Why are the colours so plain?

If you've just upgraded to a Canon DSLR from a point and shoot camera, you'll have noticed how plain your shots look with your new Canon DSLR.  Don't fret because you've come to the right place.  This article will show you how you can knock the socks off your point and shoot with colour from your new DSLR.

For some reason, Canon didn't preset the picture style settings for natural contrast straight out of the box.  Perhaps they deliberately wanted to spur people on to play with the settings and understand how each works.  Well it worked for me anyway.  In a nutshell, the basic reason the colours are so plain is because the contrast setting is too high.  There are some subtle colour differences between the different picture styles too.  We'll have a look at tweaking each setting to getting more colour out of your shots.

A good tip for comparing the Picture Style settings is to shoot Raw and upload the Raw shots into Canon's Digital Photo Professional bundled software, where you can play with the settings to your heart's content.

For each image I'll use Canon's In-camera convention of reporting Picture Style settings, separated by commas:  Picture Style, Sharpness, Contrast, Saturation, Color Tone.  Click on any image to see an enlargement.

Standard 7,0,0,0.  This is a typical Canon DSLR shot, straight out of the box.  Contrast is slightly too high with tones either very bright or very dark.

Choosing the Picture Style

There are 6 different preinstalled Picture Styles to choose from: Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful and Monochrome.  Each of these Picture Styles emphasises certain colours more or less than others.  For example, Portrait Picture Style makes skin tones more rosy, Landscape overlays a slightly orange-brown overtone whilst Neutral gives the most accurate colours. 

You can also download other Picture Styles from Canon's Picture Style website, and upload them to your computer or camera.

For accurate colours with a bit more pop to blue skies, I can recommend the Autumn Hues picture style from Canon's Picture Style website.  The skin tones from this picture style are more natural than any of the built in picture styles, with no overtones.

Standard 7,0,0,0.  Although the manual claims that Standard gives vivid colours, for most scenic shots you'll find that the colours are quite natural.  Colours are neutral overall with just a hint of redness in skintones and slightly saturated reds.
Portrait 7,0,0,0.  Portrait saturates the colours by 1 notch over Standard.  Skintones are hue shifted dramatically to the magenta side for pinker skin.
Landscape 7,0,0,0.  Landscape saturates colours by 1 notch over Standard except for blues which are saturated by 2 notches to give bright blue skies.  There is a slight orange-brown overtone to photos, most noticible in beige areas.
Neutral 7,0,0,0.  Neutral outputs all colours evenly so that there are no overtones.  The saturation level is 1 notch lower than Standard.  The Contrast is also 1 notch softer than Standard.  Neutral is good for accurate colours.
Faithful 7,0,0,0.  Faithful has a slight pinkish overtone on photos.  It uses the same contrast curve as Neutral.

Autumn Hues 7,0,0,0.  Autumn Hues is similar to Neutral but is more saturated by 2 notches.  Colours are quite vivid.  Autumn Hues uses the Standard contrast curve so midtones are slightly brighter than Neutral PS.  Skintones are quite natural with the Autumn Hues PS.  Autumn Hues must be downloaded from Canon's Picture Style website. 

It may be installed with recent versions of Digital Photo Professional.  Look in C drive>Program Files>Canon>Digital Photo Professional>pf2>ww05_Autumn_Hues.pf2


The contrast control adjusts the separation between light tones and dark tones.  The factory preset contrast is actually quite high making highlights very bright and shadows very dark.  This doesn't suit many outdoor shots.  Lowering the contrast reduces this harshness and saturates colours more.

Standard 7,0,0,0. This is the standard contrast that comes out of the box.  The contrast between light and shadows here is already quite harsh.
Standard 7,1,0,0.  A common recommendation given to give photos more pop is to increase the contrast.  This shot was set at Contrast +1.  This makes the problem worse as colours become more pale, and shadows become even darker.
Standard 7,-2,0,0.  A much better recommendation is to reduce the contrast so that colours are more saturated.  Here I have reduced the contrast to -2.

The correct contrast setting is really scene dependant.  There is no single contrast setting that will work for all situations.  Even though I commonly set my contrast to -2, there are times such as the following when I need to reduce or increase the contrast, depending on the scene.

Autumn Hues 7,-2,0,0.  This is a very high dynamic range scene.  The foreground is slightly dark, due to exposing for the bright sky. Autumn Hues 7,-4,0,0.  By reducing the contrast to -4, we brighten up the foreground slightly.
Autumn Hues 7,-2,0,0.  In this scene, the sun was slightly obscured by thin clouds, which diffused the sunlight and thus gave flatter lighting.  Notice the shadows are soft. Autumn Hues 7,0,0,0.  By increasing the contrast to 0, we brighten bright tones whilst darkening dark tones to give better tone separation.  The leafless tree and the dark clouds appear much more dramatic.


After setting the contrast we can adjust the saturation.  Saturation is the intensity of colours.  Straight out of the box the Standard picture style is Neutrally Saturated for most scenic shots, so increasing it to 1 pushes colours into vivid territory.

Standard 7,-2,0,0.  Saturation set to 0. Colours are realistically saturated.
Standard 7,-2,1,0.  Saturation set to 1. A more vivid saturation.
Standard 7,-2,2,0.  Saturation set to 2.  Even more vivid.

Portrait, Landscape and Autumn Hues should be reduced to -1 for realistic saturation.  Neutral and Faithful need the saturation increased to 1 for a similar degree of saturation.

When shooting flowers and other vivid objects, the colours can oversaturate with regular saturation settings.  Reduce the saturation for more realistic colour.

Autumn Hues 7,-2,0,0.  Saturation set to 0.

Autumn Hues 7,-2,-4,0.  Saturation set to -4.

Color Tone

The Color Tone setting shifts colours (Hue) around the colour wheel to give a different tint.  Although the manual says that it only shifts skin tones between pink and yellow, it also affects other colours too.  You can use it to correct skin tones but be aware that it will also shift other colours too.

Standard 7,-2,0,-4.  Color Tone set to -4. Standard 7,-2,0,4.  Color Tone set to 4.
Standard 7,-2,0,0. Color Tone set to 0.


The White Balance helps to correct colour casts caused by different sources of lighting.  Sunlight is bluish, whilst tungsten light is reddish.  AWB automatically adjusts for different lighting conditions but occasionally it misses the mark, which can lead to either very pale (overblue) photos, or very saturated (overamber) photos.  Shooting Raw makes WB correction very easy since Digital Photo Professional has all the same WB presets found in the camera.

Standard 7,-2,0,0.  AWB.  The AWB has slightly overblued this shot causing it to look a bit pale.
Standard 7,-2,0,0.  By changing the WB to 'Cloudy' the colours look much more warmer and saturated.

You can use the WB control in Digital Photo Professional just like attaching a colour filter onto your lens.  In the White Balance Adjustment, select 'Color Temperature' and drag the slider to the right to make it warmer, or to the left to make it cooler.

Autumn Hues 7,-2,0,0.  AWB Autumn Hues 7,-2,0,0.  Color Temperature 7700K

Skin Tones

Each Picture Style renders skin tones slightly differently so a particular Picture Style may be chosen depending on whether pink skin or tanned skin is preferred.  An example of each Picture Style is shown below, with the Contrast and Saturation levels similarly matched.

Standard 7,-2,0,0.  Standard gives quite natural skin tones.  If you're really picky you'll just notice a hint of pinkness. Portrait 7,-2,-1,0.  Portrait gives a strong, rosy overtone to skin tones.  It is more of a specialty application if you want rosy skin.
Landscape 7,-2,-1,0.  Landscape overlays a slight orange overtone which gives a slight goldness to skin tones. Neutral 7,-1,1,0.  Neutral balances all colours evenly so it gives no overtones and accurate colours.
Faithful 7,-1,1,0.  Faithful also gives rosy skin tones but not as intense as Portrait. Autumn Hues 7,-2,-1,0.  Autumn Hues gives a nice, natural and tanned look to skin tones. 

Final Comparison

Following all of these tweaks you should get much more vibrant and colourful photos now.  Here is a comparison of factory and custom settings (click to enlarge):

Standard 7,0,0,0.
Autumn Hues 7,-2,-1,0.                                Equivalent to Standard 7,-2,0,0.

For even more vibrant grass and folliage I also have a customised Autumn Hues Picture style which can be downloaded from here and used in Digital Photo Professional or in-camera: Autumn Hues Extra Green 3

Enjoy your photos and I wish you well with beautiful colours.

Autumn Hues 7,-2,0,0. Daylight WB.