Whether you are making videos for YouTube, working on a documentary, or executing your first feature film, understanding color temperature and how it works will go a long way in elevating the quality of your final product, and likely save some time in post.
Color temperature is measured on Kelvin scale and you’ve probably encountered it while making white balance adjustments on your camera. White balance adjusts what shows up as true white on camera, but color temperature actually refers to how warm or cool the light source that you are using is.
The Kelvin scale goes from 1000-10000K and daylight falls right in the middle at 5500K. Light that has a lower Kelvin temperature has a more yellow hue, while light on the higher end will appear bluer.
An easy way to remember this is by thinking about the flame that appears when you light a gas stove. The hotter part of the flame will appear blue, while the lower temperature parts of the flame will be orange and yellow.
White balance and color temperature often work together to neutralize a light source and make it appear perfectly white: if your light sources are 2500-3500K tungsten bulbs you can make them appear white by setting your camera’s white balance to 3200K.
But you can also use color temperature in creative ways by intentionally setting your camera’s white balance to something that won’t neutralize your light sources.
The creators of Netflix’s Ozark (above) shot everything at 4400K to achieve a consistent look throughout the show. This setting was used to shoot daytime, nighttime, interiors, and exteriors—the result was a cool and moody look that gave the show a serious vibe.
The Academy Award-winning film Moonlight consistently used blue hues and made them pop with two tone lighting. This contrast lighting technique of mixing warm and cool light sources is something that regularly appears in YouTube videos as well. Color temperature can also be used to suggest different times of day or different times of the year, making it a creative way to suggest the passing of time.
Many modern video lights have adjustable settings that let you precisely dial in your Kelvin temperature and with older lights you can use gels to modify the color temperature. If you are working without video lights, the guide below can help you determine the color temperature of some common light sources.
1000-2000K – candlelight
2500-3500K – tungsten bulb
3000-4000K – sunrise and sunset
4000-5000K – fluorescent lamps
5000 – 5500K – electronic flash
5000 – 6500K – daylight
6500 – 8000K – overcast sky
9000 – 10000K – shade and heavily overcast sky
Want more? Check out Mango Street’s guide below to color temperature for filmmakers and photographers.