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Color Temperature & Kelvin Scale

Color Temperature & Kelvin Scale

Kelvin Scale

    Color temperature is a characteristic of visible light that has important applications in photography, video, publishing and other fields. Color temperature is a concept that was first defined by William Thomson., Lord Kelvin (1824-1907). Thomson, an Irish-born physicist, wrote over 600 papers on the laws of motion and the dissipation of energy. 

    Lord Kelvin’s name today is most associated with the Kelvin scale, a measure of molecular activity and energy emission. The color emission temperatures are based on the apparent color of a black body (a theoretical radiator and absorber of energy at all electromagnetic wavelengths.) heated to various temperatures on the scale. A theoretical black body begins to radiate light as its temperature increases; it glows red at 1000 K, yellow at 3000 K, blue-white at 6000 K, and intense blue at 60,000 K.

 Color Temperature Kelvin Scale

    True black bodies exist only in theory, so to be practical, think of a piece of iron; as the iron is heated, it first begins to glow a dull red, then orange, then yellow, and finally a bluish-white. Each of these radiated colors is an accurate measure of the metal’s physical temperature – the activity of its molecules. These color temperatures also refer to different wave-lengths of light. 

    Because the Kelvin scale is based entirely on natural phenomena, it is regarded as an “absolute” scale, and temperatures on it are simply identified as “Kelvin” or “K”. The proper way to refer to the temperature of a quartz light is simply “3200 K” (for example).       

    In film and television production, there are a few benchmark color temperatures and standard methods for converting between them. The principal two are photographic daylight (usually thought of as 5600 K) and tungsten, or quartz incandescent (3200 K).  

    For video operations the relevant temperatures range from around 2,000K to 8,000K; these are common lighting conditions. In practical terms this usually means selecting lights, gels and filters which are most appropriate to the prevailing light or to create a particular color effect. For example, a camera operator will select a "5600K filter" to use outside in the middle of a sunny day.


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