In photography, white balance is considered one of the most important settings on a digital camera. Without proper white balance, beautiful brides can come out looking like oompa loompas, and rosy cheeked healthy babies can come out looking like cold wax figurines. Unrealistic color casts caused by poor indoor lighting, extreme brightness, or shadowy conditions, can be difficult to edit out, leading to tedious, coffee-guzzling, nail-biting hours of post production editing.
Truly great photographers know how to attain ideal white balance in-camera, producing the truest colors. Knowing how to perfect white balance in-camera is one of the most valuable, time-saving skills you can learn as a photographer. And the best way to achieve optimal white balance in any situation is by learning how to shoot in Kelvin.
Before diving into how Kelvin is used in photography, we’ll start at the beginning with the obvious first question…
What Is Kelvin?
Kelvin is the standard international unit of measurement for thermodynamic temperature. It was named after a British engineer, William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, who advocated for the invention of an absolute temperature scale. Kelvins follow the same increments as Celsius degrees, although they are not written as degrees, and there is no negative scale. The Kelvin scale begins at 0 K, representing -275.150 C, absolute zero, or the absence of all heat.
William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin. Inventor of the Kelvin Scale.
During the research process for this temperature scale, Lord Kelvin heated a block of carbon. At the lowest temperature, the block of carbon glowed a dim red. As the heat increased, the burning block changed color from red to yellow to bright blue at its highest temperature.
In photography, Kelvin represents the temperature of light, directly correlated with the color of the burning carbon at that temperature. When you “shoot in Kelvin”, you are manually adjusting the camera’s white balance to match that of the Kelvin temperature in the room. By aligning these temperatures, you can to produce the most accurate white balance for the image in-camera.
Adjusting kelvins allows you to manually do what your brain automatically does in different lighting situations. Your brain has a function called Chromatic Adaptation that automatically adjusts your perception of white balance. Because of this mechanism, you perceive a blue pair of shoes to be blue whether they’re in a pile of snow, sitting in the shadows, or under tungsten lighting. Your brain adjusts white balance for its environment automatically, but your camera needs to be told what kind of lighting it needs to adapt to.
Auto White Balance
If you’re a beginning photographer or have just never learned how to shoot in Kelvin, you’re probably familiar with your in-camera automatic white balance. The AWB is there to balance out cool or warm lighting situations by adding an equal amount of the opposite color to capture a neutral image. Although it may sound like the same thing as shooting in Kelvin, it is not. Using the AWB will produce a technically neutral scene – not bad, not great. The images you produce using the AWB are not always the way you see them through your eyes. Kelvin gives you the opportunity to manually adjust the temperature in-camera to match how you perceive any given scene, where the AWB measures and neutralizes the technical temperature. See the difference?
White Balance Presets
When you click the AWB button on your camera, various icons should pop up. On most cameras, sun icon is best for daylight, the cloud is best for cloudy conditions, the light bulb is best for tungsten lighting etc. Selecting a preset option before shooting is a slightly better option than using AWB alone, but not as good as using Kelvin. Machines simply cannot measure up to human perception. Relying on AWB or white balance presets typically results in overcompensated color correction, and diminished saturation in-camera, leading to more editing work post-production to recreate how the colors were perceived in real life.
On a recent post about shooting in Kelvin in our Mastin Labs Photographer Facebook group, Kelly Laramore pointed out how much post editing time is saved by shooting Kelvin, “The thing about Kelvin is, you don’t have to be spot on. Get it as close as you can and keep the same setting until your lighting situation changes. When you go to edit you might tweak it slightly… but then you can just apply the same changes to every photo and save tons of time editing! When you’re using AWB, every. Single. Photo. Will need to be adjusted so that they match, and it takes forever.”
Serena Gojcaj echoed the sentiment, saying, “Shooting in Kelvin cut my post processing time down quite a bit. It took a minute for me to be comfortable using it and knowing what to set it to, but once I had it figured out it was a breeze.”
Several Mastin Labs Photographers call Kelvin a “game changer” on our various social media platforms. Although shooting in Kelvin may seem like a daunting new variable, it takes very little time to get the hang of adjusting kelvins to the temperature of the lighting in the room. All you have to do is memorize a few key numbers and then fine-tune from there. It’s worth the time saved in the long run to take a little extra time now learning to shoot in Kelvin.
HOW TO SHOOT IN KELVIN
At the beginning of this blog, we talked about burning carbon. As you might remember, the carbon glowed from red at its lowest temperature to blue at its highest temperature. The first step to shooting in Kelvin is to compare the temperature of a room to the Kelvin scale. For example, when entering a room full of candles that cast a red/orange glow throughout the room, that room is a low-temperature heat (2000 K – 4500 K).
If you are shooting in the shade, and you notice blue tones, compare the blue light to a higher temperature glow (6000 K – 9000 K). Once you identify the temperature of the room, it’s time to calibrate your camera’s white balance accordingly using the Kelvin setting on your AWB menu.
Scroll through the various icons on your AWB menu until you reach the K, and select the correct color temperature of your photography conditions. If the room is lit by lamplight (2800) set your K in-camera to 2800.
It’s very important to make sure you’re shooting your images in RAW (not in JPEG). If your camera is set to the wrong white balance during shooting, you can still fix images that were captured in RAW.
For general recommendations for using Kelvin, print or memorize the following scale to use as a guide.
Kelvin scale for photographers
If you don’t have a photographic memory (pun intended), start by memorizing the three most important numbers on the scale:
- Tungsten (2850)
- Daylight (5500K)
- Shade (7500K)
If you try these settings and your images look a little off, it’s okay. All cameras are a little bit different, so be patient and don’t be afraid to veer off the traditional K scale to find what settings work best for your camera.
Although there’s a learning curve, after you’ve used Kelvin for a few sessions, you’ll soon realize that it’s even simpler than calculating an appropriate aperture in-camera. Many cameras even have a live-view mode that allows you to see what your image will look like in real time as you select various Kelvin values.
Mastin user, Brownie Izaguirre, noted this benefit for shooting in Kelvin, “Shooting in Kelvin helps me see the image I’m about to take as true as it is, without worrying [if] it’s too warm or too cool. Then I can concentrate on exposure and composition more. [That’s] why I love it. “
In special lighting conditions such as mixed lighting or color casts, capture the best white balance you can in-camera [shooting in Kelvin] and then tweak them at home. Don’t get too caught up in needing to get it perfect in-camera, especially when you’re just starting out. Do your best and get your settings as close as you can.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of shooting in Kelvin, use the K scale to make creative photography choices by controlling white balance settings. By altering the K in-camera, you can capture the moodiness of a nighttime concert, or the warmth of the golden hour without worrying that your AWB will edit out the essence of what you’re trying to capture, making the image look unnatural or bland. Use the following guidelines while making creative choices shooting in Kelvin.
- For a neutral color, set K to the color of the light
- For a warmer color, set K higher than the color of the light
- For a cooler color, set K lower than the color of the light
SHOOTING IN KELVIN RECAP
There are many advantages to learning to shoot in Kelvin. Backed by testimonials from photographers in our Mastin Labs community, some of the greatest benefits to shooting in Kelvin include reduced editing time, being able to keep images in the purest form post-processing, more control over the images shot in-camera, and more creative control to capture drama in the image as perceived by the naked eye.
Now that you understand the basics of how to shoot in Kelvin, turn off your AWB, put on your big kid pants, print off the Kelvin scale for reference, and start practicing. The sooner you learn, the sooner you’ll feel confident producing great images in any lighting.