What’s the Temperature of your White Balance?

Filters have been replaced by scores of creative options at your fingertips!

Color Temperature. noun: the temperature at which a black body would emit radiation of the same color as a given object.

Lord William Thomson Kelvin was an accomplished mathematical physicist known for his advanced work in thermodynamics. He is credited with accurately determining the correct numerical value of absolute zero. (-273.15 C) Because of his contribution to science and engineering, absolute temperatures are stated in units of kelvin in his honor.

As photographers we don’t relate to “black bodies” and emitted radiation scientifically, but rather creatively by adjusting the white balance of our camera sensors electronically, or with color correction filters for emulsion based film.

FILM - Almost every DP I know prefers the look of Tungsten balanced (3200K) film for day exteriors. They’ll put an orange filter (#85) in front of the lens to convert the daylight 5600K to 3200K - tungsten. To keep a little more of the blue, you can accomplish a “half” correction with an 81EF filter that corrects to 4400K. In 1989, Kodak introduced a daylight balanced emulsion that did not require a color correction filter. I never liked the look of 5245/50D film because it was contrasty and lacked color vibrancy.

Under certain fluorescent lights, a light magenta filter could be added to minimize the green spike in those otherwise tungsten fixtures. In general, there are just a few filters that DP's use to effect the color balance while shooting tungsten film. Once exposed though, a myriad of different looks can be introduced in post while creating a digital intermediate.

Lord Kelvin is bookended by an extreme range of color temperatures. From the barely actuated, low temperature tungsten filaments, to an off the color temperature charts - super high energy lightning strike. Shades of red and orange represent the lowest end of color temperature, while white light transitioning to blue light reside at the top of the Kelvin scale.

DIGITAL – With electronic sensors instead of film, we have the amazing ability to choose practically an infinite number of color temperatures prior to imaging. I tend to play it a bit safe, because I can’t “un-bake” an unconventional “look”, later on. I’m old school and tend to do most of my image processing in post, where there are many options and I’m more objective. I must say though, the ability to “custom” white balance because of some strange light source is very cool. I custom white balance almost everything I shoot these days, something that just isn’t possible with film without shooting a test first, just to be sure.

Photo credit: “Lightning from the Thunderhead” – Kara Swanson

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