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Lightroom tip: Vibrance vs Saturation

When most new Lightroom users want to make the colour of an image “pop” more (or mute it down), they normally think of changing the saturation and will therefore intuitively go to the Saturation slider to do it. But when they see that Vibrance slider next to it and they give it a try they also see changes in the intensity of the colours. So what are the differences between the two? Understanding them can be critical in getting the look you want for your images.

Vibrance and Saturation sliders
Vibrance and Saturation sliders

NOTE: The snapshot above is taken from Lightroom 4.1, so those using another version may see some differences.

There are two main differences between the vibrance and saturation sliders:

  1. The Saturation slider affects the image linearly, by applying a uniform adjustment to the saturation of all its colours. The Vibrance slider affects it nonlinearly, so if you increase vibrance the colours that are more muted get more of a saturation increase than those that were more saturated to begin with. This is good for increasing the colour intensity of the more subdued areas in your image without overcranking those areas that already start with a good amount of saturation.
  2. The Vibrance slider tries to leave skin tones unaffected. This is ideal for portrait situations where you want to intensify the colour of the image but don’t want your model to end up looking like a pumpkin (it should be noted that this aspect works best with Caucasian skin tones or similar).

As a case in point, here are two edits of the same image side by side, the one on the left with values Saturation +70 / Vibrance 0, and the one on the right with values Saturation 0 / Vibrance +70.

Vibrance and saturation comparison
Vibrance and saturation comparison

It's pretty plain to see that the skin tones on the left image, where the saturation was cranked up, have gone quite out of whack. But the ones on the right, where an increase of vibrance was used,  have retained a much more natural look.

Now, I normally wouldn't necessarily edit the colour an image like the one above just by increasing the vibrance. I was merely trying to illustrate the differences between what happens when you use one or the other slider. I'd probably use a small amount of saturation to bring the general colour up, and then finish the job with vibrance.

How much to use of each slider is entirely dependent on what you particularly want for each image, what your editing style is, and how the image looks as a starting point when you bring it into Lightroom. The RAW images out of my camera normally come out a little muted by default, so to achieve a punchy colourful image many times I’ll bring up the base saturation conservatively, maybe to +5 or +6, and then bring it the rest of the way up with vibrance, which often goes up to the +20 or +25 (sometimes quite a bit more).

Of course, there are no magic numbers and the values can end up being very different from picture to picture. But regardless of whether you are trying to achieve a punchy look or a muted one, understanding the differences between vibrance and saturation will help you get there.