Natural-looking nature photography and color

Velvia was an interesting film for nature photographers (okay, it is still around, but not used so much now). It greatly enhanced colors and contrast to create snappy, lively photos. With digital, a lot of nature photographers want to duplicate that effect. The problem is that it is all too easy to oversaturate colors and not truly get the Velvia effect (which I think has become a dated look anyway).

I started thinking a bit about this from what I had seen in a nature photo contest for NANPA that I had been part of as a judge. There were a lot of really wonderful photos. And some definitely stood out for their brightly saturated colors -- too much so. The colors were overdone and did not look natural or anything like "nature." Now that it is fall color time, I am seeing some wonderful fall color shots ... and some way over saturated photos that look more garish than attractive.

I think you really have to be careful not to oversaturate already colorful colors such as bold fall color on a bright sunny day. It is okay to actually trust the color of the scene and not feel you have to "improve it." Now it is true that digital cameras do not always capture a scene perfectly. Cloudy days can be nice for fall color, but many cameras, especially if you shoot RAW, will create an image that looks like it was shot through a gray, dulling filter!

The answer to that is not simply increasing saturation or vibrance in the computer. That often gives garish and unnatural results. What is important is to first set your blacks and check your whites in your photo. For an image to display properly on screen or in a print, it needs to have a full range of tonality from black to white (unless you are photographing in fog or something like it). Digital cameras will not (for a variety of design reasons) give that full range for most photos, especially on gray days. Without that full range of tones, especially blacks and whites, colors will not display to their full "abilities."

The first of these two photos of fall in Arches National Park in Utah is as the image came from the camera. The second has had blacks and whites set, midtones adjusted and some local traditional sort of darkroom work (slight crop, dodging and burning or local controls in Lightroom) -- no saturation or vibrance adjustments have been used. There is plenty of color in the backlit scene -- I am trusting the scene and only bringing out its full range of tonality (getting rid of some of the dullness that a digital sensor will often give).

Setting blacks and checking whites is easy with all Adobe products. With Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, Levels is the tool to use (or Levels adjustment layer). If you press the Alt or Option key as you move the left, black slider under the histogram, you will get a black threshold screen that will show you both when you are getting blacks in the photo and where they are. Most photos need at least a touch of black (though a highly colored image will often only show patches of color where color is maxed out).

Press Alt or Option again as you move the right, white slider and you will get a whites threshold screen. Whites are really, really sensitive, so I typically move this until something just appears on that threshold screen in an important part of the scene (don't worry about areas that are super bright, such as the sun or bright reflections on water). I have some free videos on my website,, that show this in detail for Photoshop products.

I mostly use Lightroom for these adjustments now. The same threshold screens are available and they are a huge help for me. Press Alt or Option as you click and drag the Blacks slider in Basic to the right. That will give you the same blacks threshold screen. Blacks are very subjective but you usually need at least something there besides a white screen (that says there are no blacks).

Whites are checked with Exposure. Again, hold down the Alt or Option key as you move that slider. And again, whites are extremely sensitive. I sometimes find that I cannot actually use Lightroom's adjustment when the whites just appear and so I back it off some.

These two adjustments will have a big effect on color and its appearance. Now you can set midtones, from the darkest to the lightest areas that are not black or white, with the Tone Curve (my preference) or Brightness and Contrast. You may need to tweak Fill Light and Recovery.

Now you can adjust color saturation. I almost never use Saturation in Lightroom or overall saturation in Photoshop. These are heavy-handed tools that are like repairing a laptop with a hammer. I may try a little Vibrance in Lightroom, but be careful because it can oversaturate skies very quickly.

I find I get the best color control with HSL in Lightroom or individual colors in Hue/Saturation in Photoshop products (using those adjustments in Photoshop are also in free videos on my website). HSL is great because you can go in and selectively affect colors. Digital sensors rarely treat all colors equally. You may find that a yellow needs more saturation yet a red needs less. HSL lets you do that quite easily, plus you can tweak the color of a color (its hue) and its brightness (luminance). If you have not explored the targeted adjustment tool, check it out because it can really help your use of HSL in Lightroom.

About Rob

I am proud of the work I have done as a photographer, author, naturalist and nature photographer, editor and videographer. I love the natural world, and that can be a native bee in my native plants garden as much as a visit to a national park. I am a husband of a beautiful and smart wife, a father to my outstanding son and daughter, and one who lived in Minnesota most of my life, but now loves the variety and very long growing season of Southern California. I have written and photographed a lot of books and magazine articles but what is most important to me about them is knowing that I have helped people become better photographers and gain a better connection to nature. I work to help people connect with photography and nature through speaking and as a workshop leader, too. All of this has gained me a Fellow award with the North American Nature Photography Association. Many people knew me as the long-time editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine and I am still connected with them as a contributing editor. A short list of some of the books I have done: Landscape Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shot, Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, The Magic of Digital Nature Photography, National Geographic Field Guide to Digital Photography, The Power of Black-and-White in Nature Photography and Reports from the Field (an iBook). My website is at; my blogs are at and
This entry was posted in Fall, Lightroom, Nature photography, Photoshop and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Natural-looking nature photography and color

  1. Chuck Summers says:

    Excellent article, as usual, Rob. Would like to have seen you include an additional picture in your series to show what you consider "over-saturated" to look like.

  2. Dick Lester says:

    When I first learned this via your column in OP several years ago, it totally opened up digital photography for me. I like your term "through a grey filter"...I've always referred to before/after setting of black and white points as like looking at a scene through a heavily tinted windshield and then rolling the window down. I really feel that the simple technique that you have described is something that every digital photographer should use as basic SOP in their workflow.

  3. Jan Maklak says:

    I think most new photographers use saturation as a way of overcoming the dull colors or digital noise. I was and probably still am to a degree guilty of this. Sometimes the color you want is so hard to get. Like you I have used levels and levels on individual color channels. I would urge new photographers or experienced ones to get to know their camera and software to get the best results. I know it`s helping me and learning is a continual process.
    Thanks Rob for another great post.

  4. Graeme says:

    I too hate over-saturated colours, particularly those popular in calendars and from too many "commercial" landscape and nature photographers. I have found the X-Rite Colorchecker Passport very useful in achieving photos that have more accurate colours, followed the white and black balance steps that you describe.

  5. Vivien Stevens says:

    Thank you, Rob, for yet another excellent and interesting article, clearly presented. I like your books as well. I always try to set midtones and black and white points accurately, but didn't know about using the alt key. This will be a great help.

    Wish you were on Google+ so I could both 'follow' you and share this and your other posts there. It seems to be a very powerful tool for becoming known and promoting one's work. As a serious amateur seeking to share rather than promote, that aspect of it doesn't interest me - but for professionals it appears to have remarkable results - possible too much so for those unprepared for overnight celebrity!

  6. Excellent, hands-on advice, Rob. I wrote a blog post a while back that was quite popular from the 'historical' perspective of over-saturated images. As you confirm, the tendency started with Velvia film, long before Photoshop manipulations: However, your article goes a step further by explaining practical ways to avoid over-saturation and still get the color that we photographers "saw" but the camera didn't. This kind of article ought to be more widely distributed. So many people are heavy-handed with the controls, not knowing there are other, more realistic and attractive ways to accomplish the same goals.

  7. Rob, I agree 100 %. Problem today is, photographers aren't replicating Velvia (my film of choice pre-digital) but simply creating overprocessed eye candy for its own sake. This way of working totally disrespects nature and appears to make the statement that the Creator didn't know what he was doing and his work needs improvement. As long as there are websites around that encourage this approach to photography (and there are), this type of product will continue to be churned out. Please keep getting the message out; you have a forum for it when you teach courses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

11 − three =