The Saturation and Vibrance sliders are well-known and used by photographers in all genres alike. But do you know the difference between them?

If not, then you’re not alone. In fact, most photographers just play around with them until finding the combination which makes an image look good.

It should go without saying that this isn’t ideal. That’s why I highly recommend taking two minutes to understand their differences.

To make things visual and easy to understand, we’ll be adjusting vibrance and saturation to the image below. The image hasn’t been processed in any other way. For this example, we’ll use the Saturation and Vibrance sliders in Lightroom but the effects will be similar in other photo editors too.

Difference Between Saturation and Vibrance
The original and unedited RAW file

What is Saturation

The Saturation slider is used to adjust the colors within the image and is perhaps one of the most debated tools across all photo editors, as it’s one that’s often overused.

Colors are brightened and deepened when dragging the slider towards the right while pulling it to the left removes the colors and ultimately makes it a monochrome.

But how’s this different from Vibrance? Isn’t that exactly what it does as well? Kind of…

Saturation adjusts all the pixels in an image. That means that pixels with an already high saturation are treated equally as pixels with low saturation.

The problem with this is that you’ll end up clipping the already saturated colors and losing details in them.

Saturation vs. Vibrance
Saturation +65

For the example above, I increased saturation to +65. Certain colors are too saturated and bright in my opinion but it’s still somewhat restricted. Yet, notice how the already bright colors (see the original file further up) are starting to lose details.

Now take a look at the second photo and see what happens when increasing the saturation to +100. Certain colors have lost all details and we’re even seeing a few new colors that weren’t visible in the beginning.

Difference between Saturation and Vibrance
Saturation +100

The Saturation slider can be a useful tool but adjusting colors at a global level is something you always should be somewhat careful with. It doesn’t take much to ‘break’ an image.

What is Vibrance

The main difference between the Vibrance and Saturation sliders is that Vibrance only affects the less saturated colors of an image; colors and pixels that already are saturated are less affected, which means that it’s less likely to blow out any colors.

In the image below, I’ve increased the Vibrance to +65. Compare this to the image above using the same value for the Saturation slider and you can see that this is a less surreal and more constrained result.

Saturation or Vibrance
Vibrance +65

The difference is even bigger when increasing the Vibrance slider to the far right. This looks desaturated compared to when doing the same for the Saturation slider.

Vibrance +100

As you can see, the originally saturated colors haven’t been adjusted nearly as much. The Vibrance slider is less ‘surreal’, more constrained, and can handle bigger adjustments.

Use the Sliders Carefully

The Vibrance and Saturation sliders are two tools that should be used with some restrictions. They definitely have their purpose in your post-processing workflow but it doesn’t take much to over-do it. That’s why these are two of the most talked-about tools in modern image editing.

Using moderate values on these sliders is going to give greater results. Of course, each image (and each photographer) is different. But, in general, I recommend avoiding high values. If you see any strange artifacts in the colors, you’ve gone too far.

An advantage of using the Vibrance slider is that it’s less likely that you get extremely unnatural-looking images.

Avoid Global Color Adjustments

Working with color adjustments on a global level isn’t always ideal. Especially not when working on the image’s saturation. It’s rare that all colors within a photo benefit from the exact same treatment.

A better option is to work with the individual colors. This isn’t much more difficult than using the standard Saturation and Vibrance sliders but the results will be a lot better.

In Lightroom, this can be done using the HSL/Color Tab. In my opinion, this is one of the most important tools as it gives you great control over the individual colors.

HSL/Color Tab Lightroom
Colors adjusted using Lightroom’s HSL/Color tab

You can use the tool to adjust the Hue, Saturation and Luminance of the Reds, Oranges, Yellows, Greens, Aquas, Blues, Purples and Magentas.

What this means is that you’re able to, for example, increase the saturation of the reds without affecting any of the other colors. This is essential in order to control and correct the colors in your image. Best of all? You don’t have to worry about introducing strange-looking colors.

Conclusion

Saturation and Vibrance are important parts of a photographer’s post-processing workflow. After all, they can make an image more vibrant and welcoming.

The main difference is that Saturation affects all pixels while Vibrance only adjusts the less dominant colors. Besides that, they are similar and are used for the same purpose.

Using the general Saturation and Vibrance sliders, however, isn’t ideal. Colors rarely benefit from global adjustments. That’s why it’s better to use tools such as the HSL/Color tab in Lightroom or the Advanced Color Settings in Luminar 4. This lets you target the individual colors and, ultimately, get better results!


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Saturation and Vibrance