A Short Rant on Over-Saturated Photography

I was at a couple of art shows during my vacation, and saw a lot of photography.  A staple of photography are the shots of Italian allies and colorful sea villages.  I have one on my wall that I shot myself, the classic view you have seen a million times of Vernazza, Italy.  My wife observed that these photos at the shows looked different than mine (she said "better").

The reason was quickly apparent, and I am seeing this more and more in the Photoshop world -- all the artists have pumped the color saturation way up.  I had to do this a bit, because the colors desaturate some when they get printed on canvas.  But these canvases friggin glowed.  I see the same thing in nature photography.  Is this an improvement?  I don't know, but I am a bit skeptical.  It reminds me a lot of how TV's are sold.  TV pictures tend to be skewed to over-bright and over-vivid colors because those look better under the fluorescent lights of the sales floor.  TV's also tend to have their colors tuned to the very cool (blue) color temperatures for the same reason.  None of this looks good in a darkened room watching a film-based movie.  Fortunately, modern TV's have better electronics menus and it is easy to reverse these problems, and my guess is there is less of this anyway now that many TV's are sold online based on reviews rather than comparison shopping in a store.

I am left to wonder though how this new super-vivid, over saturated photography would look in a home, and how it wears with years of viewing.  Am I being a dinosaur resisting a technological improvement or is there a real problem here?


  1. Joshua Vanderberg:

    Yep, you will definitely notice that photography made for public consumption is pushed right up to the maximum of saturation and contrast that the photo can handle before starting to look unreal. I also think that a lot of portrait photography, especially the 'natural light' folks, way overexpose their shots in post processing.

    But they do it because it sells. It sells because it looks better. The human eye prefers bright, contrasting, and vivid imagery.

    Oh, and I remember the Italian photo you posted - I took a shot at making it look better and ended up pumping up the contrast and saturation - still have it somewhere. Your original definitely lacked a bit of 'umph'.

  2. Silvermine:

    Yeah, I run away from those images. I think only people with a more trained eye can tell how wrong they are. Maybe some people like that sort of thing. A lot of popular music right now is horribly overprocessed. I think people just get used to it. I think the images and the music lose a lot.. Maybe one day there will be a movement towards more authentic sounds and images. It's all a pendulum, swinging from one extreme to the other...

  3. jimbeaux:

    What you're seeing is probably also the result of the current trend towards HDR photography - High Dynamic Range. It's a technique where three or more photos are taken using different exposures, and then they're blended together. Think of it this way: a beach photo taken on a bright sunny day will by necessity have to compensate for the brightness by rendering any shadows very dark, so dark that you can't see any details in the shadow. At the same time, the brightness on the water or other places will also lose detail, as the camera took it's best guess as to how to expose the image. With HDR, one (or more) photo is deliberately underexposed (to get the details in the shadows to show up), one is exposed correctly, and one (or more) is deliberately overexposed (to get details in the brightest areas to show up). HDR software combines the photos to retain the details in the shadow and the details in the bright areas. When done right, the results are spectacular. When done badly, the photos look "overcooked" like this: http://www.luminescentphoto.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/KeynoteScreenSnapz001-480x318.jpg

    ...as opposed to this: http://www.luminescentphoto.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/hdr_efex-pro-480x319.jpg

  4. Dale:

    Coyote, have you noticed the difference between
    photos shot with film and digital photos.
    No matter how good your digital camera is it can only approximate the
    colors, while film cameras can duplicate the colors. It’s the same way with music; the best key
    board in the world cannot equal the sound of a grand piano. As for photoshoping pictures, in many cases
    it just exaggerates the difference between the real and the artificial. Besides I like the understated rather than
    the overstated.

    I would never go back to shooting film because
    digital is so much more convenient, but I know the difference, and no amount of
    photoshoping can duplicate all the colors on film.

    themes my thoughts, Dale…

  5. Samsam von Virginia:

    While killing time in a book store one day, I picked up a book on painting; one section was on how one might go about picking colors to depict a particular scene. The author had a selection of still life and landscape photos, and had painted them using various different color-picking criteria. Do you want to depict a warm mood? Cold and foreboding? Happy and festive? The color choices were quite different, yet each was in some sense "accurate".

    As an engineer, I was fascinated. I assumed one simply duplicated what one saw. And that is sort of correct, but what one sees is more than the photons entering the eye.

    The camera already manipulates the image. The photographer continues the process. It isn't necessarily inaccurate, it's art.

  6. Mad Rocket Scientist:

    Jimbeaux has it. In addition to HDR techniques (which use the set of photos), you also have apps & techniques that mimic HDR with a single photo. It's not as good as HDR, but it can still be pretty impressive.

    My HDR photos rarely require me to touch the color saturation at all, & if I do, it's for small amounts & usually only one or two colors getting tweaked. Usually I just adjust the contrast & color temperature & everything pops out nicely for the effect I want.

  7. marque2:

    Hmm I have doubt about your film comments. There is a definite range which film can attempt to duplicate - it can't do the full visible spectrum - and as I recall from the bad old days they used to review film based on the quality of the reproduction - so I know film does not produce true but approximates based on the work of a.good chemist.

  8. marque2:

    That looks like a painting from some science fantasy book. Doesn't look real at all.

  9. OMMAG:

    Yeah ... that and glare or halo effects .... cheap ... no imagination .... you have at least the perception to see it for what it is.

    BTW . Italian "allies" ?

  10. MingoV:

    Over-saturated images are common, and they annoy me, too. I also dislike images with excessive overall contrast or edge contrast. I calibrate my monitor and TV for correct colors. The current photograph or print trend reminds me of posters geared towards teens and college kids in the late 1960s: intense colors and sharp boundaries.

    A similar issue involves music. CDs became popular in the 1990s, and the recording industry realized that the audio CD volumes can be much greater than phonograph records. CDs got louder and louder. If radio DJs weren't savvy enough to normalize volume, songs from such CDs played louder and gained more attention from listeners. The situation worsened when mp3s became popular, and customers listened through ear buds or cheap headphones. Recording companies added dynamic compression (lowering loud volumes and raising soft volumes).

    My overall gripe is that technology is being used to degrade art instead of enhance it.

  11. obloodyhell:

    Well, the problem really is, your eyes have much higher dynamic range than a camera does. Your brain actually does things -- have you ever looked at a bright ceiling, for example (i.e., while lying on a bed) and noticed it shifting in brightness? That's because your brain varies the iris so as to get the best detail... and then processes it to make its own "HDR" image.

    It's possible to make it less extreme, and closer to what your own brain perceives as proper, but that probably varies with the individual, and with individual tastes. While most would agree the bottom doesn't look "real", they likely would consider it "pretty", even if you don't.

    If you search "stock HDR pictures", you'll likely find some that look better than that to your taste.

  12. obloodyhell:

    Yah. That's where "punk" came from, as a response to the overuse of electronic sounds in the 70s.

    Me, I have a foot in both camps. I like "normal pics", but can also enjoy a picture that "pops" like the above, too. I don't insist on them being either way -- I think of the above as artistry that beats the pants off the really surrealistic crap that gets most people to go, "WTF is THAT supposed to be?" At least it's obvious what it is, even with the colors so vivid.

    I'm put in mind of a Discover cover article of about 20 years ago -- it asked the question: "Can animals make art?" -- and answered that by taking the art of some noted "animal" artists to some art critics/dealers for their opinion, without indicating where it came from. The responses were generally positive. Discover editors came to the conclusion that animals had artistic talent.

    I noted immediately that it was that, or far more likely a commentary on what was being sold as "art" these days was something that required zero talent or skill whatsoever to actually make.

    I doubt if the thought ever occurred to them...

    When the Rorschach-ish blasts onto newspaper from a diarrhitic parrot can be passed off as "art" it's not really "art" any more, is my own contention. Vis-a-vis, "Virgin Mary In Elephant Dung."

  13. obloodyhell:

    }}} No matter how good your digital camera is it can only approximate thecolors, while film cameras can duplicate the colors.

    }} Hmm I have doubt about your film comments.

    LOL, I'd go further than "doubt" -- with processing film -- and even more so in the "printing" activity -- there's FAR more work done in the color aspects than Dale is aware of. The question of "which color is this or that" goes into not only the processing but also the printing. You'll occasionally see a photo with someone holding up a reference sample -- usually with a Grey Card -- since not only the light but the film itself changes the result -- taking a photo indoors is different from outdoors, and doing so under fluorescent light vs. incandescent light is a historical bugaboo -- you had different varieties of film for all three (or attached filters onto the lens), since sunlight is more yellow than incandescent and fluoros are more green. By comparing what you printed to the Grey Card, you can tell if you got the colors right, or if you need to do something when printing the image to adjust the colors back to the proper values.

    The advantage of digital is it's easier to futz with it rather than having to depend on some ham-handed minwage bozo to Get It Right.

    Now, I haven't really looked into it, but I'd suspect that film has a higher innate Dynamic Range than most digital cameras -- especially anything that's not an expensive SLR with selectable lenses. Film also has a much higher innate resolution (ca. 3000-4000 dpi) than any but the higher end SLR bodies, though that is changing with time -- The Samsung GS4 has a 4128 x 3096 pixels(13mp) camera, while the new Nokia 808 has 7728 x 4354 pixel resolution (41 mp -- yes, 41) -- Nokia REALLY wants to recapture its lost user base... (Data from here, if interested)

    BTW, this might be of interest:
    Smartphone camera super-test: Nokia 808 vs Samsung GS4 vs Lumia 920

  14. Uncle Bill:

    Kodak used to advertise their films, particularly Kodachrome, as being the most accurate in terms of color. "Real" photographers wouldn't use anything else. I think National Geographic might have required Kodachrome for their pictures. Then Fuji came along with Fujichrome, which was much more saturated. It wasn't nearly as accurate, but people loved it, so they bought it. It turned out to be somewhat moot, because digital has taken over, but I was bothered to see the less accurate color film take a big portion of the market.

  15. marque2:

    In most camera reviews of the day - Fuji film got much better reviews for accuracy. National Geographic had a deal with Kodac.

  16. marque2:

    You would love this Dick Tracy movie then


  17. marque2:

    I don't know about the resolution either, If you get some of the very slow films (ISO 64), you can a nice looking print. The faster films most people used though like the 400 always seemed pretty grainy on 4" prints. It may have higher resolution, but the grain made it look much lower.

  18. CapitalistRoader:

    Population aging may have something to do with it. After cataract surgery, my 84-year-old mother was embarrassed by the sweater she had been wearing to church for the past few years because she realized it was bright red. Till then she saw it as dark red. I've noticed television color saturation and contrast cranked way up in assisted living facilities. Maybe orange people look normal to very old eyes.

  19. Mad Rocket Scientist:

    The first image is HDR done wrong, the second is done right. The second image is what your eye/brain actually sees (as long as the eye has sufficient lighting - too dark or the sun in your eyes will change things).

  20. obloodyhell:

    Yeah, the really fast films tended to be grainy. There were some decent middle speeds, though -- ca. 100-150 (iirc, the "fast" ones were ASA 400) did pretty well -- you could even use them indoors if you had a decently low f-stop on your lens. Years ago I got lots of great flash-free pix that were done indoors with an f1.4 lens because people didn't think you could take shots indoors without flash, so they'd actually mug for the camera. It was so fun showing them the pics after.

  21. obloodyhell:

    }}} My overall gripe is that technology is being used to degrade art instead of enhance it.

    LOL, hard to degrade something that's self-degraded by Postmodern Liberalism's push to destroy anything fixed or reliable and reduce everything to vagaries and disassociative nihilism.

    See my comment elsewhere here about the Discover mag "Animal Artists" thing.

  22. obloodyhell:

    Equally importantly, Fuji beat the crap out of Kodak on price. If you were on a tight budget, you bought Fuji, because you got a lot more bang for the buck. I can't confirm marque2's assertion below, but I never had any issues with photos taken using it.

  23. obloodyhell:

    BTW, as I recall from my film days, if you were shooting B&W and didn't have a grey card handy, normal, fairly green grass was generally a good reference point, as it was almost exactly the right light level to match the Grey card. Didn't work as well for color, mind you...

  24. Dale:

    Ok, I got my ass handed to me. A couple years ago I was talking to a photographer
    at a fair who did photos for a living.
    At the fair he had he had digital and film and I swear there was a difference. However as I remember now there was a lot of
    manipulation that he talked about doing to the film photography.

    Also since I saw “jimbeaux’s” post I want to play with HDR photography so bad I can taste it.

    P.S. He said the difference was that there are
    only a few colors, Green, Red, Blue and one other I think, that the camera uses
    to make all the other colors, whereas in the real world there is an Infinite range of in between colors that a digital camera can’t

  25. Dale:

    about the mangled sentence. It should have read “At the fair he had digital and
    film photos and I swear there was a difference.” Also I
    need to correct myself, he did do photos, but his main interest was portraits. They were really good - and expensive.

  26. marque2:

    Yes with computers there are discrete colors - on your laptop right now you can get 256 shades of red, green and blue, these get mixed to produce all the colors. Film is similar, it uses silver oxide as the reactive material, but has three layers, one has blue dies, then the next has green dies and the next has red dies.

    So lets say you want to get a color like Yellow on the film - you can't there is no yellow, so much like the computer you get a mix which is half red and half green. So no film does not produce all the colors.

    What it has though is a non descrete absorption level because the silver is "analog" so whereas I could have a slight off yellow on the computer - say 255, 254, 0 the film, could technically have a 255, 254.25, 0 or several time more precise in the color level. I am not sure how accurate the colors can be in the camera however because there are many other factor many with the mechanics of the camera and design of the film which affect the color itself. Yes the Green layer may be able to have a smoother range, but if the process to make the film, doesn't support the accurateness (say the layers are a bit foggy, or the dyes block out some of the light from other layers and compensations need to be made, you still only get an engineered approximation of the outside world. So in the end it may be a matter of taste (computers in general use the 8 bit, 8bit, 8bit color model, some higher end stuff, can use 10bit or even 16 bit colors - in which case the comparison is moot)

    And then you need to consider the eyeball itself which only can see three colors itself ... Nope you can't see yellow either, only Red Green Blue and light/dark in low situations.

    I suspect someday computers will all support 16bit color in a 64 bit word, but at this point I don't think there is much effort to do this because screens aren't precise enough to support better color resolution, unless you get really really high end stuff that most consumers could not afford. And even then as monitors age they display colors differently.

    Something you might ask, hey I though computer guys deal with 32 bit words, you have 8 bits of red, green, blue = 24, what happened to the other 8. The other 8 are called transparency bits, and when supported allow a level of bleed through from an image behind the front image.

  27. markm:

    As an example of how far the manipulation of film colors can go, my DVD's of Star Trek (the original series) has commentary on a scene with a green Orion "slave girl". The shows were filmed - with color film - and after developing, processing for special effects, etc., the final film strip was run past a TV camera tube to produce video.

    So they slathered the actress with green makeup, shot the film, and the rushes came back from processing with her looking white (that is, just barely reddish-brown, just like the actress looked before makeup). They laid darker green makeup on with a trowel - and she still came out white. After several re-shoots, finally someone talked to the developing staff. They were correcting the color until her skin tone looked normal. Since no one had told them she was supposed to be green, they just assumed that something was screwy in the lighting or the film. It may have been a far more extreme adjustment than they were used to needing, but it was quite within their capabilities.

    There's very little that you can do with Photoshop that a team of experts with a large budget couldn't do with film. The real difference is that anyone can photoshop - and anyone with a good enough "eye" to tell good from bad results can keep trying until they get the desired effect - but at the cost of professional-grade movie film and developing, hiring topnotch experts was cheaper than trial and error.

  28. Eric Hammer:

    Happen to remember what book that was? I have been poking around for a book on the subject, but it often seems buried or only lightly touched upon. Not knowing the proper name for such decisions probably doesn't help either.

  29. Klaus:

    Thank god for this article and the comments. Now I feel a lot better because it is not just me who finds oversaturated photos disturbing. Sometimes I feel as if I should get a bucket to put under some images to prevent the colour dropping on the floor.
    I guess it depends what the photographer wants to achieve, some want to capture a photo that represents what their eyes saw, others just want to create a piece of art that sells.

  30. Benjamin Mazariegos:

    The problem is that technology is in the hands of everybody, and not all people are artists, unfortunately, that's why you get saturated photos everywhere.

  31. Andy:

    I feel like there is an objectively realistic saturation "zone", an area where your picture goes from being realistically colorful to beyond the realm of reality. Fall color is a great example of how to carefully manage this zone. It is quite brilliant in person, but there is still a limit, and a lot of people pass that limit and create pictures that have no basis in the reality of fall color.

    I think oversaturation is trying to make up for either a boring photo, or one that has been poorly composed (especially with regards to lighting). Fall color is again an example of the latter - if you position the lighting correctly, the colors will naturally pop and the trees will glow. If your lighting sucks, you will instead get a dull image, and once you pump up the saturation, it will just become oversaturated.

    Don't even get me started on overdone HDR... You know, I don't mind these kinds of overprocessing techniques if they're done with obvious intent. Majority of the time, they are not, and instead they are doing a dissatisfaction to the subject (a landscape, or an object) and trying to make it "prettier" by processing it digitally, instead of capturing its true beauty through appropriately creative photographic techniques such as composition and lighting.