Color Temperature and White Balance for Digital Cameras

Different light sources vary in color when "seen" by film or digital camera sensors. On the other hand, the human eye compensates and adjusts well for these variations. For example, while we will see a white object as white, regardless of the light illuminating it, the camera might not. This is because color is measured in degrees of color temperature, most commonly on the Kelvin scale, with red or warm colors at the lower end, and blue or cool colors at the high end of that scale. The range goes from about 2,000K for warm candle light to about 10,000K or even higher for clear blue sky on a bright day, especially at altitude.

Sunlight/Daylight is normally calculated at about 5,200-5,500K, but it can range from around 3,500K to 10,000K, depending on time of day, cloud cover, altitude, and various other natural factors. To make the color in our pictures look normal, we have to ensure that the color of the light source is compatible with the film or sensor.

With digital photography, this means setting the camera's white balance to match the color temperature of the light. The manufacturers have simplified this to a large extent by incorporating a range of settings, that will get you in the ballpark, and those settings, and the approximate color temperatures for each will be described in your camera's manual. To get a feeling of what incorrect white balance looks like, shoot a series of images in daylight with the whole range of white balance settings in your camera.

If you are capturing in TIFF or JPEG, the white balance selected is applied to the image so it's important to get it right. On the other hand, if you shoot in RAW, you can change white balance after the fact with imaging software.

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