Learn To Shoot Proper White Balance using Kelvin Temps

Learn To Shoot Proper White Balance using Kelvin Temps

Over the years, I have taught numerous workshops for photographers and during those classes one of the most appreciated techniques that we discuss is shooting proper white balance using Kelvin temperatures. If it is something new to you, it might at first seem a bit overwhelming but I guarantee it is actually quite simple to learn. Read on to learn just how easy it is and the benefits of shooting in Kelvin versus Auto White Balance.

Tired of your images getting a strange color cast? Fed up of sickly-blue grey skin when shooting in the shade? Wish your colors were more consistent in a set making it easier to make batch edits or sync settings across the board? If so, you need to shoot with your white balance set to Kelvin temperatures as opposed to auto white balance.

So, what exactly is Kelvin? It is simply a unit of measurement for temperature and in photography we most often use it to measure the color temperature of light sources. The temperature scale most often used in photography ranges from about 2000K (K=Kelvin) to 9000K. While editing a RAW image in Lightroom we can push the white balance slider all the way to 50,000K but it is very rarely used at such high numbers. I have found on average most of my photographs are shot between 5000K-7500K. If this is all new to you I might already be losing you, but stick with me a tad longer as I promise it will all make sense with the examples I will show.

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If you review this graphic you will notice that the temperature of light of a candle is roughly about 2000K. So if you walked into a room lit entirely by candles, in order to get a nice white balance you would set your Kelvin temperature very low on the scale (2000K). Same principle applies when we walk into a room lit by regular tungsten yellow lightbulbs, we would then set our white balance to around 3500k to match the temperature of light in the room. If you are shooting in the shade and want nice warm natural looking skin tones then you'll want to shoot with a temperature around 6500-8000K depending on how deep you are positioned into the shade and how much natural sunlight is influencing the light temperature.

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Now, these numbers are of course all just rough estimates and depending on numerous factors we might be adjusting them to better match the temperature of light we are shooting in. But generally speaking I do a lot of shooting outdoors and in the shade so I know most of my shots are going to fall in the temperature scale of 5500K to 8000K. On the other hand if I walk into a room (let's say a bridal suite lit up with tungsten light bulbs) I will immediately change my Kelvin temp to 3500K or lower to better match the light there and capture perfect colors in camera just as I see them. Now one thing to keep in mind is if I am shooting indoors but much of the light in the room is coming from a nearby window then instead of shooting at a lower temperature I would instead raise it to around 4500K or possibly even higher to account for the daylight balanced light coming from the windows. You will see that with time and a bit of practice you'll be walking into different scenarios and will be able to dial in the temperature of the light just as you do your shutter, aperture or ISO.

Some people might argue it takes too much time to change your white balance and that it is easier to shoot in Auto White Balance. I will agree it is easier. But as I mentioned above, with a little bit of practice (2 weeks of shooting on Kelvin for example) and you'll find yourself not only reading light temperature but dialing it in on your camera like a pianist playing the piano keys. It takes seconds and ultimately will save you tons of time in post processing.

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Because 'White Balance' is one of the the most important settings on your camera, you will most often find the WB button easily accessible on your camera body (either on the back or top of the camera.) Once you push the button you will be presented with a few different options including some little icons representing a lightbulb, house, sun, clouds, flash etc. While these white balance settings are a good option to use other than AWB, the best option is to go through the options till you get to K (Kelvin) and dial in the exact temperature you want. Each camera is different but if you search Google or read your camera manual I am certain you will be able to figure it out. If you have a model of camera that does not include the ability to dial in the Kelvin temperature than you will want to get familiar with the little icons and the temperatures they generally represent on the scale. In short the lightbulb is 3200K, white fluorscent is 4200K, sun is 5200K, cloud is 6000K, and house with shade is 7000K.

One little trick that works quite well when you are learning how to use your white balance settings is to turn your camera's live view mode on. In this mode, often used for video, you will be able to push the WB button and click through the WB settings or dial in your Kelvin temperature all while seeing the changes happen in real time in your camera. This is a great way to practice.

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Without getting too complicated the temperature scale we use was derived from British Physicist Lord Kelvin (William Thomson) heating carbon. At the lower temperatures the black carbon glowed red, orange and yellow. As it was heated even more the carbon turned white and then blue. So with that in mind if you walk into a place that has orange/yellow light you need to think on the terms of it being a low temperature heat (2000K-4500K) whereas if you are shooting in the shade you can compare the blue light to a high temperature bunson burner with the blue flame rising off it (6000K-9000K.) Often I will hear photographers compare it to heat and ice, but in fact it is actually just reverse. The main thing to keep in mind is if your photos are coming out yellow, then turn the temperature down, and if they are blue turn the dial up. Usually when I move the dial I will do it in minimum of 500 degrees since much less than that is hardly noticeable.

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Before wrapping this up I wanted to address one last question I often get. While teaching this principle I always have someone in the class reach into their bag and pull out an ExpoDisc and explain that is how they get the proper white balance in their camera. While these little discs can be effective when used properly, once you learn Kelvin temps they are no longer needed. In fact, most photographers I know sell off their ExpoDisc once they realize just how easy it is to shoot dialing in your own Kelvin temperature. So, if you are one of those using the ExpoDisc as your crutch I challenge you to learn how to read the temperature of light on your own and practice shooting leaving the disc at home.

Hopefully this has been helpful for some of you. It might seem a little daunting at first but give it a go, I promise once you get the hang of it you will be telling all your photographer friends about it as well. It truly will make shooting even more fun as the photos in camera will have the nice tones you see with you eye and your post processing time will be cut down even further. Can't beat that!

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55 Comments

I love the chart and the photos of examples! I have been playing around with Kelvin temp since your workshop, but this helps a ton!

That is fantastic Gabby. Keep at it.

Thank you! I have never heard it explained this way but am excited to have more knowledge to work with!

You bet Donna. Glad it was helpful. Knowledge is power! :)

This was such an awesome post! I loved the chart you made its going into my resource folder. I started learning more about kelvin because of our interest in cinematography

Thank you so much. Yes videographers have to make sure and nail their white balance as they don't have the RAW images to change later on so their flexibility is quite a bit less in the adjustments they can make.

Thanks Trevor, a very insightful post that I'm definitely going to use. Quick question though, would you still use Kelvin for scenarios where lighting may change quickly? I'm thinking about the procession through a church and out into the sun. I shoot manual and am able to switch up exposure settings quickly enough for this, but I'm wondering whether you manage to change up WB settings too. I'm guessing that by shooting in RAW we have a little leeway with this whilst learning anyway!
Thanks again

Hi Jon, great question. There have been times that I will switch over to AWB if I feel like I am moving from one place to another into tricky lighting that I can't tell immediately what temperature I would use. But it is quite rare. At this point, I have a pretty good grasp of it and can go from one place to another and just as I would adjust my aperture, shutter, and ISO I can adjust my WB in a second or two and be ready to roll.... and yes as you mentioned shooting RAW does give you that flexibility in case we screw up.

Shooting in raw doesn't give you "extra flexibility", it makes this entire article redundant!

I suppose if you are ok with fixing all your photos in post processing you would be absolutely right Jason.

I've been practicing this ever since your workshop and find it so helpful. It has cut down on my post processing time so much!! Thank you!

Awesome! So glad to hear that Natalie. It was a game changer for me when I started using it a couple years ago.

I've been used it on two shoots so far and love it. It is much better than the grey out and dull looking auto white balance images. This is going to help me dial it up (or down) a little tighter. Thanks for another great article, Trevor.

How do you adjust your Kelvins for night shooting, or when shooting with flash as a fill light?

Hi Joe, it depends on my light source. When shooting with my flash I typically have it around 5500K. I have a video light I occasionally use as well. When shooting with that I have found it looks best around 4800K. Now keep in mind each one is different. Also if shooting with flash and bouncing off something (wall, ceiling for example) it can make it different as well. Sometimes in those situations in which you are moving lots and bouncing your flash off different colored walls or ceilings it might make sense just to use AWB.

Sodium light is about 4900K (589nm). However, high-pressure sodium has a much wider spectrum, and is shifted dominantly towards red, making it more around 2500-3300K (depending on various construction factors). Another issue is that the light is often a bit too green, so you need to WB shift towards magenta.

The biggest issue is still picture style (canon) or picture control (nikon). Sodium light shot with the "Standard" picture style will always look terrible, because it's just too damn green. Portrait is too red. Landscape seems to work well on Canon, because it doesn't mess with the yellows. In Lightroom/AfterShot/Whatever you'll just need to mess with the WB sliders until you find something that looks good. Remember that WB is a creative choice!

Wow! This has been something I've been wanting to know for some time, thank you for explaining it so well. My question: when shooting with 2 photographers, do you both dial into the same Kelvin setting? Or do you each choose what works best for each photographer?

If you want shots from both cameras to be side-by-side comparable (printed in the same book, to be viewed in the same slideshow, etc), you'll want to use the same WB settings. If you dial this during shooting or when editing your RAW files doesn't matter.
If shot-to-shot consistency doesn't matter, then do whatever looks best.

This has got to be the best tutorial I have ever seen. Clear, concise, and understandable; exactly what is needed to teach an idea that is not easy to understand without being talked through it.

This will certainly help me with photography, along with at Home Depot. I'm regularly called when people are looking for florescent lights since I have a rudimentary understanding of color temperature. The history of the Kelvin will help me explain the warm / cold being strange for the lay person.

Why do fstopper writers revert to a "this-is-how-I-do-it-so-everybody-else-is-wrong" mentality?

We agree that white balance is important. I differ with you on several points:

1. Your discussion ignores tint (magentagreen axis). Maybe your photography never happens under fluorescent or sodium lights, just daylight or tungsten?

2. Your discussion ignores scenes that blend multiple lights, only briefly touching on tungsten plus window light and recommending splitting the difference. I frequently have to shoot in situations that have fixed light sources with four or five different temperatures. An Expodisk, Spyder cube, or gray card is not a crutch in that situation, and you shouldn't insult fellow professional photographers that find them useful for professional shoots in complex lighting scenarios. I have been known, when color control is essential, to set a custom white balance and then take shots of a gray card before and after the shoot for later reference. I've seen studio strobes from the same manufacturer that differ by 50-100". If your client is dissatisfied with color, do you want to explain to your client that you guessed wrong, or do you want to be able to show them the calibration shots you took 1 second to photograph, that established perfect color for the rest of the shoot?

3. Your statement that you can hardly see temperature adjustments of less than 500º is ridiculous. A difference of 100º is easily visible when shooting food, catalog products, or skin. Food photographed with an white balance error of a couple hundred degrees looks unappetizing. If you're shooting a fabric you need to have the color exactly right, not your closest guess within 500º.

4. It is not "tons of time" to tweak white balance in post, if you have the reference shot. Sample the gray card with the eyedropper and apply the change globally. What's that, 10 seconds? If you have multiple scenes, then you should have shot the gray card that you carry in your back pocket multiple times. That's just as fast (and more precise) than you dialing different estimated temps in. And remember, you can shoot the gray card afterwards if you forgot to adjust your camera, which is not an option with your method as your estimated temp has to be dialed in before the shot.

5. Yes, it's great to get it right in camera, but that doesn't always happen, especially in live events. Color control is much easier to correct in post if you shot raw. You should mention in an article on white balance that boo-boos are harder to fix with jpgs.

6. You ignore the idea that not every shot should be neutral white-balanced. Your candle-lit bride might look way more sexy with warm candlelight than with you stripping out all the scene's ambiance. White balance selection is not only technical, but aesthetic.

Now let me turn this around for a moment. You remark how "easy" your way is, and my way "uses a crutch" and "most photographers" sell off their WB "crutch" after being blessed by the benefit of your wisdom, and then you "promise" they start evangelizing others. If I wanted to talk as disrespectfully of you as you do of me, I'd say your inability to see when you're off by 500º might have something to do with your belief that estimating Kelvin temperature is perfectly adequate. Why not choose to be more collaborative instead of sneering at anybody that has a different workflow?

A little harsh, but I have to say I agree on quite a few of your points CharlestonDave. I was thinking of some of those same issues while reading the article that you hit upon, though I never felt that Trevor was talking down to the reader necessarily. I think he was just trying to find a simple solution to something many photographers struggle with regularly.

Regardless, your comment on tint is spot-on. I struggle far more in post with my magenta-green balance than I do warm/cool, especially in indoor lighting like fluorescents. Skin seems to go from green to red and back to green with just the slightest bump of a slider....

I am, however, intrigued by the idea of shooting in Kelvin as a starting point for my images, rather than the presets available with the camera. Oftentimes, setting a custom white balance on a shoot is a little time consuming, and the presets don't quite get me where I want to be. I think perhaps there is middle ground here, where shooting in Kelvin could be helpful to get consistent color in camera, but don't neglect taking along your white balance tools for global color correction in post.

Your camera may offer the option of moving CWB settings to a top-level menu or a custom key. I've done that on my camera and setting white balance with an Expodisk takes about 4 seconds.

CharlestonDave - I appreciate your response and comments. I just wanted to address a few points. First my intent was never to say come off with a tone of "this is how I do it everybody else is wrong" mentality. If you picked that tone up from the article than I am sorry. But it definitely was not what I was going after. I write up these articles to share tips on how I do things in particular. It would be quite hard to cover all sides to every technique in 1000 words or less which is the average size of our stories.

Regarding the green/pink tint. I do WB Shift occasionally in camera to offset pink or green tints, however it only happens rarely. It is not something I shoot in often. That said, last night I was shooting a fashion show and in fact had to add some green to offset the pink wash of lights that was projected on the models. But again in my experience this is rare - and in an article such as this one in which I am teaching a concept I will take the steps one by one just as we learn in school. Covering the WB Shift would make for a great article in the future.

As far as mixed lights go. You are correct, every so often you might come across a scenario that is difficult to balance. But with practice it is not hard to figure out. It sounds like you shoot indoor much more than I do. I am a wedding photographer and as such most of my shooting is done outdoors. (www.trevordayley.com) I don't have the time to bust out a grey card each time I need to figure out the best custom light balance. Again with a bit of practice it is not hard to nail.

The statement about 500 degrees is my opinion. The reason I put it there is because I did not want someone new to the concept trying to adjust in 100 degree temps. The changes are much more obvious at 500+ degrees.

I just peeked at the clock and I have to run to a shoot. I can try to address the rest of your comments later today. But in short the tone of your response is one that kind of bothered me as I read it. I am just simply sharing an article about something that has worked wonders for me and will hopefully help many others. If you would like to write an article as a guest writer for Fstoppers I am sure we can make that happen. It sounds like you have a lot of great insight to share. But in the mean time forgive me if I upset you or somehow came off with a tone in my article that was mistaken as me taking a holier than thou stance. That definitely was not my intent.

Your quote: "I don't have the time to bust out a grey card each time I need to figure out the best custom light balance. "

Let's talk about the time issue. Using an ExpoDisk and setting CWB takes seconds. I get an exact answer that's traceable. A single reference shot that includes a WhiBal card takes even less. Your guesstimate approach probably takes you at least as long because you're looking at the back of your camera and dialing in a specific number (and then maybe repeating that after test-exposing) while your subject is looking at you and wondering what you're doing looking at your camera while she's waiting to be photographed. I've also found that in portrait settings it intrigues my subject if I ask them to hold a Spyder cube or WhiBal card for the first exposure. We break the ice and they're pleased when I tell them I'm using this to get the color of their dress/hair/skin exactly right so they will look their best. In weird lighting situations I can also take a gray card shot after the event so that I have a record of light color that I can use a reference in post. Your method does not offer that option, just laborious, time-wasting tweaking in post if the guess you made onsite during the pressure of the event wasn't perfect.

The real time-saving in post is when you can use the test exposure to confidently set all your shots to perfect color balance instantly. If your post-production requires tiny tweaks because your guesstimate was off by variable amounts, that's a huge headache and time waste. You have it completely backwards. It's shooting the test exposure that saves huge amounts of time, not guesstimating on site. One of the first wedding portraits I ever shot, years ago, was a couple in a birch grove. I had exposed to a "shade" WB standard, and then in post was struggling to get white balance exactly right. I went back to the birch grove the next day and shot a gray card in the same light. Turned out that the almost-white bark of the birch trees was reflecting foliage and shifting the usual shade balance subtly green and blue. Once the test revealed that I was able to fix everything instantly. Since then I try for a single reference shot whenever I can.

I'm glad your guesstimating method works for you and your clients. You object to the tone of my response, but your article presents your guesstimating technique as the One True Way that everyone should embrace so that they can sell their equipment to uninformed newbies and quit doing what they already do. That's absurd. Your article is also very deficient in failing to mention the importance of shooting raw for best color recovery.

I am so glad you found a method that works for you. Just as I shared what works for me if you ever would like to share more with Fstoppers readers we can write up an article about your method. Holler and I'd be happy to chat offline with you to get more info and we can put together an article and share some of your work with everyone.

CharlestonDave must have his . or something. I know this trade is a little old but I am rather new to photography and I believe this article was written just for people like me. What the heck s this guys problem. thank you for writing this article. I enjoyed it a lot.

Unreated nit-pick: There are no degrees in kelvin. In other words: "Five hundred degrees Celcius" vs "Five hundred Kelvin".

Also, all your points are valid and true. WB either needs to be spot on (scientific or some forms of marketing shots), or is a creative choice best made in post (with better viewing equipment than the rear LCD).

Good catch, Anders, thanks. Another advantage of the SI method.

Just shoot in RAW and forget about arbitrarily selecting WB with the Kelvin adjustment option. The only way to accurately set WB in camera is using a gray card and custom WB, or having an expensive handheld color meter that tells you what the light color actually is. RAW files are a better solution though because they don't have white balance applied to the photo. As a result, WB and toning are endlessly adjustable in post. Thinking (and recommending to people) that you can use the on-camera screen—or some amazing guesstimates—to 'properly' set white balance using K is seriously misleading. Not only are camera screens not color accurate, but the way they are perceived varies greatly based on the environment. The major problem with the approach suggested is just this: There is no way to truly know if the image on the camera screen is too warm or too cold since it's not color calibrated and being viewed in a neutral colored medium lit environment. Additionally, tint is a major issue and is more difficult to set using the settings/tint grid in camera. Using RGB histograms will help visualize the color, but really a gray card is required at which point it's better to use that for custom WB. Also, I'd guess that most people can't really see light color since their brains are auto white balancing their vision, which just makes this whole discussion that much more ridiculous.

I think an article titled "Learn to Shoot Proper White Balance Using Kelvin Temps" should actually do so. Instead, the color information is solid, but the details about how to properly set Kelvin WB are vague and I don't think the article expressed how to "properly" do anything. Maybe the article should be titled "Learn to Shoot Somewhat Accurate White Balance Using Kelvin Temp (Though Probably Less Accurate Than AWB)". Do it however you want I guess, but shooting a gray card in a given environment and then using that to set RAW white balance and tint in post will provide much more accurate neutral white balance than taking random guesses at Kelvin numbers. It's how the color-particular pros do it and it's how anyone looking to "Shoot Proper White Balance" should do it too.

This is definitely not misleading. It is an informative article with the aim to help people.

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