What is Color Temperature and How to Use it in Photography

Color temperature is a measure of light quality. It is defined as the relative amount of red, blue, and green light in a scene. Low color temperatures are warm; higher ones are cool.

To achieve a particular effect you need to set the correct color temperature. This will influence the color of the scene and, for instance, whether it appears white or yellowish. White balance settings are usually set in a range of 2200–2800K for daylight, 3100–4500K for tungsten balanced light, 5000–7000K for fluorescent or HMI light.

Color temperatures

In photography there are two ways of setting color temperature. First, the camera is set manually, with the correct color temperature being chosen from a range of different values. Second, the camera has a number of color temperatures built in that allow automatic adjustments to be made. The camera can detect the kind of light present in the scene and automatically select the best setting.

A higher color temperature tends to create brighter colors and sharper contrast, while lower temperatures yield softer, more muted shades. In general, cooler temperatures can be used with backlit scenes, and warmer ones for front lighting.

The key to the effect is to set the correct color temperature to achieve the result you want.

There are several ways of working with color temperature. A camera preset might have the right value selected for you, or you may want to adjust the temperature to suit your own style of shooting. For example, a photograph of an autumn sunset can look dramatically different depending on whether it is taken with a warm or cool color temperature.

Shooting in RAW format

For best results when taking images using RAW format, you need to set the correct color temperature. You can do this easily in Lightroom by adjusting the temperature sliders or use your camera’s manual settings.

Photography and the Color Temperature of the Sun

As a rule of thumb, shooting with the sun in the frame will require you to use a color temperature of around 5600K. This is for daylight balanced (D56) film, which is normally found in most digital cameras and is available in ISO 400 film speeds.

If the sun is in the frame, you can get away with a higher color temperature than 5600K. In fact, you will be able to get away with much higher ones, such as around 8200K. This is for tungsten balanced (T5) film, which is commonly used for shooting indoors with HMI (High-Mounted Flourescent) lamps.

Shooting with the sun in the frame requires a different approach to other kinds of photography, as the sun will cause problems if it is not correctly handled. There will be a lot of glare, which will wash out the image, and the colors will appear yellowish.

It is advisable to use a neutral density filter when shooting with the sun in the frame. Using a neutral density (ND) filter will prevent the bright light from washing out the image. You can use ND filters of various strengths and you can experiment to find the right one for the effect you are looking for.