A Beginner’s Guide to Color Temperature in Film

Every film has a light source ... and every light source has a color temperature. Here's an intro to this essential principle of cinematography.
The Royal Tenenbaums color temperature

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay that explores color temperature and how it relates to cinematography.

The more technical sides of filmmaking have a habit of overlapping with other disciplines. Practical effects technicians have a great deal in common with chemists and engineers. The ins and outs of editing (when to cut, how to leverage two images to imply meaning) can feel an awful lot like psychology. And we’re pretty sure most cinematographers deserve honorary optical physics degrees. Case in point: color temperature.

In laymen’s terms, color temperature is a way of describing the warmth or coolness of a light source. The spectrum is measured in degrees of Kelvin, with an orange hue representing the colder side of the spectrum, which gradually warms up to white and eventually blue.

We tend to associate red/orange with warmth and blue with cold. But maybe this will help: imagine a piece of metal being gradually heated. It will initially emit a red light, graduating steadily to yellow, and then from white to blue. Blue flames are the hottest, as far as Kelvin is concerned.

Color temperature has important implications for lighting a film set, and along with post-production decisions like grading and correction, it can accomplish a variety of different effects. A warmer color temperature can imply a time of day, a mood, or a palpable sweatiness. A colder color temperature (like 6500K) can imitate the apparent blue tone of daylight. Meanwhile, something slightly colder (~5000K) produces a bright, clear light that works well for hospitals and sports stadiums.

The following video essay goes into more depth about both the technical and aesthetic ins-and-out of color temperature. If you’re a beginner, it’s a marvelous primer into one of the essentials of cinematography.

Watch “Color Temperature Explained — The Cinematographer’s Guide to White Balance & Color Temp Fundamentals”:

Who made this?

This video essay on color temperature was created by StudioBinder, a production management software creator that also happens to produce wildly informative video essays. They tend to focus on the mechanics of filmmaking itself, from staging to pitches and directorial techniques. You can check out their YouTube account here.

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