Photoshop Tools - Selective Color Adjustments

Both Lightroom and Photoshop offer more than one way to adjust color saturation. The “saturation slider” tool is a common one, and in fact, your phone camera includes it as an editing tool. With a simple touch and slide of a button, colors can be made more vibrant and saturated by moving the slide tool to the right. The farther to the right, the more saturation applied. It’s quite seductive! However, this does not work for my photography and that is because I want total technical and creative control over each image, beginning with the camera and ending with the final edit. By moving the saturation tool to the right, I am applying it to all the colors. Maybe I don’t want blue saturated, or maybe I want more saturation in blue and very little applied to yellow. Or maybe, just maybe, I want to DEsaturate a color. Just because an image has color doesn't mean it has to be saturated!

There are several ways to apply saturation, but to keep it simple, I’ll describe two approaches. The first is the most commonly used approach and that is to apply the saturation tool to all the colors. The above picture shows the saturation tool in Lightroom (left) Photoshop (right). Moving the slider to the right adds saturation to ALL colors of the image. This is referred to as global editing.

The other approach is to apply saturation to an individual color. The above picture shows the color options in Lightroom (left) and Photoshop (right). This approach allows you to select which colors to saturate. Each saturation slider can go just as far to the left as it can to the right. Sliding the tool to the left removes the color (desaturation, see image below). If you take it all the way to the end, the color completely disappears leaving only gray, black or white.

Given the above, I approach the saturation tool in the following three ways (and I will let your eyes decide which version you prefer):

Approach #1: No saturation applied. The image below was shot in Big Cypress National Preserve. The sky was vibrant with blues and reds. The top version is my final edited version where no saturation was applied. The second version shows how it would look if I applied a significant amount of saturation to all the colors. The second image is obviously oversaturated, a perfect example of too much of a good thing!

Approach #2: Selective color saturation. For the image below from Biscayne Bay, I added a significant amount of saturation to blue and cyan and a small amount to red and yellow. The image on the bottom is the original before applying saturation. You may look at the two images and not see a difference. Indeed, the effect is subtle because the blue and cyan tones are relatively pale to begin with. However, in my eyes, the saturation added a vibrancy. I also avoided oversaturating the reds and yellows, thus maintaining a realistic appearance.

Approach #3: Selective color desaturation. Below is a recent image I shot while camping in the Ten Thousand Islands, the top one is the final version. The cloud-covered sky altered the mood by reducing atmospheric light and contrast. Images like this are often described as moody, but at the same time are calming in nature. To get this across more effectively, I desaturated the blue and cyan sky which gave it a grayish or more subtle tone, thus contributing to the mood I was going for. The image below it is a version where no desaturation or saturation effect was applied. The sky appears bolder in its original version, which to me, took away the subtlety of the mood.

You may come away from this thinking that my saturation/desaturation edits are not that noticeable or that my choice is not as appealing as the original version. But, the point of this blog was not to convince you that my edits are the best; but rather, to demonstrate that a photographer should always strive to take complete control in the editing process of an image. If I gave you my images to edit, your edits might look entirely different than mine. The point is, editing should be applied selectively (not globally), non-destructively, and subtly one step at a time.

Thanks for looking on and if you want to learn more about Photoshop techniques, need help with your editing workflow or simply want to get started in Photoshop, I offer tutorials at $75/hour. Please contact me at