Desensitized Color Syndrome in Landscape Photography
Before you start reading this essay, understand that all artists have unique approaches to how they tackle their artwork. In digital photography, I’m going to guess that 99%+ of professional landscape artists use some sort of digital processing for their images. If you count the fact that cameras also process information coming off the sensor — even when shooting RAW — 100% of digital photographers use digital processing for their images. Personally, I shoot RAW files and do the processing in Adobe Lightroom and sometimes I also use Adobe Photoshop, especially for some types of layers, such as luminosity masks, or localized adjustments that can’t be done in Adobe Lightroom (please, give us a Curves Adjustment Brush!). So, this essay isn’t about using a digital processing tool, because I think that’s a given with digital photography just as much as it was with black and white photography and color film photography. If you don’t think it was done with film and think that “photoshopping” is bad, pick up a copy of Ansel Adams’ Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. It’ll change your mind when you see what Ansel Adams did to make his prints. The only difference is that we now do that on the computer.
There’s a syndrome in outdoor and landscape photography and I like to call it Desensitized Color Syndrome. In the syndrome, you can watch over a number of years as a photographer’s color saturation gradually increases. So much so that you can compare one older photo with a newer one and it will look like the newer one exists in some world where colors are so amazing that it looks like Superman must have zapped the terrain with his color-enhancing vision. There’s nothing new about photographers attempting to increase the color saturation of a photo. We’ve been trying to do it with filters, film and digital methods since color film was invented. If you’ve been around photography long enough, you’ll remember Fuji Velvia as an example — a slide film that I loved. You’ll also see photographers whose work looks more saturated than any photo that you’ve ever taken, but all of their work is consistently saturated as part of their “style.” That’s not necessarily the syndrome. The syndrome is when with your own work, you notice it becomes more and more saturated over time, but only notice it when looking back as a retrospective.
I get it. Color saturation is addictive and alluring. It’s easy to increase with a slider here and a slider there or with a targeted layer and mask or even a plugin designed specifically for increasing color saturation. The problem is that in digital photography, it’s easy to become desensitized to color saturation, especially when comparing your work to photographers who use more saturation than you do. What happens is that as you become desensitized, you gradually increase the saturation and then you become desensitized to that level of saturation and you increase it again and this goes on and on until….SUPERMAN. All of a sudden your images are so saturated that it looks like you live on Krypton.
In my photography workshops when I teach image processing, I talk about how to recognize what needs to be done to a photo to maximize its potential by figuring out where the image needs to lead the eye and what stops your eye from going there. Usually this involves dodging and burning, lightening and darkening, respectively, parts of the image to increase visual flow, but sometimes increasing color saturation in one area of the image or one specific color in the image can increase visual flow. Even though the image may need some increase in saturation, one thing that I tell my students is that the “Saturation” slider in Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop is 100% completely off limits. The reason being is that slider increases overall saturation in the image instead of targeting the specific type of saturation that the image needs to increase its impact. The overuse of the saturation slider leads to Desensitized Color Syndrome, because you get used to the oversaturation and need to increase it further to get more impact from your brain.
How do you avoid this?
The easiest way is to never touch the saturation slider or increase the saturation. The hard way is figuring out why you think you need more color. For the second, it’s usually because your image lacks impact. While there are many questions that you can ask yourself about why your image lacks impact, the following three can help you figure out if it lacks impact because of something you did wrong in the field or if it lacks impact because you need to work on image flow. Before you work on your image (or better: before you take the picture) ask yourself:
- Is it an interesting subject?
- Is it the right composition?
- Is the light right?
If you answer all the questions “yes,” then you know that you have a good photo and that the lack of impact doesn’t come from lack of saturation, but it comes from lack of image flow. There’s something in the image that is preventing the composition and the light from working right with the subject. If you’re shooting RAW, it might be that the data that has come off the sensor just needs more contrast. But the general principles are that bright areas draw your eye and dark areas repel your eye. When you process the image, you need to use those principles to guide the viewer’s eyes through the photo.
For example, in the following image, the version on the left is straight off of the camera shot in RAW. The camera hasn’t applied anything to the image. It looks rather blah, but we know the subject is interesting, the composition is right and the light is right, so we have a solid starting point. First I increased the contrast, increased the exposure, but brought down the highlights. Basically, I adjust the image without increasing saturation to make it pop. The image in the middle is after I made the basic adjustments. You may have noticed that with the increase in contrast, the colors now look more saturated, but that happened without increasing saturation. Note: if you shoot jpeg, your camera makes these adjustments for you and gives you limited control.
After the global adjustments were made, I made local dodge and burn adjustments. Every gray dot on the right image represents one area that I thought was either too dark or too bright and because of that, it reduced the visual flow. In this image, the flow I wanted was for people’s eyes to go up and down the waterfall, but not get stuck in the waterfall. After the journey down the falls, I wanted to free the eyes to be able to wander across the image — to check out the rocks, the lichen and the cedars — but I wanted to make sure that the waterfall still was the biggest visual draw. If you compare the right image with the center, you’ll be able to see what I darkened and lightened to increase the impact.
The key is to understand that impact is created not by uber-super saturation, but by first making sure that you have an interesting subject, the right composition and the right light, and then figuring out the visual flow and how to increase that flow in processing. If you take this approach, your images will be stronger, the saturation will look normal, and it won’t creep up continuously as you become desensitized to color’s impact. You’ll avoid Desensitized Color Syndrome.