A Beginner’s Guide to Kelvin White Balance

Written By: Danette Chappell

Often when a photographer is ready to turn from hobbyist to pro, one of the first steps they take is upgrading their camera from a consumer level camera to a professional-grade camera. Notable features like full-frame sensors, greater customization and control, and top-notch specs are usually the driving force for photographers when deciding to upgrade. However, another great feature when trying out a more advanced camera is the option to use Kelvin with your White Balance settings.

What Is Kelvin White Balance?

If you’re not familiar with the Kelvin option within your White Balance settings, in its most straightforward definition, Kelvin is the scale by which we measure color temperature. Within the Kelvin Scale, color temperatures are measured with numbers (usually between 1500-7,000 in camera). When you see White Balance settings on your camera (like the settings for optimum white balance when shooting in various lighting situations like sunlight, cloudy weather, and indoor lighting), what you’re actually seeing are predetermined Auto White Balance settings (or presets) along the Kelvin scale chosen by the camera manufacturer to make your life easier.

The goal of adjusting your white balance is to achieve a neutral white balance within whatever lighting situation you find yourself shooting. When you use Auto White Balance (AWB), all your camera is doing, essentially, is adjusting your white balance along the Kelvin scale to achieve a neutral white balance in any lighting situation. When you switch over to the Kelvin option, you’re shifting from your camera choosing white balance for you, or choosing presets, to manually controlling your white balance just as you would manually control exposure, aperture, and shutter speed.

Why You Should Use Kelvin

As with any auto feature where your camera is evaluating a scene and trying to determine the best settings to use, AWB won’t always give you the right settings. By using the Kelvin White Balance feature, you have the ability to fine-tune your white balance for whatever situation you find yourself photographing. This can be especially good when photography in mixed lighting (daylight and tungsten, for example). 

Understanding Color Temperature

If only our camera sensors were as advanced as our brains; then we wouldn’t need White Balance in-camera. When we look at an object with our own eyes under various lighting, the color of the object doesn’t appear any different — because our brain will automatically remap colors according to whatever lighting situation we are in. This is called “Chromatic Adaptation.” However, if we photographed the same object using various lighting, we would see a vast difference in how the color of the object would appear. This is because our camera sensors can’t automatically remap color without having the White Balance setting adjusted. This is where the Kelvin scale comes into play, and why it is essential for photographers to understand White Balance and how it works.

Adjusting White Balance During Post-Production

The goal of any photographer should be to get your settings correct, or as close to correct, as possible in-camera. However, you still have the option of adjusting white balance after the fact, during post-production. Within the Lightroom Develop Module, the Kelvin scale is represented just beneath the Histogram, as the very first primary setting entitled, “Temp” (short for “Temperature”). To understand the Kelvin scale further, you can drag the Temp. Slider back and forth to see how it affects your photo’s color temperature. You’ll notice to the right of the Temp. slider is the Kelvin number, showing you precisely where you’re at along the Kelvin Scale. This is a great visual way to understanding how the Kelvin Scale works and how it affects your photos.

If you’re looking to improve your photography skills, or to further customize your settings for fine-tuned control of your photos, definitely give Kelvin White Balance a try. I always encourage photographers to dive head-first into manual settings and adjusting the Kelvin White Balance can help you to cut down the time you spend in front of a computer and help maximize the time you get to spend behind your camera.


About the author:

Danette is a Las Vegas-based wedding and elopement photographer who’s photographed over 1,500 weddings and elopements in 14 different states. She has a passion for teaching business and helping other creative entrepreneurs succeed. She is currently a Staff Writer for Fstoppers, and has articles published in various high-profile photography websites including PhotoFocus and Shoot & Share. She also loves cats, Harry Potter, and a well-made Old Fashioned.

See her website or find her on Instagram

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