Color Saturation in film photography

So, what exactly is color saturation?

One way to think of it is as a film's ability to render colors that exhibit rich hues that are at the same time intense and close to what the eye and mind accept as realistic renditions. This may not be the accurate renditions because, like color balance, not enough or too much color saturation is subjective. Comparisons under somewhat controlled conditions, however, do offer us some evidence about differences in color-saturation levels from brand to brand, within a brand, by specific type, and even from emulsion batch to batch (a batch being a serially numbered production run of a certain film). The idea for most film manufacturer is to design and market color film that yields high color saturation, which the end user want.

A collateral effect of high color saturation is increased color contrast. In the world of highly saturated color, adjacent and even complementary colors stand out more vividly and vie for attention with greater urgency than in the more subdued world of muted color. While this is not at all a bad thing, it does mean that we need to exercise more care in film selection and use.

To an extent, color saturation can be modified by adjusting exposure. For example, underexposing slide film to be used in sunlight by about one-third to one-half f-stop can increase color saturation while still retaining much if not all of the shadow and highlight detail. Likewise, overexposing print film a like amount under the same conditions raises color saturation visibly.

The reason behind why there is a demand for higher and higher levels of saturation. First, the end user like it, particularly in color print film which, by the way, accounts for the bulk of all film sales worldwide. Many industry surveys confirmed these beliefs. They demonstrated quite conclusively that, deep, rich—but not necessarily accurate—color was what the picture-taking public wanted. Of the several principal qualities of color film, such as grain, sharpness, contrast, exposure latitude, color accuracy, and color saturation, it is hyper-color saturation of the "knock your socks off variety that photographers seem to want most.


Because of this, we find film-makers such as Germany's Agfa replacing their entire line of slide and print films once noted for their soft, relatively muted, and to my mind, beautiful color palette with much more aggressive, contrasty, elects is color, more in line with what seems to be in fashion.


Many color film users, lament the passing of films such as the classic Agfachromes if only because their demise shrinks the creative color options to a precious few. The irony of the present situation is interesting to ponder. In the recent past, the goal of many color adherents was to find ways and means to increase color saturation. Now we see photographers employing techniques and devices to desaturate today's supersaturated color emulsions. Granting that almost all current color films offer higher levels of color saturation than in the past, there is still some spread in the range of saturation they present. To paraphrase George Orwell's Animal Farm, all films are saturated but some arc more saturated than others.


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