Photography 101: A Primer on Color Photography, Part II
A look at hue, saturation, and lightness
Hue is what we usually define as color. The images below illustrate shifts in hue:
Saturation refers to the intensity of a color (hue). It’s hard to say whether higher or lower saturation is better, as this is highly subjective. Some people prefer more vivid colors, while others love pastel. But there’s one rule I always keep in mind: over-saturation results in lost details. For example, different blue shades will show when saturation is lower, but a variance of blue colors may only show as one vibrant blue when the saturation is high:
Lightness — sometimes called brightness — refers to a color’s proximity to the white or black end of the tonal scale. A color with low lightness is close to black, while one with a high value is close to white:
For black-and-white photos, contrast means the variations between different tones of black, grey, and white:
For color photos, it’s a bit more complicated. It not only means the variations in lightness, but also the differences in hue and saturation. How we express these differences is based on the photographer’s creativity. If we put vivid green and light green together, for example, we see the contrast in color value (lightness):
If we put a vibrant main color and equally vibrant complementary colors together, we see the contrast in hue:
If a photo has many high-saturation colors, it has a strong contrast . . .
. . . while a photo with many low-saturation colors has a low contrast.
Image file formats and working with color on your digital camera
As you might recognize, JPEG is the most commonly used file format for storing images from digital cameras, while most DSLRs also offer RAW and TIFF formats. There are many resources online (like here and here) that discuss the technical details of RAW, TIFF, and JPEG.
- RAW files are uncompressed and unprocessed snapshots of all details available to the camera sensor.
- TIFF files are uncompressed, but processed by cameras.
- JPEGs are compressed and processed by cameras.
Shooting in TIFF or JPEG means the TIFF or JPEG files are processed right within your camera. This process varies by camera models. The camera may adjust color temperature, exposure, blacks, contrast, lightness, noise, etc., and then render the file to a TIFF or a compressed JPEG. Many of the properties listed above have great impact on how we present our color photography. Some people suggest shooting in the FINE JPEG setting when you know exactly what white balance and exposure you’ll use.
Personally, I shoot all my photos in RAW. I like the freedom RAW files offer me. I can adjust exposure, white balance, contrast, saturation, sharpness, and more when I process my work. RAW files also store more details in range and tones. Of course, if you’re shooting for website or low-quality use, shooting in JPEG is perfectly fine. The baby toy you want to sell on eBay won’t get more hits when you use RAW shots!
A tip on shooting in RAW: It does require more storage space, so be prepared to carry more memory cards when you’re out in the field. The RAW files produced by my main camera of choice, Nikon D800E, is on average about 40 MB per image. This camera has two memory card slots to accommodate the massive storage demand, and I usually carry 4 to 5 additional cards, too.
Ready for some practice?
The blue hour is the period of twilight each morning and evening where there is neither full daylight nor complete darkness. (It’s different from the golden hour, which our community captured beautifully in a previous photo challenge). During the blue hour, the sun is slightly below the horizon, and the sky often gives off as a vibrant, creamy blue. Depending on where you are, various light sources are available: the last traces of warm light from the sunset, tungsten lights from street lamps, lights from cars or other objects, and more.
Here are a few examples:
The wide range of lights and color temperature give photographers more freedom when using different combinations of aperture and exposure. But the word “hour” is a little misleading: this period of time lasts less than 30 minutes in many locations. Check out BlueHourSite for an estimate of when and how long your local blue hour lasts.
An assignment from Ming:
Get outside and try to capture the beautiful blue hour near you. Play with hue, saturation, and lightness during post-processing. If you shoot in RAW, you’ll also have the option to adjust the white balance.
About Ming Gullo
I’ve been always a lover of art. I went through formal training of painting and illustration when I was younger, where I learned the basics of art. Over the years, I’ve been a freelance children’s book illustrator, graphic designer, and web designer/programmer. For me, photography is a perfect marriage of art and technology, which satisfies both sides of my mind. Currently, I’m based on Long Island, New York. You can see my work on Facebook, 500px, and WordPress.com. You can also find my work in magazines — such as Photography Masterclass and N-Photo – or on Nikon Germany’s Facebook page.
Previous posts in the Photography 101 series
- Philosophy of Photography
- Viewing the World with a Photographer’s Eye, I
- Viewing the World with a Photographer’s Eye, II
- The Fundamentals of Light
- The Quality of Light
- The Rules and Elements of Composition
- Finding the Best Shot — Portrait or Landscape?
- Finding Your Focus
- Establishing a Point of View
- Shape, Line, Texture, and Pattern
- A Primer on Color Photography, I