The Saturated Digital Image

Color Saturation In Digital Images • Pro Time • Long Lens Protection • Digital Projection

Color Saturation In Digital Images
As a professional photographer who’s making the switch from film to digital, I wonder how other pros are dealing with color saturation. On many photographers’ Websites, the photos and portfolios look to me to be oversaturated, which makes me wonder about claims that Velvia is unrealistic because it’s so saturated. What’s a “fair” level of saturation in the digital world, and is there any standard in the publishing industry?
M. Matson
Via the Internet

Two things make an image look “digital” in the negative sense: oversaturation and oversharpening! I agree that many photographers are cranking up the color on their digital prints and on the Web. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you always should.

It’s up to the photographer to have a better understanding of true quality and to use the power of digital-imaging software to achieve that end. Resist the urge to compete with stronger color; you’ll be judged on your own images, not on those of others. At the same time, photography is a marketplace with discernable trends, and there has been recent movement toward more saturation in images, just as there was after Velvia hit the film scene. But keep it to reasonable levels. Experienced outdoor photographers and editors/publishers know what’s real, and excessive color manipulation will make your image look phony to all but the most naive viewers.

Finally, some photo illustrators use high levels of sharpening and saturation to create an artistic effect. In the end, you’re the photographer and need to make the choices that best express your own photographic vision. The attached image of a hibiscus is a good example of a type of image that’s often oversaturated. The image’s extreme depth of field is caused by the use of software called Helicon Focus ( Using the program, I took nine images at ƒ/11 with overlapping focus and combined them for extreme depth of field.

Pro Time
I’ve been attached to photography since my 14th birthday, when I received a Canon Rebel. It’s been my dream to become a professional nature photographer, but when is the right time? Should I change my major to photography or get a biology degree? When do you know that it’s time to sell your photographs?
R. Bruette
Via the Internet

The right time to become a professional is when you’ve achieved a sizeable body of work that’s competitive with the work of others who are selling images and who are readily defined as professionals. Critically assess your own work in comparison to the images you see published in magazines like Outdoor Photographer, Audubon, National Wildlife and National Geographic.

While some professionals have achieved a reputation based on adept self-promotion, most achieve the rank by consistently publishing in reputable venues. The best images are more than a simple “portrait” of the scene or wildlife. The sellable image shows the subject in ways it has never been seen before and conveys more information in terms of behavior or environment than a mere portrait would provide.

The ability to write accompanying text adds marketability to excellent images. To accomplish this level of photography, you may need more education in photography, biology, botany or environmental sciences.The greater the exposure you have to professional-level photography and photographers, the more you’ll learn about what it takes to capture, present and market professional-level images. One of the best venues for support of that kind is the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) at, which links students, advanced amateurs and professionals, and offers national and regional meetings and even a scholarship program for students.

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Long Lens Protection
I recently purchased a Canon EF 500mm ƒ/4 lens and would welcome any tips you can offer with respect to its care. I protect all of my other lenses with a UV filter, but what should I do with this big lens? I live along Florida’s Space Coast and enjoy photographing birds at the shoreline, but I haven’t yet dared to expose my new lens to the salty fog.
C. Klos
Melbourne, Florida

Don’t baby that terrific lens, use it! I use a Lowepro telephoto bag to carry my EF 500 on airplanes and in my van. When it’s out of the case, I use the leather lens cover that came with it.

If you’re working near water and spray, use a dry bag until you’re ready to shoot, and keep a dry towel nearby to keep the lens wiped down. For general cleaning of the front element, I use a microfiber lens cloth. To remove salt spray or oily smudges, use lens cleaning solution placed on lens tissue, not directly on the lens surface.

You rightly note that a UV filter is not used on lenses of this size. They can offer some protection on smaller optics, but be aware that there may be a trade-off in image quality. And be sure to remove UV filters before adding others; stacking more than one filter will definitely degrade the image and possibly cause vignetting.

Digital Projection
When my image files were shown on a digital projector, there was a marked loss of color intensity compared to prints and the monitor display. What causes the apparent loss of saturation? Should I size the photos differently for screen projection? Does the quality of the projector make a difference? What can I do to help the pictures project with their original
S. Josell
Lanesboro, Massachusetts

There are a lot of variables in digital projectors, and with each new generation, they get better and come closer to matching what you see on your monitor. Some of those variables are the type of projector, brightness, resolution, age of the projector and projection surface.

The first type of digital projector has a DLP (Digital Light Processing) imaging mechanism, which offers the best contrast of all the projectors, but the engine might be less efficient in color saturation. The second type, the LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) projector, uses separate chips for red, green and blue, giving better color saturation but also less contrast. The third type, the LCOS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon), is a combination of the first two types of projector and offers higher resolution, good contrast and rich color, but it’s considerably more expensive. The price range for DLP and LCD projectors is between $1,000 and $3,000, depending on their features, and the Canon REALiS projectors are in the $4,000 range, depending on the brightness.

Brightness, which is measured in lumens, will definitely make a difference in the quality of the projected image. More lumens mean better color and the potential for projection onto larger screens without loss of quality. In my opinion, the minimum lumen rating for good projection is 1,000.

Resolution is represented by the number of pixels being projected onto the screen; the more pixels, the sharper the image. The minimum resolution for projection of photographic images is 800 x 600 dpi (SVGA). The standard resolution that most projectors use for photographic imaging is 1024 x 768 dpi (XGA). The Canon REALiS SX50, which I use in my programs, is rated at 1400 x 1050 dpi (SXGA+).

A large file size is of no help—you need to have a resolution equal to that of the projector. The projector uses the actual pixels and doesn’t need a ppi size. For best results, a JPEG file at the resolution of the projector will give good results. For convenience, you can use a 72 to 100 ppi file.

The best projection surface is a matte white screen specifically designed for digital projection; these screens are efficient in directing the projected light back to the viewers. A highly reflective screen tends to get hot spots. If you’re projecting your images on a stucco wall or white paper, don’t expect the luminosity your projector is capable of achieving to appear in your images. A darkened room will maximize the quality of the projected image.

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One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.