White Balance Concepts

Most of us think about daylight as the “proper time” for making photographic exposures with photo ops at night or later in the day are often overlooked. They shouldn’t be, but even all colors of daylight are not the same.

You’ve often heard me say “Light is light” but it’s not always the same color. The color temperature emitted by various light sources is measured in degrees on the Kelvin scale. The sun on a clear day at noon is 5500 degrees Kelvin. On an overcast day the color temperature rises to 6700 degrees K, while 9000 degrees K is what you will experience in open shade on a clear day. When we photograph that sunrise, its color temperature may be well down on the Kelvin scale—at about 1800 degrees. Tungsten lights have a temperature of 3200 degrees K, while incandescent light bulbs measure about 2600 degrees Kelvin.


I am constantly amazed at the misinformation I hear about the Kelvin scale. On the Internet, a power company states the “History of Kelvin temperature originally comes from the incandescent lamp.” Duh? Long before Edison and during the nineteenth century Lord Kelvin proposed a new temperature scale suitable for measuring low temperatures, suggesting that absolute zero temperature should be the basis for a new scale. His idea was to eliminate the use of negative values when using either Fahrenheit or Celsius scales. Thus the system is called the Kelvin scale and uses the unit “Kelvin” or sometime just “K.”

  • Color Temperatures of Common Light Sources
  • Skylight                                                12000˚to 18000˚K
  • Overcast Sky                                          7000˚K
  • Average Daylight                                  5500˚K
  • Electronic Flash                                    5500˚K
  • White-flame carbon arc                      5000˚K
  • 500-watt, 3400 K photo lamp            3400˚K
  • 500-watt, 3200 K tungsten lamp       3200˚K
  • 200-watt light bulb                               2980˚K
  • 100-watt light bulb                               2900˚K
  • 75-watt light bulb                                  2820˚K

 Photographing in museums, such as the San Diego Automobile Museum, can be a challenge because of the kind of mixed lighting conditions that exist. Exposure was 1/25 sec at f/3.5 at ISO 400. Understanding the concepts behind White Balance and the many options that are available to digital photographers make sure that this classic white Chevrolet truck is really whiter.

If you like cars, please visit my automobile photography website/blog for more information about how I like to photograph cars.

Author: Joe Farace

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