White Balance in Cinematic Photography
This week we’re focusing on white balance and the importance of selecting your white balance when creating cinematic images. While today’s post production software can make all manner of tonal and color adjustments, allowing photographers to “fix” their white balance in post production, setting the white balance “in-camera” to match the creative intent, allows photographers to evaluate if their original goal for the shoot is translating into the final image. I have used this information, in the field, to make camera or scene adjustments that resulted in a much better final image than would have been possible if I hadn’t controlled my white balance. Said another way, sometimes the in-camera image can inform your creative intent and allow you to see the scene or your characters differently, resulting in different artistic choices.
Most light sources that photographers use operate from within a range of 2700K (Kelvin) to 7200K (Kelvin). Tungsten is at the lower end of that range, in the 3000K spectrum, while daylight is in the higher end of the range, typically in the 6000K spectrum. I shoot primarily at night and so I often use the Tungsten setting – marked in most cameras by the “light bulb” designation. This has an expected color temperature of 3000K, which means that the light looks neutral to slightly warm when the light source is a typical tungsten bulb which operates around 3000 degrees Kelvin.
If the light temperature is below 3000 degrees Kelvin, then the Tungsten setting results in a warmer or orangish hue but as the light temperature moves higher and goes above 3000 degrees Kelvin, then the image color shifts to a colder or bluer hue. I have some lights that allow me to dial-in the color temperature of the light and so I used them to show what different camera settings will do with the different color temperature of light.
The following images were taken using the tungsten camera setting with the light source operating at the various degrees Kelvin as indicated (BTW – If you want to know more about the Kelvin color temperature scale – click HERE).
2700 degrees Kelvin
(this is close to Tungsten’s 3000K but slightly “warmer” because it is below the Tungsten color temperature and so you can see the orangish hue)
5000 degrees Kelvin
(this has moved beyond tungsten’s 3000K neutral color temperature and has taken on a cooler blue tint)
7200 degrees Kelvin
(This is almost double the Tungsten light’s color temperature of 3000K causing the blue hue to dominate the whites)
Since Tungsten’s color temperature is relatively low, if you want to create a bluer tone then setting your camera’s white balance to tungsten will give you more color temperature room to do so. As you can see from the images above, there was very little color temperature room below tungsten’s color temperature of 3000 degrees Kelvin, but plenty of room above it (from 3000K to 7500K) and so lots of lights that would result in a bluer tone to your image.
You can see that the exact same image, shot with the same camera settings except that the white balance is now set to daylight, which is closer to 6000 degrees Kelvin.
This results in a dramatically different photograph as the color temperature of the lighting changes. Since daylight is closer to 6000 degrees K, then shooting in light at a color temperature below that (below 6000K) gives the image a much warmer, or orange tone. The following images were taken using the Daylight camera white balance setting at the same degrees Kelvin as above (in the same order) but they produce dramatically different color grading.
2700 degrees Kelvin
(Here the image has taken on a very orange tone since 2700K is well below the neutral 6000K of the camera’s daylight white balance setting)
5000 degrees Kelvin
(As the light’s color temperature approaches the daylight white balance setting – 6000K – the light takes on a more neutral color tone)
7200 degrees Kelvin
(The image has moved slightly above the daylight’s light temperature of 6000K and so has a light blue tone starting to show through, but only slightly)
If you want to create a warmer image, then operating with a daylight setting (6000K) provides you with more room (2700K to 6000K) within which to use the color temperature of your light to introduce a warmer orange hue.
We see this as the day ends and the color temperature of the setting sun decreases to a lower color temperature introducing a more orange hue into our pictures when the camera’s white balance is set to daylight. If you were to switch the camera’s white balance to a tungsten setting, the warmer hues would appear more neutral or even slightly blue since the camera’s tungsten setting is expecting a neutral light at color temperature 3000K (setting sun actually drops to below 3000K).
By controlling the white balance camera settings, photographers can use the color temperature of the light they are dealing with in their scenes to establish a mood that can go from warm and romantic to cold and foreboding. Depending on the emotional content of the image that is being created, this allows the photographer to see the image “in-camera” and consider what adjustments, if any, might be needed in order to capture the right scene, in the way they intended.
Here is a short clip that takes the light temperature down from 7200 degrees Kelvin to 2700 degrees Kelvin, with the camera’s white balance set to Tungsten. See how the tones in the white bulldog shift as the color temperature decreases.
One final thought related to white balance, if you are creating a composite image and so shooting multiple shots that you intend to combine in post production, maintain the same white balance camera settings across the entire shoot and NEVER use auto-white balance. While you can, in theory, adjust the color grading of the images in post to align the different color shifts that happen when the camera’s white balance color settings are changed, actually getting the adjustments right is almost impossible. There is nothing more frustrating than having a beautiful composition that is destroyed by a series of mixed color temperatures across multiple images.
As you start to think more about the color grading of your images and the appropriate white balance settings to use, I encourage you to shoot with the same settings for the same lighting situations and avoid using too many different settings until you become familiar with the implications of the adjustments available to you. As you become accustomed to “seeing” the effects of your white balance settings on the scenes before you, then you can expand how you adjust the camera’s white balance settings to impact your final image in the way you intended and thereby convey the emotional content you are after.
Only My Two Cents,