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Tame your image's oversaturated colors

Added on Friday 22nd of February 2008 07:09 am EST
Adobe Photoshop CS/CS2/CS3
Operating Systems:
Microsoft Windows, Macintosh

If you've used digital cameras from different manufacturers, you've probably discovered that some tend to favor certain colors. Sometimes, the result is oversaturated colors that can ruin a great image. Photoshop makes it easy to tame these brilliant hues and keep them from overwhelming the rest of the image.

To tone down oversaturated colors, we’ll:

  • Describe the relationship between saturation and color perception.
  • Explain how saturation occurs on a digital imaging sensor.
  • Show you three Photoshop techniques for dealing with oversaturated colors.

When shooting with film, most photographers understand the fact that certain types of film emphasize certain color hues. Indeed, this is usually a widely publicized feature of the film, as a film that responds well to warm colors will probably produce the best sunset shots or a film that favors cool colors can best reproduce the colors in a nighttime scene. Digital cameras aren't supposed to specialize that way; they’re supposed to reproduce every color accurately. But if your digital camera tends to oversaturate certain colors, don’t fear. We’ll show you how to tone down those overpowering colors.

Saturation science
Saturation is the strength or purity of a color. Don’t think of saturation as how light or dark a color is, but how weak or strong a color is. A saturated color is vivid and bright, while an unsaturated color appears pale and dull. A saturated color is often described as pure, which means that it isn't diluted with excessive gray values. The higher the concentration of gray that a color contains, the lower the saturation.
             With the vast array of image sensor technology employed in today's digital cameras, it's hard to give you an overall technical cause for oversaturated colors. Essentially, when the image sensor misreads or becomes overly sensitive to a color, the sensor records light information with fewer gray values causing more saturated colors. Of course, the captured color may already be very saturated, so the digital camera is just interpreting the available light. However, as we mentioned earlier, some digital cameras are more sensitive than others to certain color ranges, leading to areas of solid color that have become oversaturated and lack any color texture.

The first line of defense in Photoshop
When attempting to quiet these overly pure colors, you should always start with the Hue/Saturation adjustment in Photoshop. This feature provides the best set of features for targeting and editing a specific hue, so it works best for large areas of saturated color. The Hue/Saturation command is available by selecting Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation, but as regular readers of Inside Photoshop know, we prefer to use adjustment layers whenever possible to maximize our flexibility while editing.

Add the Hue/Saturation layer
To add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to an image while in Photoshop, click the Create New Fill Or Adjustment Layer button in the Layers palette and select Hue/Saturation from the list. Either method takes you to the same dialog box, as shown in Figure A, but an adjustment layer lets you also control opacity, blending modes, and other adjustments that could come in handy.


In the Hue/Saturation dialog box, you control saturation by using the slider or entering a value into the text box. Moving the slider to the left decreases color saturation, while moving it to the right increases saturation. Saturation values range from -180 to +180, with negative numbers representing lower saturation and positive numbers representing higher saturation.

Target specific colors By default, Photoshop targets the saturation for all colors in your image, indicated by the Master selection in the Edit dropdown list. Since you usually want to target a specific color, click on the Edit dropdown list to select from six color ranges, as shown in Figure B. For example, the first image in Figure C displays oversaturated greens, so we selected Greens from the Edit dropdown list and used the slider to bring them back to the more normal appearance in the second image.


Get the most from Hue/Saturation
Here are a few tips for using the Hue/Saturation dialog box:

  • Make sure to select the Preview check box in this dialog box when adjusting saturation so you can easily watch your image change.
  • Work with the color range that bothers you the most before switching to other colors. When you make major changes to the most saturated color in your image, other colors can shift. It's much easier to make your big changes and then adjust the other colors afterward.
  • If you've found a perfect color correction that could apply to a series of images, click the Save button to save the settings. When you open your other...

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