Photography cheat sheet: Color temperature & the Kelvin scale

Photography cheat sheet: color temperature and the Kelvin scale
(Image credit: Future)

White balance, or WB, is necessary on cameras as light doesn’t just vary in brightness, but also in color. Each light source has its own individual ‘color temperature’, which varies from red to blue as you move through the visible spectrum. Human vision is very good at compensating for this, so a sheet of white paper will look white whether it’s viewed in daylight or by candlelight. It’s the job of the camera’s White Balance system to do the same thing and compensate for the color differences in the lighting, so the colors in a scene look exactly as we would expect.

Digital cameras have a wide range of options for controlling the White Balance to suit the color temperature of the light in the scene, including Automatic White Balance (AWB), which will cleverly look after all this for you. However, as with all your camera’s automatic settings, the Auto White Balance isn’t foolproof, and it may under-compensate for extreme conditions because it can only operate within a restricted range of temperatures. 

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Chris George

Chris George has worked on Digital Camera World since its launch in 2017. He has been writing about photography, mobile phones, video making and technology for over 30 years – and has edited numerous magazines including PhotoPlus, N-Photo, Digital Camera, Video Camera, and Professional Photography. 

His first serious camera was the iconic Olympus OM10, with which he won the title of Young Photographer of the Year - long before the advent of autofocus and memory cards. Today he uses a Nikon D800, a Fujifilm X-T1, a Sony A7, and his iPhone 15 Pro Max.

He has written about technology for countless publications and websites including The Sunday Times Magazine, The Daily Telegraph, Dorling Kindersley, What Cellphone, T3 and Techradar.