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  Color Temperature

White Balance

Different kinds of light have different color “temperatures”. Color temperature is measured in "degrees Kelvin." The color temperatures in the scene you are photographing will affect how the colors in your photograph will look. To get the correct colors, the camera allows you to choose a “white balance” and will add either cool or warm hue to balance the color temperature of the scene.

It isn't necessary to memorize Kelvin temperatures unless you want to be very specific with the Kelvin setting on your camera. If you'd like to learn more about that, let me know and I can share some resources with you. For most of us though, understanding the white balance setting on the camera will be enough and many cameras do very well on auto white balance, unless the scene has multiple, different light sources, in which case it can get a little confused.

Most DSLRs have the following settings for white balance:

  • Auto: On this setting, the camera chooses the white balance automatically.
  • Flash: If you are using a flash as your primary light source you might consider this white balance setting to get accurate colors, but keep in mind that all "flash" is not the same color temperature. Strobe lights, for example, will produce a daylight balanced color of light.
  • Daylight: When you are taking a photograph outside on a sunny day or indoors using window light, you might consider this setting.
  • Cloudy: When you are taking a photograph on a cloudy day consider this setting.
  • Shade: When you are taking a photograph in the shade then . . . you guessed it, consider shade.

The camera is adding different hues of color to counter the color of the scene.

  • Tungsten: This white balance setting can be used when tungsten lighting is the primary light source. Tungsten is the light that we typically have in our homes. It usually produces a very yellow light so the camera will add blue/purple to counter it.
  • Fluorescent: This type of light is generally very "green" and not flattering to people subjects in particular. The camera will add a warmer hue to balance it.
  • Kelvin: This is where you set the color temperature yourself by telling the camera the color temperature of the scene. If this is something you end up wanting to do a lot, you can purchase a color meter that will give you the temperature of the light.
  • Custom White Balance: This setting allows you to choose the white balance by taking a photograph of a calibration target or a grey card. Again, this is something that I can give you more resources for if you are interested but it is not something that we need to cover extensively in a crash course.
Now all of that technical stuff helps but I wouldn't necessarily call it fun. Keep in mind though, whether it is an element of the exposure triangle or a supporting element such as white balance, you can use these elements for creativity too.

Here are a couple of examples: I created two different images of the same scene by only adjusting the white balance setting. The image on the top was created using fluorescent white balance. The image on the bottom was created using tungsten white balance.

In reality I was outdoors on a cloudy day but by asking the camera to add purple (florescent compensation) or blue (tungsten compensation) to the scene, I was able to create something a little more interesting than a picture of carved stone on a cloudy day and the blue, I felt, was a better capture of the mood of the location.

The following exercises will help you get a feel for your white balance settings:

Exercise One

  • Select a location in your home.
  • Set your ISO and aperture, using aperture priority.
  • Take a picture on Auto White Balance.
  • Work through all of your white balance settings and note how the color of the scene changes.
  • Compare your white balance compensation setting images with the auto setting image. How accurate is your auto?

Exercise Two

  • Select an outdoor location (a landscape) that you can visit at five different times throughout the day. Sunrise, late morning, early afternoon, evening, sunset (just after sunset is fine too).
  • Set your ISO and aperture, using aperture priority.
  • Create two images at each of the approximate times listed above - one image on auto and one using the white balance you feel best suits the scene.

TIP: if you want to enhance the colors of a beautiful sunset, you might consider shade or cloudy, as it will increase the warmth in the scene.

  • Select your favorite image from each exercise (one from each only) and post it in comments along with any questions.