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What is Kelvin White Balance, and How Do I Use It?

In today’s digital cameras, there are a plethora of options in terms of setting your white balance. And many photographers I talk to just set it on the Auto setting and never think twice about it.

But there are major benefits to not only setting your white balance but using a specific setting called the Kelvin scale.

Why Worry About White Balance?

I’ve found that, in most situations, Auto White Balance (often noted as “AWB” on cameras) does a pretty good job. The colors are well-represented, and I rarely get a weird cast when shooting. But there’s a major problem with this setting.

Say you’re shooting a wedding or other event for two hours. Chances are, you won’t be situated at the same place that entire time. You’ll go in different rooms, get different angles, etc. Doing this means that your camera re-calculates its Auto White Balance setting every time you switch environments — even if it’s slightly. When you bring your photos into Lightroom, you get a bunch of photos that have inconsistent colors. It’s because of this that Auto White Balance isn’t ideal for professional photographers. Instead, using one of the other presets or using a custom white balance is more beneficial.

Understanding the Kelvin Scale

There are two things you need to remember about the Kelvin scale. The lower the number, the cooler your photograph will be. And — you guessed it — the higher the number, the warmer your photograph will end up. Late afternoon sun at the “golden hour” is between 2500ºK – 2800ºK while shade can cover a range of 7500ºK – 9000ºK and above depending on the time of day.

The Kelvin scale has a “Neutral” point of 5500ºK. If you’re shooting outside on a perfectly clear day, this is what you’ll most likely use. If you’re new to Kelvin, this is a good point to start at.

In this image I took at the North Carolina Museum of Art with my Panasonic Lumix GH5, I used three different white balances in these photographs. The one on the left uses 4500ºK, which gave me more blue tones. Raising it to 5500ºK seems more balanced at the “Neutral” level, and raising it to 6500ºK brings in some warm yellow and orange tones.

Why Not Always Use the Neutral Level?

Depending on your shooting conditions, you’ll have to make adjustments as necessary to account for the different lighting, etc. that’s being delivered to your camera. For instance, if you’re shooting indoors, lights can give off an orange color cast, so applying a lower Kelvin level might be necessary, bringing in some cooler light. Or, if you’re shooting in shady conditions, you’ll want to apply some warmth to the photograph with a slightly higher Kelvin level.

Furthermore, adjusting your Kelvin level can let you play around with some creativity with different color casts, handy for personal work.

Below is a chart of common Kelvin white balance levels to get you started. Depending on your shooting conditions, you’ll want to add cool temperatures (with a lower Kelvin number) or warmer temperatures (with a higher Kelvin number). For instance, if you’re shooting with warm lighting that is the color of a candle flame, you’ll need to bring a cooler Kelvin number into play to make for a neutral color, and so you might take it down to 2800ºK. In the chart below, you can see that warm shooting conditions require the addition of blue to achieve a neutral color (and thus, you’d go with a lower Kelvin number). Likewise, the warm glow added by late afternoon sun is beautifully romantic, it’s a shame to cancel out all of its ambience, so I might not go as far down on the Kelvin scale. It’s often a game of trial and error, especially as you get into some unique lighting situations.

What About the Custom White Balance Setting?

Newer cameras offer the ability to hone in your white balance settings even more, by using a white or a grey surface to capture the current conditions. This is a great option if you have a card with you, or even a wall that is white or grey, but it’s not as easy to adjust these settings in-camera. If you’re in a consistent lighting situation though, by all means, this is a great option as well.

Can’t I Just Change This in Lightroom?

If you shot in RAW, you can change this very easily, with the Temperature slider in the “Basic” panel in Develop. But seeing it in-camera can help you better plan for the rest of your shoot, and make sure the output is what you want before you get back to your desk.

Conclusion

Even if your white balance level is slightly off, having it be consistent is more important. While RAW processing has made this easier to correct in programs like Lightroom, it’ll be easier if you stay consistent and get it right the first time, so that your colors are captured more accurately.

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