Best color temperature for portrait photography

In portrait photography color temperature plays a big part in setting the mood of an image. The best color temperature for portrait photography depends on the light source, the mood of the image and how you use your camera’s white balance settings to compensate for or add to the color temperature of a scene.

Now let’s backtrack a bit to make some sense of what sounds like a really complicated aspect of photography. Because it really isn’t and your camera has a very clever setting that makes it all a lot easier.

Understanding color temperature

The human eye is far more advanced than digital cameras. Most of the time we’re not aware of small changes in the color of light, because our eyes adapt so quickly.

However, our cameras need our help to record the correct color temperature of the light and avoid a weird color cast on images.

Outdoor portrait in natural light with warm color temperature

This photo was taken late in the day in open shade. Can you see that the color temperature of the indirect light on her face is different from the golden late afternoon sun catching her hair?

What is color temperature?

Color temperature in photography refers to the color of the light emitted by the light source, or sources, in a scene.

Different light sources, emit light with different wavelength and intensities, which affects the color temperature of light. This applies to both natural light and artificial light.

I recently had to replace the LED bulbs in my kitchen lights and was amazed at the range of bulbs available. I couldn’t just pick up a bulb based on brightness, I had to first decide if I wanted a warm light or a cool light in my kitchen. This is color temperature in every day life. So anyone who has ever replaced kitchen light bulbs has made a color temperature decision.

How to measure color temperature

Color temperature is measured in Kelvin (K) and the Kelvin scale goes from 1000K (warm) to 10000K (cool).

I know. It’s confusing that Kelvin is the opposite of measuring temperature, especially as we refer to the color of light as being warm or cool.

So just remember Kelvin goes in the opposite direction:

  • Higher numbers = lower temperatures
  • Lower numbers = higher temperatures

But it’s not just light bulbs that have a color temperature. Every type of light has a color temperature and a Kelvin number on the Kelvin scale.

Kelvin color temperature chart for setting white balance

Different color temperatures of artificial light

Incandescent bulbs – warm, yellow light with a color temperature of around 3000 – 4000K.

Fluorescent bulbs – cooler, bluish light with a cooler temperature of around 4000 – 5000K.

Flash units – neutral light with a cool white temperature of around 5000 – 5500K.

Different color temperatures of natural light

As you know, the color of natural light changes throughout the day as the sun moves through the sky.

In the golden hour at sunrise and sunset we see orange and yellow light, which is a warmer color temperature of around 2500 – 3000K.

At midday the color of light is a cooler bluish white light of around 5000 – 5500K.

During the blue hour we experience a blue light which is around 4000K.

Even weather affects the color temperature of light. For example:

  • On sunny days the light is warmer at around 5000 – 6000K
  • On a cloudy day the light temperature is about 6000 – 8000K or even 9000 – 10000K for a heavily overcast sky

Plus, natural light outdoors in direct sunlight is a different color from natural light in open shade and natural light indoors. etc etc etc.

Luckily we don’t have to remember this as we have an easy solution, which I’ll get to in a moment.

How color temperature affects the mood of a photo

The best way to explain the importance of color temperature in photography and how it impacts mood is to ask you a few questions:

  • Imagine a cold, wintery day. What colors come to mind?
  • Now imagine yourself lying a baking hot beach. What colors did you see?
  • You’re in a lovely wooden cabin on a snowy mountainside and there’s a roaring fire. What color light bulb would make it feel even cosier?

To create a cold feeling, not just temperature, but in terms of emotions you’d choose cool colors, like blues and deep greens. On the other hand to create a warm, happy, cosy feeling in photos, you’d want warm colors, like yellow and orange.

That said, cool colors also create a more tranquil or serene mood and a warmer color temperature can create a more energetic or vibrant mood.

The color temperature of the light, like the colors in the scene, must match the mood you want to create.

Camera settings for accurate color temperature

I mentioned that your camera can help you to achieve accurate color temperature in portrait photography for different lighting situations. It’s the white balance setting.

You have three options for setting the correct color temperature for portrait photography and they are:

  1. Auto white balance
  2. White balance settings
  3. Kelvin settings

1. Automatic white balance – don’t use it

I strongly advise you not to use the auto white balance camera setting. It seems really convenient, but every time you take a photo the camera will assess the scene for the proper white balance and set it accordingly.

However, as you move around, or your subject moves, or the light changes the white balance will change from one shot to the next.

When you load your images onto the computer you’ll soon see that the color temperature won’t be constant throughout the shoot. So you’ll have to color correct images individually, instead of correcting one image and then syncing the white balance across all images from that scene.

In the end, it’s not at all convenient.

Examples of using the wrong white balance in camera settings

I used the wrong white balance for both of these sunrise portraits. I had my camera set to daylight, but for the first one I should have set a custom white balance for the warm sunrise light. For the image on the right I should have used the cloudy white balance camera setting when the clouds blocked the sunlight. Further down you’ll see how I fixed the white balance in both photos.

2. How to use your camera’s white balance presets

Using the white balance settings on your camera is one of the simplest and most effective ways to adjust color temperature. By adjusting white balance you can achieve more accurate colors that reflect the true color temperature of the scene.

Every camera brand is different, but you’ll have a white balance button or menu setting to change the white balance on your camera.

On my Nikon, I just hold down the wb button and then turn a dial to toggle through the different white balance settings. They are:

  • Shade
  • Cloudy
  • Flash
  • Sunshine
  • Fluorescent lighting
  • Incandescent lighting

3. Use Kelvin for a custom white balance setting

The Kelvin setting on your camera is also accessible using the white balance button. It’s the K icon.

If you have a light meter that measures the color temperature of a scene you can easily measure and then dial in the correct Kelvin setting for different temperatures.

Alternatively, use a gray card to create a custom white balance preset in camera. Setting a custom white balance preset is great if you regularly shoot in the same space with the same lighting.

Find out more on how to change white balance settings and set a custom white balance preset here.

Deciding on the best color temperature for portrait photography

The best color temperature for portrait photography falls within the 5000k to 5500K range, which is the Kelvin setting of daylight, or white light. 5500K is also the Kelvin number for flash white balance. This Kelvin range produces a neutral color temperature, so is ideal for portraits.

In addition to setting the mood, color temperature also affects the way skin tones appear in portraits:

  • Warm colors make skin tones appear more golden
  • Cooler light temperatures make skin tones appear pale

Skin tone and color temperature in portrait photography

In portrait photography your white balance should be set to the color temperature of the light on your subject for a proper white balance.

Because different light sources produce different color temperatures, lighting for portrait photography has a significant impact on color temperature. For example, tungsten light produces a very warm color termperature, while fluorescent lights produce a cool color temperature and flash is similar to daylight.

In portrait photography, it’s important to balance the light source with the ambient light. For example, the color temperature of tungsten bulbs (used in household lights) is a lot warmer than flash or natural light.

Portrait with CTO gel on flash to balance with warm sunrise color temperature

For this image I used the rising sun as a hair light and put a CTO gel on my flash to light my subject with light as warm as the sunlight. Without it the light on her face wouldn’t match the ambient light, so it would look obviously lit and odd.

How to work with light sources of different color temperatures

If you’re photographing indoors using flash and with tungsten lights on in the room you have to set your white balance to one of these two color temperatures. Always choose the color of the light source lighting your subject to set white balance.

So in this example that would be the flash white balance setting. This, however, would make the room light appear orange in the image. It could even create an orange color cast over the entire scene.

You may want that in your image, but if not, you need to address the issue at source, rather than trying to fix it in post. Even color correction software can’t make two different light temperatures the same color in one image.

So, to record just one light temperature, fit the flash with a corrective gel to balance the color temperature of a light source. In other words, make them both the same.

Corrective gels are colored pieces of cellophane fitted over the flash to match the color temperature of the other lighting.

  • To cool down the color temperature of a warm light source, use a blue gel (known as a CTB gel, which stands for Color Temperature Blue)
  • To warm up the color temperature of a cool light source add an orange gel to your flash (known as a CTO gel, which stands for Color Temperature Orange)

So, in this example, to make both the flash and tungsten light in the image appear white, rather than yellow or orange, you’d:

  • Use a CTO gel to warm up your flash light to the level of the tungsten light
  • Set your white balance to tungsten to counteract the warm color temperature

Alternatively, and if possible, you could turn off the tungsten lighting.

Creative use of color temperature settings

However, photography is an art and there’s no reason why you can’t get creative with white balance. In which case, the best white balance might not be the accurate one.

When I use gels with flash I often set a Kelvin temperature of 4000K for beautiful skin tones with teal and pink gelled lighting.

Street portrait photo with daylight color temperature

Set your white balance for the color temperature of the light on your subject. In this case it was open shade.

Common mistakes to avoid when setting color temperature

Because of the impact of color temperature in photos, white balance is one of the most important camera settings, after shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

Relying on auto white balance

As I mentioned, with auto white balance the potential for inaccurate color temperature is high, so rather avoid it.

Ignoring the ambient light

Even with correct color temperature settings, when using artificial lighting, the ambient light can significantly affect the overall color balance of a photo. Be aware of all light sources in the scene.

Forgetting to set white balance

I know this seems really obvious, but we’ve all done it. Luckily, with digital photography, color temperature mistakes can be fixed in post production.

Before and after color correction in post of sunrise portraits

For both of these photos the image on the left is with the incorrect white balance straight out of camera. The middle image is with the white balance changed in Lightroom using the eye dropper tool on her bikini top as a reference point for setting white balance. For the last set of photos I tweaked the automatic color correction to suit my preference for skin tones at sunrise.

Color correcting color temperature in post production

Color temperature isn’t just a camera setting, you can adjust white balance in post production.

Post processing software, such as Lightroom and Photoshop offer tools for adjusting color temperature. This is another reason to photograph with a RAW file format rather than shooting JPEG, because you can manipulate RAW files more than JPEG files.

In Lightroom Classic it’s very quick and easy to fix a color cast caused by an incorrect white balance for the lighting conditions.

In the Develop module:

  • Click on the eye dropper tool in the white balance panel to select it
  • Move your cursor to a part of the image that is supposed to be white, like a white surface or white object
  • Click on it and the color temperature of the image will change
  • If it’s not exactly right, try another part of the image, but don’t click on an overexposed part. You can also click on a medium gray area.

Alternatively, you could simply adjust the white balance slider until you feel you have the best color temperature for the portrait.

If the image feels too green or too magenta, adjust the tint slider, just below the white balance slider.

Color temperature wrap up

Key points covered:

  • Factors to consider when setting color temperature for portrait photography include skin tone, desired mood of the image, type of light source used and the environment in which the phot is taken.
  • On the Kelvin scale low numbers are warm and high numbers are cool.
  • The best color temperature for portrait photography doesn’t always have to be the accurate color temperature – get creative!
  • Photograph in RAW format rather than JPEG.
  • Use corrective gels when photographing with light sources of different colors.

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If you have any questions about choosing the best color temperature for portrait photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my photography tips have helped you to understand how to use color temperature in portraits, share that too.

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