See for yourself what each of the most common light temperatures looks like on camera with this simple breakdown of the Kelvin scale.
In our previous writeup on three-point lighting, we briefly touched upon the properties of color temperature and how different light sources will have a color that is perceived as either warm or cold. The basis of how light temperature is measured is against a Kelvin scale. Of course, when we hear the word kelvin, we typically think of one of the measurements to quantify heat, but it’s also a term used to measure the color of light.
The idea is that you compare the color of the light source to that of a theoretical black body radiator when it’s heated. What does that mean? Well, when a substance is heated, it also emits light. And how much that object is heated determines the color makeup of that light; think the hotter a flame, the more it burns from red to blue.
While the Kelvin scale runs from 1000-10000k, typically the numbers we would often see crop up in lights pertaining to filmmaking and photography would be found within these bands of kelvin.
- 2000k-3000k for the warm white and yellow glow of flames and household bulbs.
- 3000k-4500k for tungsten lights and the early and late parts of the day.
- 4600k-6500k for direct sunlight, overcast skies, and HMI lights.
Now, step-by-step, we’re going to walk you through the kelvin scale giving visual examples of each temperature.
Well, to some extent. Have you ever noticed that when reading articles or books that reference a Kelvin scale that they typically use a chart or example image like this?
Image via Suriya KK.
That’s because, for most temperatures, they will look entirely different depending on the color balance setting of the camera used to capture the media.
The bottom of the scale would denote black, so we need to slightly travel forward along the scale. At 1900k we hit our first visual representation of color temperature with a candle flame. Candle flames and fire typically sit at 1900 kelvin and will produce a warm, orangey glow.
At the very first stop along the scale, we should stop to discuss two essential notes before moving further. We will speak in terms of “typically” and “usually” because, for some areas of the kelvin scale, the temperatures aren’t precise. One hour after sunset is usually defined at 3500k, but depending on the weather it could also be 3400k or 3700k. Some cameras denote the daylight color balance as 5000k, and others use 5600k.
If you compare the information from this article to two separate other color temperature articles, it would be a sure-fire bet there would be discrepancies between all three. The only elements of the kelvin scale that would be 100% accurate are those colors emitted from fixtures engineered to be a specific color temperature.
Secondly, when knowing the color temperature for a particular light source, you may find yourself reaching for that white balance setting on your camera to switch the color balance to that of the light source. If you do a gray card reading next to the candlelight, your camera will see the orange glint as “wrong” and introduce blue to negate the orange and make the light white. While yes, you will have now white light that renders skin color more truthfully, candles by nature are not white light.
Therefore, take this into account when setting the color balance of your camera.
As we move from the fiery warmth of 1900k, we head into the 2000k-2500k region. This produces two colors that many often see on a daily basis and are still described as warm white. Street lights (depending on where you are located) are usually set at 2000k because the light is calm and easy on the eyes; not piercing.
Secondly, if you’re an early bird or night owl, you may be familiar with the warm light that comes just after the sunset or sunrise. This too is typically around 2000k; however, this is not to be confused with golden hour. This light is typically the first or final light seen before the sun passes the horizon.
At 2800k-2900k, we find ourselves at a color temperature usually found in household lighting. Most lamps, ceiling lights, and other indoor lighting will sit at 2800k-2900k. Some filmmakers are happy enough to mix 2900k practical lights with 3200k tungsten-based and use them as a motivated source because of the slight differentiation.
There are two temperatures on this list that are going to be the two most commonly used and referenced throughout all filmmaking and photography reference guides. The first one would be 3200k. This measurement is the color temperature that you find in the halogen bulbs housed in Fresnel lamps.
Image via lapandr.
This is most photographers’ and filmmakers’ favorite time of day; golden hour. As the sun meets the horizon, there’s more distance for the light waves to travel through. Since blue is a weak wavelength, it disperses easily, leaving a luscious golden light spread across the landscape.
Again, if you were to set your white balance to calibrate for this light, you would lose the golden touch on your images.
From 3000k to 3500k we’re nearing the region where temperatures are no longer warm white and are instead referred to as bright white. Sometimes, at when 4000k, the temperature can be referred to as neutral white.
At 3500k and up to 4300k you find fluorescent lights. These lights are bright and offer no favor to the warm or cool side of the Kelvin scale. You will find this color temperature in cooking kitchens, retail stores, and daytime offices. Essentially, in most places where colors need to appear natural.
Image via fiphoto.
The list can be somewhat paradoxical at times (with the sun leaning more towards a cold color despite being the hottest element on the list), and moonlight is no different. The kelvin measurement of moonlight is 4100k, which on the scale is warmer than sunlight. But, we typically think of moonlight as cold light.
If you’re interested in the science behind this, someone asked why this very phenomenon exists on the Physics Stack Exchange and received plenty of scientific replies.
Image via Phitha Tanpairoj.
In the early morning and late afternoon the sun has yet to reach its peak position, but it’s also not as horizontal as it is during sunrise and sunset. As such, we receive a warmer and less harsh light than the midday light, but not as golden as the setting sun. You will find this light measured from 4500k to 5000k.
There is also a secondary light that we typically find at 5000k-5500k which everyone has seen at least once, and that’s flash from a camera. This is what some consider to be the only “white” light.
Image via sirtravelalot.
Moving up the Kelvin scale, we reach our second primary color temperature, 5600k. This is regarded as the default daylight color temperature of a high midday sun with no cloud cover. Often, when we think about specific color temperature, the color we see is that of how we perceive that color under daylight. As such, daylight is often the base correction temperature when trying to correct abnormal color casts from stray light sources.
Many consumer and professional LED lights will ship with either daylight or bi-color based LEDs. If your camera (or film) is daylight balanced, this light will appear as white.
On the scale, 7000k looks abnormally blue to seen in the real world. However, that color measurement is indeed the color of daylight when the sunlight’s waves are dispersed through a heavy set of cloud cover. A blue day isn’t just a passing phase.
9000k – Onward
This one often confuses people, and rightly so. So, we’ll add a little more to this section. 9000k (and onward up to 20,000k) is attributed to a clear blue sky. However, when one thinks of a blue sky, you’re inherently going to think of sunlight. You’re not going to get a blue sky without daylight, right?
And while that’s true. When photographing or filming elements directly under a clear blue sky, you may find it throws a cast over your image even though it looks as it should be. For example, in this photograph of Lake Garda, which was shot at a daylight color balance of 5600k, it’s a sunny summer’s day. Initially, nothing seems inherently wrong.
However, when I increase the WB to 9000k, it counters the blueness with warm attributes and corrects the image.
Suddenly, the before has become a lot colder. This concept also applies to a midnight blue sky.
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