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Once you go Kelvin you never go back (White Balance)

Like most photographers, I started using my DSLR on auto white balance (AWB). I didn’t understand white balance and assumed my ‘high end, fancy camera’ would take care of that setting for me. I was too busy learning the important things, like how to master manual. Plus I figured whatever needed to be fixed could be done in photoshop. Easy peasy, check that off my list and move on.
Except one day I realized I was a little frustrated with always having to correct my white balance, and, as it turns out, white balance plays a very important role in exposure. Often times, what I thought was an underexposed photo was really just a photo with off white balance. Which certainly explained why when I upped my exposure, the photo still looked ‘off’.
I started paying more attention, and hearing a lot of talk about Kelvin. I thought ‘who is he and what can he do for my white balance?’.

Yeah, turns out, he can do a lot. Kelvin white balance rocks my world.

 

Kelvin is a setting in your camera that measures color temperature (i.e. how cool-green/blue- or warm-yellow/red- a scene is).
It’s easier to set on Nikon than Canon, but I usually set mine at the beginning of my shoot and don’t change it again anyways so the extra step doesn’t bother me. Look in your menu settings and when you see the K symbol, set your Kelvin temperature. You will see numbers and a color chart.

 

My starting point for K is usually 5500K, if I am shooting outdoors on a sunny day.
Because I shoot RAW (and I think you should too!), I know that if I need to adjust my WB in photoshop, it will be easier. Wait a minute, didn’t I just say one of the reasons I switched to Kelvin was so that I would spend less time editing WB in photoshop? Yep.
But here is the key: When I shoot in Kelvin, I gain consistency. If I set my K to 5500K, and I see during editing that I need to bump it up, as long as I shot in the same light, I can change my WB and it will have a consistent look on each photo. Consistency is important, and I depend on it. When I was using AWB, my camera made the decision on each photo what the WB should be and I had no say. One picture might be cool, and the next warm if I moved or changed settings. And that made editing a nightmare because I could not achieve the same look on any 2 photos from the very same shoot.

 

Let that sink in for a second.

 

Using Kelvin, you have the ability to control the foundation of your entire shoot.

 

I know that some photographers swear by CWB, or cloudy, or whatever. And some use a gray card, which is a wonderful tool. But Kelvin gives me consistency and when I started using it, my editing time was drastically decreased and my SOOC images were noticeably better. Sold.

 

So how do I decide what to set my Kelvin temperature to? There’s a lot of technical reasoning behind how and why Kelvin works, but the simple answer is: it depends on your lighting source.

I created a little ‘cheat sheet’ to help you match up the best pairing between lighting source and Kelvin temperature.

ktwbchart copy

This is the guide I use, and what I find to be most helpful for me. But, I do tweak it occasionally and you should feel free to play around with the different settings to find ones that really work for you too.

And just to show you what a difference Kelvin (and shooting in RAW) makes, here are 2 examples.
It is important to note, both of these pictures were taken in the very SAME spot (my backyard) at about the same time of day. Yes, the camera and lens are different…but look at the differences in the SOOC.

 

First, you have a picture I took last year. Gosh, I was super proud of this one. (do any of y’all look back on your old work and cringe?).

This is the SOOC shot
It was taken on my Nikon D90 with my 85 1.8.  Settings:  f/1.8, SS 800, ISO 200 AWB right before sunset
I did NOT shoot RAW. (big mistake!)
soocwb

And this was my original edit:
originaleditwb

Y’all! Why didn’t anyone ever tell me how bad this was? I am pretty sure I tooted my own horn on this picture…wow.

Anyways, so look, something just seems off with this photo. Her skin is really cool, even after my edit. Because I didn’t shoot in RAW, there was very little I could do to improve this photo in editing.

But, here is a quick play I did today, adding a warm up action (Normally I use actions as little as possible, but without being able to edit in ACR, I needed to use a warming action)

warmthwb

 

My WB is still off. And, I can’t really fix it without a whole lotta’ tweaking.

 

….

 

Here is a picture I took using Kelvin shot in RAW.

SOOC: Taken with my Canon 5D mark ii using my 135L right before sunset. Settings: f/2.0, SS 250, ISO 400 Kelvin was set at 5500K
soocwbraw

I am really digging the warmth SOOC. My skin tones seem pretty spot on (my son naturally has red cheeks with freckles), and he had been eating a blue lollipop hence the darker lips.

Here is my edit, which was literally just a few minutes playing with levels, gradient map and exposure. I did change my WB to 6450 in Lightroom. No warming actions needed.
finaleditraw

I hope this encourages you to go out and try Kelvin (and also shooting RAW!). Having this much control over your photos really is freeing, and super easy.

Like what you read? Share it, spread the word. It would mean so much!

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NewtonSeptember 4, 2013 - 8:17 pm

I usually use auto white balance for general photography as I always shoot RAW. However you need to keep an eye on it if you shoot jpg. When opening a RAW file in Photoshop the very first parameter is Temperature (which is Degrees Kelvin). Daylight is usually considered about 5500 etc. When I had a Sigma SD14 with the Foveon sensor (with triple layers of receptors) I thought it was just that the senor produced warm/ yellowy colours when all it was was the white balance. Took a while to realise this.

Free AkinsSeptember 3, 2013 - 10:19 am

I just discovered this Friday 8/30/13 and talk about finding the missing piece to a puzzle. I have several DSLR and NIKON magazines that “help you learn your camera”. Why then is Kelvin WB never talked about???? I was talking pictures all weekend feeling like a pro because the color I saw was the color returned in the view finder and then even better when I downloaded them. The time I spend in lightroom adjusting color and exposure has almost been eliminated. Actually I can use these tools to enhance the photo not make it look right….yeah!

AnaAugust 3, 2013 - 8:27 am

What made you switch to Canon?

christinebJune 27, 2012 - 9:07 am

This was a lightbulb moment for me. For the longest time I had no idea my problem was actually white balance and not exposure (usually). I just recently switched to RAW and Kelvin. Getting a expo disk soon to custom WB. Thanks for this tute and the visuals.

[...] if you want to learn a little bit more about white balance and The Kelvin form of measuring it, Girl Hearts Camera just did a blog post on it. They even have a downloadable Kelvin chart…for [...]

RebeccaMarch 28, 2012 - 4:50 pm

Major lightbulb moment here…yay! Thank you:)

Michele QMarch 11, 2012 - 7:57 am

I’m definitely going to look into this. I’ve just stayed on AWB but after reading this I might give it a try. I have been shooting in RAW for a awhile so I feel like i can usually fix WB but you are right sometimes something is just off and it takes too long to fix it. Thanks for this post! I’ve printed it for easy access!

adminMarch 1, 2012 - 5:58 pm

of course kate, pin away! glad you love it :)

Kate JMarch 1, 2012 - 5:18 pm

This is great! May I pin it? I feel compelled to ask with all the new legal drama running amuck with pinterest!!

Jenny CrugerMarch 1, 2012 - 4:29 pm

I also use Kelvin and won’t use anything else now! I used to set a custom WB, but that wasn’t nearly as accurate as Kelvin for me. This is just so much easier and so much more consistent. I generally start around 6000K.

adminMarch 1, 2012 - 4:14 pm

I’ve never played around with Custom. I went from AWB to Kelvin. I like being able to set it at the beginning of the shoot and not think about it again. I have heard CWB is a good way to go too.

CarolineMarch 1, 2012 - 4:10 pm

Learn something new every day! I have never experimented with setting my WB by Kelvins. However, I wholeheartedly agree that AWB is NOT the way to go! I use an Expodisc, and my post has decreased tenfold since I started setting my custom WB. Just out of curiosity, what made you choose to use Kelvins as opposed to custom?

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