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Color Saturation

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Lively, vivid colors can add pizzazz and turn a dull photo into a work of art. Learn how changing the saturation levels of the colors in your photo can really make it pop!


Areas of Science
Time Required
Very Short (≤ 1 day)
Material Availability
Specialty Item: Requires Adobe Photoshop or similar photo editing software
Very Low (under $20)
No issues

Sara Agee, Ph.D., Science Buddies


In this experiment you will investigate how changing the saturation levels of a digital photo change the color and quality of the printed image.


One of the most important components of a photo is color. The most fabulous picture can be ruined by dull, drab, washed-out color. A boring picture can get a boost from lively, vivacious colors. What different properties do the colors of an image have? The basic color terms hue, saturation, and brightness are each used to describe color.

Whether we see an image as being lively or drab depends on color saturation. The more gray there is in a color, the less saturated it is. These colors will appear drab. The less gray in a color, the more saturated it is. These colors will appear lively.

Making a fun, bright image isn't as simple as turning the saturation levels all the way up. Too much saturation can ruin your photo. If one color is more saturated than others, it can dominate the image. On the other hand, if the colors aren't saturated enough, the image will be dull. To get the best photo, you need to strike a careful balance.

In this experiment you will investigate how changing the saturation levels of your photo will change the quality and appearance of the image. How much can you change the levels before your image loses quality? What do extreme changes do to your photo?

Terms and Concepts

To do this type of experiment you should know what the following terms mean. Have an adult help you search the internet, or take you to your local library to find out more!



Materials and Equipment

Experimental Procedure

Note: This procedure is written for Adobe Photoshop. The menu layout in other image editing programs like GIMP, or in newer versions of Photoshop, may not match exactly with the steps below. If you are using a different program, you should still be able to follow this general procedure, but may need to consult the help menu for your image editing program (or search online for help).

  1. On your desktop, create a new folder called "My Photo Experiment" and place a copy of your favorite photo in the folder (like puppy.jpg).
  2. Open the photo in Adobe Photoshop.
  3. Click "Image" then "Adjustments" and then "Hue/Saturation" from the file menu.

    Adjusting hue and saturation in Adobe Photoshop

  4. You will see a dialog box that has three slider controls, one each for Hue, Saturation and Lightness. Click and move one of the sliders, what happens to the image?

    Moving sliders to adjust the hue, saturation, lightness of an image

  5. Next you will make a series of different images with different saturation levels. Set the hue and lightness levels to zero for each image. Then set the saturation levels at the following values: -100, -50, 0, +50, and +100. If you want to collect more data, add more settings in between these values.
  6. After changing your first setting, click "OK" to apply the settings and close the dialog box.
  7. Click on "File" and "Save As" to save this picture as a new file in the folder on your desktop named "My Photo Experiment", naming each new file with a different name to keep track of your experiments (like puppy1, puppy2, puppy3, etc.). Keep all of the settings and file extensions the same. You can use a data table to help you keep track of your saturation settings and file names:

    File Name Saturation Setting Description of result:
    puppy.jpg original file  
    puppy1.jpg -100  
    puppy2.jpg -50  

  8. Print the picture on photo quality paper and label the image by writing the saturation setting on the corner of the image.
  9. Close this image and re-open the original image from the desktop folder (puppy.jpg).
  10. Repeat steps 3-9 changing the saturation setting each time, until you have one picture for each setting you wish to test.
  11. Arrange your photos in a row and compare the images. How does saturation change the colors in the photo? Does it change the quality of the photo? When might adjusting this setting be useful?
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Ask an Expert

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  • In this project, you changed the saturation levels. You can also try changing the hue and lightness levels. Do you get similar or different results?
  • To kick this project up a notch, you can quantify the data by counting the number of unique colors in each image. Photoshop can not calculate the unique colors used in an image, so you will need to use another program like PaintShop Pro, which is a shareware program available for a free download. Open each of your files with PaintShop Pro and choose Colors/CountColorsUsed. After a while PaintShop Pro will show a dialog box that tells you the number of unique colors in the image, (like 16,777,216). When you increase or decrease the saturation, what happens to the total number of colors?
  • Another interesting component of a digital image is the saturation and contrast of the image. To investigate these topics see the Science Buddies project ideas Color Profiles and Digital Photo Contrast for more ideas.


If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers:

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If you've ever watched a cartoon, played a video game, or seen an animated movie, you've seen the work of multimedia artists and animators. People in these careers use computers to create the series of pictures that form the animated images or special effects seen in movies, television programs, and computer games. Read more
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Lights, camera, action! It takes more than actors to put an exciting motion picture movie together. It takes film and video editors and cutting-edge computer technology to make an exciting movie that people want to see. From the many thousands of minutes of film and video, the editor has to choose the best shots to tell a cohesive and compelling story. In addition to having an artistic bent, the film and video editor must relish working with complicated computer equipment. If you would like to… Read more

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General citation information is provided here. Be sure to check the formatting, including capitalization, for the method you are using and update your citation, as needed.

MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Color Saturation." Science Buddies, 20 Nov. 2020, https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Photo_p007/photography-video/color-saturation. Accessed 14 Apr. 2024.

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2020, November 20). Color Saturation. Retrieved from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Photo_p007/photography-video/color-saturation

Last edit date: 2020-11-20
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