Photography 101: A Primer on Color Photography, Part II

Night at Lake Ronkonkoma. f/18, 30s, ISO100.

Yesterday, Ming Gullo, the photographer at A View with Ming, introduced the basics of color photography. Today, she continues her discussion and talks about hue, saturation, lightness, and contrast.

A look at hue, saturation, and lightness


Hue is what we usually define as color. The images below illustrate shifts in hue:

“Relax.” Original capture.

“Relax,” with hue shifting. The middle section preserves the original color.


Saturation refers to the intensity of a color (hue). It’s hard to say whether higher or lower saturation is better, as this is highly subjective. Some people prefer more vivid colors, while others love pastel. But there’s one rule I always keep in mind: over-saturation results in lost details. For example, different blue shades will show when saturation is lower, but a variance of blue colors may only show as one vibrant blue when the saturation is high:


Lightness — sometimes called brightness — refers to a color’s proximity to the white or black end of the tonal scale. A color with low lightness is close to black, while one with a high value is close to white:

You can adjust hue, saturation, and lightness in a photo editing software or service, like Photoshop, GIMP, Picasa, PicMonkey.


For black-and-white photos, contrast means the variations between different tones of black, grey, and white:

Ode to the Moon

Ode to the Moon

For color photos, it’s a bit more complicated. It not only means the variations in lightness, but also the differences in hue and saturation. How we express these differences is based on the photographer’s creativity. If we put vivid green and light green together, for example, we see the contrast in color value (lightness):

Hello. Hostas flowers in rain.

Hello. Hostas flowers in rain.

If we put a vibrant main color and equally vibrant complementary colors together, we see the contrast in hue:



If a photo has many high-saturation colors, it has a strong contrast . . .

The Melody of Fall.

The Melody of Fall.

. . . while a photo with many low-saturation colors has a low contrast.

In the Fog.

In the Fog.

Image file formats and working with color on your digital camera

As you might recognize, JPEG is the most commonly used file format for storing images from digital cameras, while most DSLRs also offer RAW and TIFF formats. There are many resources online (like here and here) that discuss the technical details of RAW, TIFF, and JPEG.

  • RAW files are uncompressed and unprocessed snapshots of all details available to the camera sensor.
  • TIFF files are uncompressed, but processed by cameras.
  • JPEGs are compressed and processed by cameras.

Shooting in TIFF or JPEG means the TIFF or JPEG files are processed right within your camera. This process varies by camera models. The camera may adjust color temperature, exposure, blacks, contrast, lightness, noise, etc., and then render the file to a TIFF or a compressed JPEG. Many of the properties listed above have great impact on how we present our color photography. Some people suggest shooting in the FINE JPEG setting when you know exactly what white balance and exposure you’ll use.

Personally, I shoot all my photos in RAW. I like the freedom RAW files offer me. I can adjust exposure, white balance, contrast, saturation, sharpness, and more when I process my work. RAW files also store more details in range and tones. Of course, if you’re shooting for website or low-quality use, shooting in JPEG is perfectly fine. The baby toy you want to sell on eBay won’t get more hits when you use RAW shots!

A tip on shooting in RAW: It does require more storage space, so be prepared to carry more memory cards when you’re out in the field. The RAW files produced by my main camera of choice, Nikon D800E, is on average about 40 MB per image. This camera has two memory card slots to accommodate the massive storage demand, and I usually carry 4 to 5 additional cards, too.

Ready for some practice?

The blue hour is the period of twilight each morning and evening where there is neither full daylight nor complete darkness. (It’s different from the golden hour, which our community captured beautifully in a previous photo challenge). During the blue hour, the sun is slightly below the horizon, and the sky often gives off as a vibrant, creamy blue. Depending on where you are, various light sources are available: the last traces of warm light from the sunset, tungsten lights from street lamps, lights from cars or other objects, and more.

Here are a few examples:

The wide range of lights and color temperature give photographers more freedom when using different combinations of aperture and exposure. But the word “hour” is a little misleading: this period of time lasts less than 30 minutes in many locations. Check out BlueHourSite for an estimate of when and how long your local blue hour lasts.

An assignment from Ming:

Get outside and try to capture the beautiful blue hour near you. Play with hue, saturation, and lightness during post-processing. If you shoot in RAW, you’ll also have the option to adjust the white balance.

Have fun!

About Ming Gullo

Ming GulloI’ve been always a lover of art. I went through formal training of painting and illustration when I was younger, where I learned the basics of art. Over the years, I’ve been a freelance children’s book illustrator, graphic designer, and web designer/programmer. For me, photography is a perfect marriage of art and technology, which satisfies both sides of my mind. Currently, I’m based on Long Island, New York. You can see my work on Facebook500px, and You can also find my work in magazines — such as Photography Masterclass and N-Photo — or on Nikon Germany’s Facebook page.

Previous posts in the Photography 101 series

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  1. These photos are amazing! I am pretty useless with a camera, and photo editing, but there are some really good tips here that even I can (hopefully) put to use!


  2. Jeeeeeeeeeeze you guys really know how to make those colors pop! Oh man, I clearly have been missing out! I need to start hue-ing and saturating… I need to find out what my camera’s settings are…and if there’s a “fine jpeg”…


    1. Hi — no, this and yesterday’s posts are the first we’ve covered basics of color photography. There will be a post on basic editing later in this series (November) which may/may not mention more on saturation.

      Thanks for your feedback!


  3. Thanks for the Photography 101 series! I appreciate having the technical at play with intuition and serendipity—great playmates. Sometimes they take hands in a circle game, and sometimes they they “take turns”.


      1. Yes. The technical knowledge, which takes some investment of time, effort, application, trial and error. . . and fortunately, these days, it doesn’t cost us rolls and rolls of film!


  4. Hello There,
    Sorry to bother you, just i saw that in some of your images you have been using Neutral Density filters i believe? This looks fantastic! I am a student studying photography and doing a project on this at the moment, do you have any good tips to improve my photo quality and composition of images? Would really appreciate it if you could look at my attempt on my page and help me get going and developing myself as an artist!
    Thanks again


    1. Yes, I have used ND and ND Grads when I try to work with different lights in landscape photos. Some of these photos are in my blog. However, One thing to note though, I didn’t use filters for any of the photos in this two-part post. I feel we should start with understanding the use of color and light before moving on to use more technical add-ons, so I carefully chose photos taken without any extra gear. The photos in this posts are taken by playing with different combinations of exposure and aperture under different conditions of lights.

      With that said, ND and ND Grads are great tools. Photographers can do a lot with them. For example, a silky waterfall during the day, a misty lake under the sun, ND filters are great option. When you have variation of lights, such as bright sky with darker foreground, you can try to use a ND Grad, which will give you options to even the brightness of your shot and avoid a blown-out sky . Both NDs and ND Grads need a lot of practice to get it perfect.

      Hope this helps.


  5. Being someone that absolutely finds pleasure it taking out my camera and taking pictures as well as looking at other peoples I am finding your blog extremely beneficial. I find that I can always learn and glean something from other photographers. I really do appreciate you sharing all of this and I look forward to what you have for us in the future.


  6. Super. Hope one day I can take such photographs, or at least learn to use post processing tools. Which open source tool for post processing do you recommend? Other than GIMP – that seems too complex! 🙂


  7. This is really cool. I liked it. Btw, anyone here owns their own business? Check out the rant of a business man on my Blog