The concept of color temperature is an integral part of photography, and yet many photographers are not really sure what it means.
Color and temperature don't seem to have a direct relationship with each other, but light sources are often defined in terms of their color temperature and we speak of using the correct film with a particular type of light or setting the "white point". In addition, the measurement of color temperature is in Kelvin degrees. What does all this really mean?
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Kelvin, like Fahrenheit and Centigrade, is a scale for measuring temperature. Zero degrees Kelvin (this is defined as absolute zero where there is no molecular movement) corresponds to -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit. The relationship between color and Kelvin temperature is derived from heating a "blackbody radiator" (think of this as a piece of black metal) until it glows. The particular color seen at a specific temperature is the color temperature. When the blackbody is hot enough and begins to emit light, it is dull red. As more heat is applied, it glows yellow, and then white, and ultimately blue.
The colors radiating from the blackbody are correlated to colors we are familiar with in our daily lives. The color emitted from a tungsten lamp in your living room is identical to the yellow-white glow when the blackbody radiator temperature is approximately 3200 degrees Kelvin. When the temperature rises to 5500 degrees, the quality of white light is identical to the color of the sun at midday. The bluish quality of twilight just before dark is similar to the color of the blackbody at about 12,000 degrees Kelvin.
Color Temperature and Photography
These numbers are used when purchasing photographic strobe equipment and film. For example, the color of the light emitted by a flash is rated at 5500 degrees; it is designed to imitate noon daylight. If the flash produces light that is 6000 degrees Kelvin, it has a slight bluish tinge. If it is rated at 4800 degrees, it is slightly warmer, or more yellowish, than white light.
Similarly, film is manufactured to give you accurate colors indoors with tungsten illumination balanced for 3200 degrees Kelvin. Examples include Fujichrome 64T and Ektachrome 50. Both of these films are designed to be used in the yellow-white light of photofloods that are specifically balanced for 3200 degrees. Household lamps may vary slightly from this color temperature, especially if they are old. If a lamp is emitting light at 2800 degrees, a subject thus illuminated would be slightly yellowish.
Daylight films, such as Ektachrome E-100, Fujichrome Velvia and Provia, and Agfachrome 200, are balanced for 5500 degrees Kelvin. This means that they produce accurate colors during the middle of the day when the sun is overhead. Before the sun reaches its zenith – say, from sunrise to early morning - the yellowish quality of the sunlight is less than 5500 degrees. The same is true from late afternoon to sunset. During these times, daylight film reproduces a warmer, or more yellow, image.
Overcast Conditions and Twilight
During the middle of the day when a cloud cover has obscured the sun, some of the red and yellow wave lengths of light are absorbed by the minute water droplets of the clouds. The colder end of the spectrum, the bluish wave lengths, pass through unimpeded.
This is why daylight film produces scenics and outdoor portraits with a bluish cast even during midday. Sometimes this can be very interesting artistically. If the cool tonality is unappealing to you, place a warming filter, such as an 81A, over the lens. and the color balance will shift back toward a more acceptable value.
Twilight appears almost blue-purple on daylight film due to its extremely high Kelvin temperature. When cityscapes are photographed at twilight, the contrast between the lights of buildings and the cobalt blue sky is very dramatic. I actually prefer to shoot city skylines at twilight rather than at night when the sky is black.
Digital technology uses these same traditional concepts but with a new twist. You can simply adjust your white point to change the color balance. For example, if you lower the white point to, say, 3200, you are telling the camera that you want yellowish light to be shown as white noon-type daylight. This means that daylight and flash (5500K) will be bluish, and overcast conditions and shade (about 7500K) will be exceptionally blue.
Crossing Films and Light Sources
When you shoot a film in lighting conditions that it was not designed for, interesting results await you.
Tungsten-balanced films can be used with strobe units or during midday sunlight, but the color balance will shift decidedly toward the blue end of the spectrum. At twilight, the heavy blue shift is even more pronounced. In some situations, this deep, saturated blue can be very beautiful. At sunrise and sunset, when the ambient light is golden yellow, tungsten film brings the color balance back to a more natural, middle-of-the-day look.
Daylight films can be used indoors with the opposite effect. The yellow-white illumination is exaggerated because the color shift is toward the warmer end of the spectrum. The entire scene appears to be yellow-orange. This can be attractive when shooting indoor portraits as well as impressive architectural interiors.
A few years ago, I photographed the marble lobby of the opera house in Vienna. I used both daylight and tungsten film to capture the ornate interior, and I thought the daylight film rendition was better. The exaggerated yellow-orange color warmed up the entire lobby and made it more inviting.
An understanding of color temperature helps you maintain greater control over your work. The more creative tools you have at your disposal and the greater your ability to pre-visualize the results, the better your photography will be.
Notes on the photos (from top to bottom):F0-1496 twilight 1200K; MS-647 sunset 3200K; F0-1632 flash 5500K; MS-952 overcast 7000K; MS-3730 mid-day 5500K
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About Author / Instructor / Photographer, Jim Zuckerman
Few people are able to spend most of their time pursuing their passion in life. I'm one of them, and I feel blessed to have had a love affair with photography since I began taking pictures.
In 1970, I decided to abort my intended career as a doctor in favor of photography and have never regretted it. Photography has enriched my life more than I can tell you. My career has taken me to over 60 countries, and I've seen and photographed wondrous things.
I specialize in wildlife and nature, international travel, and digital effects. In addition, I also shoot nudes, photo- and electron microscopy, children, and other subjects that stimulate my visual or emotional sensibilities.
For 25 years, I shot a medium format camera, specifically the Mamiya RZ 67, for its superior quality. When I would lecture, I’d project the large, glass mounted transparencies, and it was really an incredible experience to see the brilliant color saturation and resolution of these slides. However, I went digital in 2004 because the technology finally equaled or surpassed medium format. I now shoot the Canon 1Ds Mark II digital camera with a variety of lenses.
I am the author of 12 books on photography. My work is sold in 30 countries around the world, and my images have appeared on scores of magazine and book covers, calendars, posters, national ads, trade ads, brochures, and corporate promotions.
For many years I've led photography tours to exotic places. These include Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Burma, Greece, The Czech Republic and Slovakia, Spain, Morocco, and Peru.