correct Saturation in Photos With Lightroom Classic

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Correction is the art of restoring an image to a neutral state. It brings an image to a life-like renderitionof the scene, most similar to how you remember it. Common adjustments like exposure, contrast, and composition are the first steps you take to bring an image back into a neutral state.

Some photographers might not think of color saturation as part of a correction. In reality, saturation also needs correction to replicate the real-world scene. Let's learn how to do just that in Adobe Lightroom in a few easy steps.

Why Correct Saturation?

Saturation is a measure of the intensity or vividness of a hue. Vibrant reds are said to be highly saturated, while a faded shade of pink has low saturation. Black-and-white images are totally desaturated.

When you're looking at an image, you can start to notice the saturation of the hues. Older film styles are likely lower in saturation. Vibrant, exported JPEG images run through image editing software often have higher saturation, by comparison.

Saturation steps
This image shows intervals of 25 point adjustments to saturation in Adobe Lightroom.

Here are a few scenarios where you might find your image needs saturation adjustments as part of the correction process:

  • If you shoot in RAW, keep in mind that your image looks a bit flat by design. RAW captures more data when it saves a photo, but the image is yet to be processed or interpreted. Increasing the saturation is necessary to "correct" it to its real-world look.
  • If you're shooting scenes with challenging lighting (like shooting into the sun) your image might be saturated due to flare. Adjustments can bring this saturation back.
  • Using a slightly older camera? Sensor technology has evolved significantly. The image might need a bit more of a saturation correction to correct it.

Because our perception of colour is subjective, and our memories about colour can cahange, it's easy to overdo it with the saturation slider. Many photographers think of saturation a creative tool, more than a correction. Some of my earliest images are clearly oversaturated with colors as if it were an attempt to replicate a cartoon. But when used properly, saturation is one of the key correction tools.

Saturation is easy to correct in Adobe Lightroom. Let's learn how.

How to Correct Saturation For an Entire Image

Like most corrections in Adobe Lightroom, saturation adjustment is easy to apply. You'll find the slider in the Develop module, on the Basic Panel, in the Presence section.

Saturation slider Lightroom
You'll find the Saturation slider in the Develop module on the Basic Panel.

The saturation slider is simple: pull the slider to the right to increase saturation, and pull it to the left to decrease saturation. The scale ranges from -100 to +100. Notice that at -100, you've effectively converted the image to a black-and-white frame.

Before and after saturation
This frame is a backlight and causes the colors to be slightly washed out. With a saturation boost, it's truer to form.

Applying the Saturation slider isn't the tricky part. Instead, it's knowing how far to go without oversaturating the image. In this case, a few tricks of the trade will really benefit your edit:

  • Contrast last. In my editing workflow, saturation occurs as one of the final steps in the correction process. Other sliders like Exposure and Contrast also have a knock-on effect on Saturation, so you'll want to add it as one of the final correction steps.
  • Take a step back. The best edits happen in stages. It helps to get away from your workstation and review your work later.
  • Work in before-and-after view. Press on your keyboard in the Develop module to show a before-and-after view of your edit. Anchoring your edit back to a neutral point helps to ensure you don't overdo the adjustments.

What Does Vibrance Do?

The visual world is sometimes difficult to describe. A great example of this is the Vibrance slider, which lives just below the Saturation slider. They're similar, and the difference is hard to put your finger on. 

Adobe's documentation says that "the Vibrance slider adds saturation to a photo, but it does it in a smarter way than the Saturation slider." Maybe this slider should be renamed Smart Saturation!

The Saturation slider changes the saturation of every pixel in the image, and the Vibrance slider changes the saturation of the most-vibrant pixels in the image. In general, I find Vibrance to focus on the dominant hues in a frame. They can be used together, too.

Compare the image samples below to see it for yourself. Typically, I work with Vibrance instead of Saturation. It does seem to be a smarter approach to correcting saturation, as it leaves as much of the image alone as possible, but it's also okay to use Saturation for ovar-all correction and Vibrance for creative effects.

Vibrance and saturation
The difference is subtle, but the top image uses the Vibrance slider instead and doesn't feel "too warm" compared to the Saturation adjustment.

How to Selectively Correct Saturation for Specific Hues

So far, the examples you've seen adjust the saturation for an entire image. Pull the saturation slider, and all hues become more or less saturated based on the direction you're moving the slider.

When you correct an image, some hues might need more help than others. Maybe the blue hues of an image of the ocean just didn't appear the way you remembered them. With the help of the HSL/Color panel, you can make targeted adjustments to specific hues.

The HSL/Color panel lives in the Develop module. Scroll down to find it. You'll notice that there's a color swatch for each hue. Click on one to start to make a targeted adjustment.

In the example below, I used the orange saturation slider to make an adjustment. By pulling it to the left, orange parts of the image now have lower saturation. This targeted correction gives precise control over specific hues. Repeat this process with any other hues you wish to adjust.

Orange hue adjustment Lightroom
My camera tends to overemphasize red and orange tones, so a targeted saturation adjustment balances this image nicely.

Adjustments walk a careful line between correction and creative adjustments. The tutorial below has more information on the HSL panel, and how you can use it for both corrections and creative edits.

The Best Source for Creative Color Settings for Adobe Lightroom

Correcting your saturation is just the first step for adjusting the hues in your image. A correction moves an image back to a neutral point, but maybe you want to get more creative. 

The challenge is knowing how. Adobe Lightroom has a seemingly countless number of sliders, each of which controls a different part of the image. For beginners, a great way to learn and develop your style is to use Adobe Lightroom presets. 

On Envato Elements, you'll unlock unlimited presets for a single low fee. That means that you can tap into visuals styles created by other photographers and editors. Download a preset, add it to Lightroom, and click one button. Your images will transform.

Envato Elements colorful preset
On Envato Elements, you'll get unlimited downloads for creative color options thanks to presets.

The Elements library is so large that it helps to have a guide to the best preset options. Let's look at just a few of the top options that you'll have with a single subscription to Elements.

1. Flavor Enhancer Lightroom Presets

Think about it: many of the most powerful flavors in the food world are also the most colorful. It makes sense that this highly saturated set of presets is inspired by the food world. Try them out on your favorite food photographers or other colorful scenes.

Flavor enhancer Lightroom preset

2. UltraPOP Lightroom Presets

When someone says that an image "pops," there's this instantly identifiable style that defies words. UltraPOP is a preset package that's full of some of the most brightly colored and saturated looks. With one click you can borrow the styles in this image and apply them to your library.

Ultrapop Lightroom preset

3. Traveler mobile Lightroom Presets

 

Traveler mobile Lightroom presets

Learn More About Adobe Lightroom

 

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