a26 August 2014

Saturation vs Vibrance - what's the difference?

When I started using Adobe Lightroom a few years ago, one of the things that caused my biggest confusion was what had been the difference between Saturation and Vibrance sliders. They both seemed to affect saturation and vividness of colours but the results they gave weren't identical.

And that is true - although both sliders boost saturation of colours, they do this in a slightly different manner. Here's an example.

Below you can see original image I took on Lanzarote islands, Canary Islands. The image showing volcanones has pretty low saturation so I decided to improve it:
Original image

And below you can see how the image looks after changing both Vibrance and Saturation. Before image (image on the left) is result of increasing Vibrance to +50, while After image shows the result of increasing Saturation - also to +50.

The difference is quite striking. The sky is slightly more vivid in the first image. On the other hand the sand and rock is much more saturated in the second image.
before after

Ok, so now let's take a closer look at what both sliders really do and that should explain the difference we're seeing above.

Saturation

What Saturation does is very simple - it applies same amount of boost to all colours. Period. If you increase saturation by +20, every pixel in your image will get +20 to its colour saturation.

That's why whole image above became much more saturated after increasing Saturation to +50. No matter it was rock, sand or sky.

Vibrance

Vibrance on the other hand doesn't apply same amount of boost to every pixel - it applies more boost to colours that are least saturated (like blue in the sky for instance), and less boost to colours that are already saturated (like skin tones).

For that reason, vibrance doesn't increase saturation of oranges and yellows what makes it really useful in case of images containing people (because when increasing vibrance skin tones will be preserved). Also as it tends to boost blues and greens more than other colours, it becomes useful in case of landscape photography featuring sky or grass.

How to use Saturation and Vibrance

Now the we know what is what, one question still remains unanswered - when to use Saturation and when to use Vibrance.

What I often do is to first increase Saturation slightly to make the saturated colours even more vivid, and then I increase Vibrance to boost the vividness of sky and foliage.

However, there are some special cases:
  • I already mentioned that it's a good idea to use Vibrance alone if you want to improve vividness of colours in photos containing people because it will preserve skin tones. So street scenes, portraits, fashion work will be always good candidates for using Vibrance. 
  • If you want to create black & white image - make sure to use Saturation slider as dragging Vibrance to -100 doesn't guarantee to remove all colours from the image.

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