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Color temperature

Color temperature is a characteristic of visible light that has important applications in lighting, photography, videography, publishing, manufacturing, astrophysics, horticulture, and other fields. The color temperature of a light source is the temperature of an ideal black body radiator that radiates light of comparable hue to that of the light source. In practice, color temperature is only meaningful for light sources that do in fact correspond somewhat closely to the radiation of some black body, i.e. those on a line from reddish/orange via yellow and more or less white to blueish white; it does not make sense to speak of the color temperature of e.g. a green or a purple light. Color temperature is conventionally stated in the unit of absolute temperature, thekelvin, having the unit symbol K. Color temperatures over 5,000K are called cool colors (blueish white), while lower color temperatures (2,7003,000 K) are called warm colors (yellowish white through red). This relation, however, is a psychological one in contrast to the physical relation implied by Wien's displacement law, according to which the spectral peak is shifted towards shorter wavelengths (resulting in a more blueish white) for higher temperatures. Colour temperature refers to the colour appearance of the light that comes from a light source. It's an important performance characteristic to asses when evaluating lamps because a lamps colour temperature creates the mood of the space you are lighting and can thus influence buying behavior or work performance. Also referred to as 'Correlated Color Temperature (CCT), the apparent color of a light source is measured in Kelvin or "k". In describing colour temperatures, a low colour temperature corresponds to "warm" or a red-yellow appearance like incandescent lamps at 2700 kelvin. Fluorescent lamps operating at 3500 kelvin give off a "neutral" white light. "Cool" light comes from sources like cool white fluorescent lamps operating at 4100 kelvin. In colour temperature, the higher the kelvin temperature, the whiter and then the bluer the light. Color temperature is measured in 'kelvins' formerly known as 'degrees kelvin'. To get the idea, think of a piece of metal being heated in a fire. First it gives off a reddish glow and, as it gets hotter, the color gets whiter and then, as it really warms up, it starts to give off a bluish glow. In Physics of course, we can't use any old bit of metal for the kelvin scale, we need a 'theoretical black object'. The photographer's color temperature chart is a loose interpretation of the kelvin scale, the numbers are not used in any precise manner. As photographers all we need to know is that different types of light source emit different colors. 5000 kelvins is what we photographers call white light and is represented by 'average daylight', whatever that is, actually it's fairly obvious if you look at the chart below. We also need to know that household bulbs give off an orange light and a cloudy day will appear blue. Here's a color temperature chart covering typical light sources. In the last column I have put my recommended camera setting for each type of light. As you can see, one setting can cover several steps on the scale.

When we look at objects with our eyes, we perceive white objects as white, and gray objects as gray, no matter what sort of light source we are viewing them by. This is because our brain is making the conversion for us. We 'know' that wall is white so we don't notice that it looks yellow at night (with the room lights on). If you really start to look you can see these color differences to some extent, but they are not as noticeable as they are to the camera. Modern cameras have 'automatic white balance' so why can't we just leave it all to that? The AWB does do quite a good job but it isn't 100% accurate all the time. So sometimes we need to be able to do a few corrections ourselves. So what effect does any of this have on us? The human eye and brain adjust and compensate very well, so many light sources look "white" to us. Under some lighting extremes however, flower colors may look a little "off". Unfortunately, camera film and digital sensors do not adjust well, at all. That is why an image captured under fluorescent lighting may look "cold and blue", while those under incandescent light may take on a yellowish hue. Similarly, plants do not have the capability of making such an adjustment, so it is important that we provide them with the proper spectrum of light - especially when employing artificial light sources. We know that the chlorophyll in plants need light that is primarily in two color ranges - the 400-450 nm (nanometer - one billionth of a meter) "blue" end of the visible spectrum, and a slightly lower intensity in the 640-680 nm "red" end. In summer sunlight on a clear day, when the incoming light is a combination of direct rays plus atmospheric reflections, the spectrum most closely matches the absorption spectrum of chlorophyll. With both natural and artificial light sources, the "balance" between those ranges varies greatly. Click on a light source below to see an approximation of the spectrum.


Typical Sources

WB Setting


Candles, oil lamps


Very early sunrise, low effect tungsten lamps


Household light bulbs


Studio lights (continuous), photo floods


Clear flashbulbs (now obsolete)


Typical average daylight, electronic flash


The sun at noon


Bright sunshine with clear sky


Slightly overcast sky


Hazy sky


Open shade on clear day


Heavily overcast sky


Sunless blue skies


Open shade in mountains on a really clear day