Saturation vs. Vibrance: which to use when editing photos?

Most image editing programs, including Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, give users two options for boosting color saturation in a photo: Saturation and Vibrance. This article explores how each is different, and when it might make sense to use one or the other when editing photos.

Read on, or watch the video; either way, there's lots of useful information here!

For this article, I am going to focus on Saturation and Vibrance adjustments in Adobe Lightroom, which is a popular photo editing program for advanced users. The Saturation and Vibrance sliders both allow users to increase or decrease the intensity of colors in an image, but they do so in different ways. The conventional wisdom (from just about every tutorial I have read on this topic) says that Saturation increases the intensity of all colors in a photo, while Vibrance focuses its effect mainly on less saturated colors, and has very little effect on already saturated colors. I've also read that Vibrance is designed to "protect skin tones," although no one has ever made it clear exactly what that means.

The Vibrance and Saturation sliders in Adobe Lightroom allow you to increase or decrease the intensity of colors in your photos.

Now, I'm not a software engineer or an Adobe Certified Expert, so take everything I say below with a grain of salt. But, it seems to me that the difference between Saturation and Vibrance is actually somewhat different than as described by the conventional wisdom. In my experience, Saturation seems to have a bias towards warm colors (such as reds, oranges, and yellows), while Vibrance has a bias towards cool colors (such as blues, purples, and greens). This can be most clearly demonstrated by this panel of intentionally over-processed images:

Left: the original image. Middle: Saturation set to 100%. Right: Vibrance set to 100%.

The image on the left shows the original image file without any processing. For the middle image, I set the Saturation to 100% (please, don't ever do this to your photos; I pushed the slider all the way only to make its effect completely clear). Notice how the warm colors have gone nuclear. The blues in the water and the sky definitely look more saturated, but not nearly as much as the reds and yellows. The image on the right has had Saturation reset to 0%, but Vibrance has been maxed out at 100%. This time, the warm colors have only had a very small intensity boost, but not the cool colors (most noticeably the blues and purples in the sky and water) look ridiculously oversaturated.

So, what can we conclude from this demonstration? Basically, Saturation and Vibrance both attack color intensity, but seemingly from opposite sides of the color spectrum. If you want to boost cool colors in your photo, or if you want to avoid boosting warm colors, then Vibrance is the way to go (the cool color bias of Vibrance probably explains how it "protects skin tones," which tend to be warmer in color). If, on the other hand, you want to boost the warm colors, then Saturation might be the best tool for the job. If you want to significantly increase the intensity of all your colors, a combination of the two might work best. Because of its effect on blues, I typically avoid using Vibrance if my photos feature a lot of sky, as I find that Vibrance can easily make the blues in the sky look unnatural (it can also make shadows and water, which both tend to have a lot of blue, look oversaturated).

I boosted Saturation to emphasize the warm colors in this photo, and laid off the Vibrance slider to preserve the natural look of the blues in the sky, shadows, and water.

With image processing, it is usually best to edit with a light touch, and this is especially true with Vibrance and Saturation. It is easy to overdo things with either of these sliders, leaving your photos with unnatural and garish colors. Whether using Vibrance or Saturation, I recommend making cautious adjustments. Even better, consider using the HSL module in Lightroom to make targeted adjustments to specific colors, rather than just applying global adjustments using Vibrance or Saturation. But, more on that in a future tutorial!

About the author: Whether hanging over the rim of an active volcano, braving the elements to photograph critically-endangered species, or trekking deep into the wilderness to places most people will never see, world-renowned professional photographer Ian Plant travels the globe seeking out amazing places and subjects in his never-ending quest to capture the beauty of our world with his camera. Known for his inspiring images and single-minded dedication to creating the perfect photo, Ian has reached hundreds of thousands of people around the world in his mission to inspire and educate others in the art of photography. Ian is a frequent contributor to many leading photo magazines, the author of numerous books and instructional videos, and founder of Shuttermonkeys.

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