Photo Editing for Amateurs: Part IV – Color Temperature

Before diving into color temperature I feel compelled to make excuses for the gap in time since my last post.  So here goes.  My wife and I moved to our new home two weeks before Christmas.  Perfect timing.  Then the holidays came and went.  And, well, here we are.  So despite my best intentions to blog on the regular, it didn’t happen.  The road to hell, and all that.  But I’m back and ready to roll!  So let’s dive into color temperature.

Color temperature is one of the most important – and also one of the easiest! – adjustments you can make to your photos.  I’d argue that if you are going to make one adjustment to an image it should be the color temperature.  You can adjust the exposure and add contrast and do a host of other things, but it won’t matter if your white dog looks blue!

What Is Color Temperature – And Do I Need A Jacket?

Every light source we encounter has a temperature.  Measured in degrees Kelvin (you remember that from 8th grade physics class, right?), “cool” light has a low temperature like 3000 degrees and makes white things look blue (think of a pile of snow on a cloudy day) while “warm” light in the range of 7000 degrees makes white things look orange (think of the glow of a fire in the fireplace or the golden light at sunset).  Middle-of-the-day sunlight is right in the middle at around 5500 degrees, so daylight tends to be neutral in color.  Camera flashes are set to mimic that color, which is why things look okay when we use flash.   Artificial lights that we encounter at home or inside buildings each have their own color temperature – regular incandescent light bulbs are warm, fluorescent lights are cool, and those sodium vapor lights in your child’s gym are just plain ugly!  Our brains have been trained to filter out these colors, so when you see someone wearing a white shirt next to a table lamp your brain tells you the shirt is white even though your eyes see it as yellow-orange.  When you see your white dog in the snow your eyes see blue, but your brain tells you Fluffy is white.  If you look at photographs of those subjects the camera captures the light as your eyes see the scene, not the way your brain interprets it.  So when we think about color temperature in photography we are considering the coolness or warmth of the color of the light landing on our subject.  We’re not going to worry about Dr. Kelvin, but we are going to pay attention to how the light looks.

Digital cameras can recognize the color of the light coming in and make an educated guess as to how to balance it or make it neutral.  Most cameras have an Auto White Balance setting to do just that.  Or you can change the setting if you know the light in which you’ll be shooting.  But the camera doesn’t always get it spot on.  And sometimes you might have the camera set for one condition and you shoot in a different light.  That’s easy to fix in your photo editing software.

How Do I Adjust For Color Temperature?

The easiest place to start when assessing and adjusting for color temperature is selecting something white.  Because white is white it’s easy to tell if there is a color cast on that part of the photo.  Check out the two versions below of the dog running on the beach.

color temperature

The photo on the left is what the camera captured.  Not bad.  But the temperature of the image is “cool”, so when I look at Fluffy’s white fur I see that it isn’t really white.  It’s blue.  But because my brain knows from experience that there aren’t usually blue dogs running on a beach, I perceive that blue color as white.  Similarly, after adjusting the color temperature in my editing software I went too far to the other end of the spectrum (literally!) and made Fluffy too warm.  Now he’s not white but he’s orange.  Finally, I backed off the warm temperature a bit and ended up with a neutral color cast – and a white Fluffy!

color temperature

As with many edits you can make to your photos, there is no “right” way a picture should look.  I like very much the warm photo (on the right) above.  It makes me feel like it was taken late on a warm July day, when in fact it was shot in the middle of the day in below-freezing December.  I may choose to print it warmer because I like that.  And that’s fine.  I often adjust the temperature a touch to the warm side for my people pictures as humans tend to look better that way.  If I’m shooting photos for a story on shelter animals I may adjust the cage shots to a cooler temperature to make them feel cold and impersonal.  The point is that I am making an artistic decision to make a photo look a certain way rather than just accepting an image the way the camera delivers it to me.  And you can too!

What Beautiful Yellow Skin You Have!

Sometimes color temperature needs to be adjusted to present and accurate image.  Pictures taken indoors, even with flash, often require some color temperature love after the fact.  The photos below of my friends Tori and Josh illustrate the difference between what the camera will do and what an editing adjustment will do.  My, what beautiful jaundiced skin you two have!

color temperature

So when you’re working with your images take a moment to consider the color temperature.  Is white white?  Is the overall look too blue or too orange?  Do you want to warm it up to create a certain mood?  Or cool it down to send a certain message?  Did the gym lights make everyone look a garish orange?  Cool it down with your color temperature slider.  Did the clouds and snow make Fluffy look blue?  Warm Fluffy up with a slide to a warmer temperature!

As always, I’m interested to see your photos, so if you do any work with color temperature please share it with me!

In my next post I’ll talk about a cool, easy way to improve your photos: Cropping and using the Rule of Thirds!

Would You Like to Share Your Thoughts?