Filmmaking: White Balance and Color Temperature

A Quick Guide to Color Temperature

Digital filmmakers are becoming increasingly interested in understanding the technical components that their film ancestors needed to know in order to create professional looking films and documentaries through the Hollywood studio system. Digital filmmakers are slowly becoming less interested in the speed of digital technology and the quick point and shoot capabilities of their digital cameras and are now deciding to slow down and learn how to push their digital cameras to their technical limits. They hope to achieve a similar professional look to the films we’re all familiar with created with the technical (not always artistic) expertise of the large film studios.

One area of growing interest to filmmakers is color temperature and white balance. Digital Filmmakers are starting to realize that in video productions the devil is in the details. Footage is often uninspiring and doesn’t lives up to the filmmaker’s expectations. They seek the stylistic qualities of the “film look” but they don’t know what to do to achieve that level of cinematic professionalism.

Proper image control plays a large part in professional looking footage and white balance plays a large part in image control. Therefore the purpose of this exclusive Lights Film School blog post is to discuss the importance of white balance and inform independent filmmakers how to change this setting to enhance the look of their final product.

Correcting white balance before you start shooting ensures that you do not have any unsightly or unrealistic colors tones in your footage. Setting your white balance will allow your camera to identify the color of pure white.

The problem is that the human eye is much more advanced than even the best digital and film cameras. Our eyes have a decent ability to correct white balance just as they have the ability for selective focus. Cameras do not yet have these same automatic capabilities. Therefore it is important that filmmakers understand white balance and how to effectively change their camera settings for optimal outcomes.

Without this understanding your true white colors may appear unnaturally blue’ish, orange’ish or even green’ish. The last thing you need is your film subjects looking green and sick or having consistency problems in the colors of your shots. These technical errors draw your audience out of the illusion of your story and lower the perceived production value your films.

What white balancing does is it identifies what is white in your footage. It doesn’t know what white is until you tell it what it is. You can often do this with AWB (Automatic White Balance), but the results are not always desirable. That is why you may choose to manually change your white balance.

When you white balance you are telling your camera to treat any object with similar chrominance and luminance as white.

Color Temperature

It’s important that you understand color temperature before we start discussing white balance any further. Simply put, color temperature is measured in Degrees Kelvin (K).

Color Temperature (K)    Light Source
1500                                    Candle
3200                                    Sunrise and sunset
3400                                    Tungsten lamp
5500                                    Natural daylight
6000                                    Overcast sky
8000                                    Shade on a sunny day
12,000                                 Blue sky

The two color temperatures you’ll hear most often discussed are outdoor lighting which is often ballparked at 5600K and indoor (tungsten) lighting which is generally ballparked at 3200K. These are the two numbers you’ll hear over and over again. Higher color temperatures (over 5000K) are considered “cool” (i.e. Blue’ish). Lower color temperatures (under 5000K) are considered “warm” (i.e. orange’ish).

Therefore if you are shooting indoors under tungsten lighting at 3200K you will set your white balance for indoor shooting at this color temperature. In this case, your camera will correct your camera’s settings to ensure that white appears white. Your camera will either have an indoor 3200K auto option (even the most basic camera’s have this option) or you can choose to set it manually. That is all you need to do to set your white balance. Once you’ve set your white balance you don’t need to change it after each shot unless the color of light changes.

However, things get complicated if you’re filming indoors during the day under tungsten lighting while the outdoor light is coming through a window. Now what we have is a mixing of color temperatures. What you need to understand in this situation is that there is no perfect white balance setting in a mixed color temperature setting. You will need to make a compromise on one end of the spectrum or the other. If you set your white balance to tungsten 3200K the daylight colors will appear very blue. If you set your white balance to optimize for daylight 5600K then your tungsten lighting will appear very orange.

If you’re shooting a film you may want to rearrange your setting to choose one color temperature over the other. It’s best to try and keep the color temperature of the shoot the same. However, if you’re shooting indoors during the day and you have outdoor lighting coming into through your window but you only have tungsten lighting to light your subject, you might consider using gels to change the color temperature of the tungsten lighting to the color of daylight. Alternatively you might consider blocking out the window with duvetyne or black velour and then just use your tungsten lighting.

What if you want to add color highlights?

Adding color highlights easy once you’ve set your white balance. For instance if your shooting an indoor scene under tungsten lighting but you want to create some blue highlights on a bed you would use the following steps.

1. Set up your lighting for your desired color temperature
2. Set your white balance
3. Afterwards you can set up lights above or below that temperature to add lighting highlights. If you wanted to include a blue highlight you could use 5600K lighting and / or blue gels.

If you’re interested in further reading consider joining our film school or buy our following book recommendation on film lighting:

Set Lighting Technician’s Handbook: Film Lighting Equipment, Practice, and Electrical Distribution (Paperback)

Filmmaking: White Balance and Color Temperature


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