what is color temperature in PHOTOGRAPHY

Color Temperature graphColor temperature is expressed
with a K (kelvin) number

Okay fellow photographer, do you really need to know what is color temperature? In one word or less, yes? The concept of color temperature is an important part of photography, but most beginner and amateur photographers have no idea what it means.

You can get a lot of technical information on why the term color temperature is used but I'm going to skip the technical jargon and give you a few tips and tell you what you need to know to help you take better pictures.

Just like we use a temperature scale to describe our weather, photographers and videographers use a color temperature scale. A simple understanding will help your pictures come out the right color that YOU want. That's the right color balance!

It is measured in degrees kelvin or "K" for short. Here's the main thing you need to know. The higher number mean cooler colors or more bluish. The lower numbers are more reddish or yellowish. We call them warmer colors. See the color temperature scale below.

kelvin temperature scale"White" sunlight color temperature is considered to be around 5000K to 5500 K

As you learn this concept, you will know what camera setting to use to control the color tint of your photograph. Here is a good example.You can trick the camera by adjusting the camera setting to one that is different from the actual lighting conditions. If you want to "warm up" the color of your photo, use a camera setting that will tell the camera to "think it's a cooler" light source like shade or blue daylight.

chart of color temperatures and light sources

5500-6000 FLASH/STROBE

In the photo below, you can see the three different settings produce 3 different looking photos. Using a "shady" light setting on the camera in the middle photo gives you a "warmer" look. This is often a great way to get flattering skin tones.

Effects of color temperature change

It was a bright sunny day, so I had the young ladies stand in the open shade to avoid harsh shadows and squinting eyes. You can see that's it would have been a big mistake to use the wrong setting, particularly like the third photo.

color temperature and white balance video

The following video does a great job of explaining how to set your camera's white balance, based on the lighting conditions (the color temperature). If you've got 7 minutes to invest, the payoff will be a good understanding of how you can use to get a big advantage with your color photography.

How kelvin TEMPERATURE affects color BALANCE

Here's an example of how you can use a specific color temperature in degrees kelvin ( K color balance setting) to completely change the mood of an image. Rather than make the changes in color temperature in my camera settings, I shot in RAW format and processed it afterwards with software.

The photo below is a composite of those three different versions of color temperature processing.

seascape at different color temperatures

The middle section of this image is fairly close to how it looked to my eyes when I photographed the scene that day. It was a kind of  an unusual eerie feeling, not typical of that environment. The section on the left is just a version I did for writing this article. The section on the right shows how I processed the image and won a contest for inclusion in a special art show in my hometown.

ALTERNATIVE ways to play with color temperature balance

GRAY CARD. One fairly simple way to accurately get a good accurate balance in your color temperature is to use a gray card to do a custom white balance. I do this when I am doing product photography and the client needs an accurate color rendition of their product for advertising purposes.

You simple photograph a 18% gray card at the same time of your shoot, under the same lighting conditions, and use the custom white balance feature in your camera's settings menu.

color balance gray cardMy gray card for setting a custom white balance

WHITE BALANCE BRACKETING. This technique gets very little attention or use and it's a shame. It can be used to expand your creativity as well as your understanding of color. Just like it sounds, this technique has you shoot several images of the exact same scene using different color temperatures. 

You can use this if you only shoot jpg images and don't want to shoot in RAW mode and process color variation later with software. You'll get a range between the bluish and the reddish range of color temperatures. You'll find white balance bracketing in your camera's settings.

color temperature surprise

Particularly when it comes to nature photos, landscapes, and seascapes, you may not always want to have your image come out perfectly color balanced. One of the common myths regarding color temperature is that you should always strive to achieve "correct" white balance.

Money Island MarinaAdjusted color temperature
(To get the cool blue look)

I'm often guilty of aiming for perfect color balance and this one experience reminding me to get a little more creative sometimes. Late one afternoon, when I was on the way to a small marina on the Delaware Bay side of southern New Jersey, I was anticipating finding a nice orange or red sunset to photograph along the shoreline.

As it turned out it was one of those hot muggy days where the air was thicker than pea soup with humidity. Rather than be met by a beautiful blue sky and a glowing sun, I arrived to find a stagnant sky dominated by a light gray.

I was intrigued by the scene before me, the stark contrast between the docks, the reflections, and the sky. I shot dozens of photos, and surprisingly, I preferred the cooler blue images more than the ones with the correct color balance.

As the creative artist, it's your option to portray a scene accurately or to enhance it in camera or post capture to get any desired effect you wish.

The best digital photo tip with respect to color temperature is to try a few different settings first. Look at your light source and take the same exact picture using different camera settings.

Reading this article is a good start and you can refer back to the "What is Color Temperature" picture above. Learning by actually doing it will be the best way to learn this photography technique.

CLOSING remarks on color TEMPERATURE

color balance settings menu

Your camera's auto white balance setting does a reasonably good job at setting color temperature for you in average photographic situations most of the time, but you will benefit by changing it in certain circumstances.

When shooting under unique lighting situations, or when you want to create a certain effect or mood to your photo, you may want to select a preset white balance or will want to set the color temperature to a specific K temperature.

Keep shooting. Keep playing. Keep improving.

Article published by Bruce Lovelace


Bruce is the publisher of Better Digital Photo Tips. Read more on the About Page. He's been known as The Traveling Photographer ever since he started his location photography business in 1994.

View some of Bruce's photos on Instagram.   Visit the Facebook Page. Watch him on YouTube.  Bruce runs photo workshops for kids and adults, and provides one-on-one photography coaching.

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