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.

Fstoppers White Balance Trevor Dayley 2

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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61 Comments

Dear John,
I am in photography. I would like know is there any way I can set the perfect color temperature seeing the RGB Histogram; if it is then please shoot an email to : msn_arefin@yahoo.co.uk

I will be waiting for your answer.

I couldn't imagine manually adjusting my white balance every time the sun went behind a cloud or fidgeting with the kelvin scale every time I changed positions or locations. This is precisely why RAW has become so valuable. People don't want to do exactly what this guy is suggesting we do. In fact the industry as a whole recognized the madness involved in laboring over white balance they made a format that lets you set your own.

Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. I could never turn auto focus on and manually focus my way through a basketball game, I could do this, but I wouldn't.

Stephen you are making it sound harder than it is. If you are ever in Arizona I would love to invite you out on a shoot together. I would be happy to show you just how simple it is and how quickly it happens. Holler if you make it out this way.

Do they have clouds in Arizona? :)

Probably not as often as other places but we do have them. Especially during our monsoon season we get some nice clouds.

I'm well familiar with color temperatures and yes, if you want true color you need to use the proper white balance to get true color. The best and easiest method I've found is using an ExpoDisc. It's the best hundred dollars I've ever spent.
Remember: Roses are Red, Violets are blue, If and only if, your color is true!

I've tried the expo disc and frankly found it to be annoying to use. I move fast, and it just doesn't fit my shooting style. I prefer the method Trevor talks about here of adjusting your Kelvin. I think it's a great way of doing thing FOR ME. Everyone shoots differently, but this is more intuitive for me and easier than busting out an expo disc. 98% of the time my color is spot on because it has become second nature to me. Only extreme situations of odd lights have thrown me and then it's a slightly longer adjustment (but still within seconds, not minutes). Take articles like this as they are intended - one person's way of doing things that may or may not work for you. Thank, Trevor. Always appreciate your open sharing and simple way of explaining things!

If you are in environments where precise color balance isn't critical, then AWB or guesstimating Kelvin is fine. If you are in environments where precise color balance is essential, then AWB carries a risk of camera error, while guesstimating Kelvin carries a risk of operator error.

In those environments, if setting a CWB is "annoying" and "takes minutes", then a bit of practice is in order. You could possibly simplify the process by moving your custom white balance setting to a top-level menu or to a programmable button on your camera, if it allows. If all of that is too complex, a single shot of a hand-held gray card takes less time than dialing in Kelvin temperature and lets you get perfect results in post 100% of the time with no guesswork, not 98% of the time with painstaking guesswork for the remainder.

Remember also that Trevor's original post did not represent Kelvin guesstimating as "one person's way of doing things that may or may not work for you." He instead represented his method as so much better that he discouraged his students from using any other method and told us all we'd be selling our equipment and promoting his technique within two weeks.

Wow! I don't read the comments that much, but found these quite interesting. The harsh feedback below just reminds me of how critical people can be when they are hiding behind their computers. You have entirely to much time on your hands CharlestonDave. Please go outside and get some fresh air. I don't actually agree with the article and prefer setting my camera to Auto WB and edit it in post. I shoot landscapes and street and use one or two of my shots so changing the WB in post is the least of my problems. However, if the author wants to suggest a different method then far be it from me to argue with him. I simply read the article, chose to disagree and move on. Lighten up people. I love the the Kelvin graphic Trevor. Keep up the good work.

Thanks Sean.

Sean, thanks for the suggestion on how to use my time. You're right, I need to get to editing the four real estate jobs and one wedding I did last week, each of which will use more than "one or two" shots. Fortunately, white balance will not be an issue in any of those 1500 or so shots.

The harshness of the feedback by myself and others to the original post came not just because of its errors and omissions, but because of the tone Trevor's original post took that his was the One True Way and his "promise" anyone that did this would in two weeks sell their equipment and start evangelizing others. Trevor has in his followup responses announced "that was not [his] intent" and radically changed his tone to a mellower hey-it's-just-one-alternative, do-what-works-for-you. That's not what he said in his original post. His original claim of singular authoritative rightness (when his method was neither universal nor best) is why he got the response he did.

CharlestonDave I think you are the only one that has come across with the Tone of having the "One True Way" - and you continue to comment with that tone even going as far as responding to others that have shared their successes with the method. Hopefully we get a chance to shoot together someday, it would be fun to compare methods and time in post processing. Till then it is probably time that you spend your time elsewhere to serve your clients.

hehe that dude has a vendetta against you trevor... geez.

Christopher Hoffmann's picture

I've never really had that many issues simply changing in LR. Don't you find yourself still tweaking the setting even after setting on scene? Also, thanks for the informative post.

Great article! I love kelvin and love how Trevor explains how to use it. I used Kelvin before but now I play around with it more to see what I can do. The right temperature can change the whole mood of a photo. Thanks for sharing!

do you know why Lightroom's whitebalance area has the blue on the lower temps and yellow on the higher temps? That part confuses me as it contradicts the logical way you explained with yellow heat and hot blue heat.

Thanks for this article and linking to it in the FB group. White balance is my biggest frustration, so I am excited to learn Kelvin. Played around bit today but plan on getting it down over the course of the week. You explained it so well that I'm actually excited about it, whereas before I was just freaked out :) Thanks again Trevor!

Someone here needs a time-out and a sippy cup. It's apparent to me that Trevor's article wasn't meant to dig into the intricacies of commercial white balance. The people who employ those critical techniques in their commercial work, myself included, don't need these articles to teach them. There is a lot of value in Trevor's info for photographers who struggle with color balance, and I heard no condescension in his tone.

Question, I shot a production under red gelled house lights. Without converting all the photos to black and white I could not get a neutral color to correct the white balance. It was horrible. Today I was looking for the lightest color to try to neutralize the red some and came up empty, that was until I got fustrated and clicked onto the black skirt. Then this happened, the red dissaperared and I got more natural colors. Please explain to me how black because the point of reference for the white balance? It is noisy as heck because I had to shoot at 3200 and slower shutter. I am adjusting with Noise reduction.

thank you. I've tried to explain this to my high school students, and this was a lot easier.

I was taking a night photography class and the teacher looked at my first shot and told me to set my white balance to xxxxK. The next shot looked amazing. His knowledge and experience told him exactly what color temperature would work for this situation. If you like your grey card or your expo disc that's fine. If you're new to photography, or old and want to learn a new trick, it doesn't hurt to try. You train your eye to recognize colors and all you have to do is turn a dial. I'm not going to criticize anybody's method, but expo discs cost money and a grey card is something extra I have to carry around so if I can figure out how to set white balance with nothing but my camera in hand, I will.

Very informative! Thank you!

http://www.sunnyfleurphotos.net/

I just want to say that I completely agree with the idea of using Kelvin and live view or a monitor (when shooting video) to adjust white balance. I find it is the only way to insure that the subject is properly balanced, especially when there are multiple light sources of differing temperatures. One thing I would add - it's not necessary to obsess about what temperature is the correct one for a given situation, just adjust until you get the color you are looking for.
We take great care in selecting shutter speed and aperture, why leave white balance to the camera? As sophisticated as programs are these days, there is still no substitute for a practiced eye.

Glad i found this page..All I was looking for was what the K was for.I used it yesterday,but really had no idea why or what it did..Now today I can play.And as you can tell,I am a newbie to photography.After reading some of the comments,it would be easy to just switch to auto everything. So much for the brain to handle..I will persist though.

Moafaq Jamal's picture

if I knew about this, I wouldn't buy the WB cards! it didn't give me outdoor results that my eyes saw! (http://moafaq.com/WBoutside.jpg) I guess Tint can't be adjusted in camera

I find that in Adobe Raw I like to tweak the white balance of every shot by moving the slider back and forth until my eye sees the 'look' I'm looking for... Even if the light source is the same for two shots, shooting from different angles and or distances from that light source can effectively change the Kelvin. (Granted, in a small amount, but it still requires a little tweaking to get the right look.)

I understand the need to create a sense of uniformity between shots when providing a client with a set of images....I guess I'm more of a Art Photographer and I have the time and desire to make several adjustments in post... In fact it's a requirement in my world... I can't just guess the Kelvin and hope for the best because I will always be using that slider to see if there is a better look available...And almost always there is! ...Even if it's small, it matters.

Christopher Soule's picture

Thanks Trevor for the excellent article. I will take with me the rest of my life that trick you taught about setting the WB in liveview! What about the Kelvin of using the 600 EX RT flash?

I found the article about kelvin very helpful, I also found all the comments including the critical ones also helpful.
The one thing I have come to realize is the more I learn the more I realize I don't know, but it keeps me humble and interested in photography, you never get bored when you continue learning. I want to thank Trevor and all those who have commented making this article truly a learning experience.
Mark G. from N.J.

Great run down on a very confusing subject. Thank you.

White balance is one of the most important settings of a camera. Different settings of white balance are required for the different environment. Thanks for sharing this nice article.