Color Temperature and Food Photography

  • 01 of 07

    Color Temperature

    Lemons on a stand with manually adjusted white balance
    Manually adjusted white balance will give you the best results. Evi Abeler Photography

    Let's get a little technical: the color of light is referred to as color temperature and it is measured on the Kelvin scale. The scale starts at the warmest, almost burning red color (1000K) and goes up to a deep icy blue (10,000K). Around 5000K is a typical temperature for daylight. For example, cloudy skies measure at 6000K (cool blue), midday sun at 5000K (light blue), and a sunset or sunrise around 3000K (warm yellow).

    Our eyes adapt to the different temperatures and see them as more or less white light. However, a camera records its exact color. Most digital cameras have a decent auto white balance (AWB) setting. But if you can, set it manually according to the light available at the scene: daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, or flash are the options you can choose from in your settings. Even better, set your white balance manually, as I did in the above image. Using the custom setting gives you the option to photograph a white surface (under the present light conditions), such as a white wall or piece of plain paper, and then set your white balance based on that shot. Your camera's manual will explain the steps involved in detail. 

    As you can see the above image has perfect color and clean bright whites. Look at the whites in the cake stand and the black in the background. This was shot on a mildly overcast day and set the white balance manually to 5500K. Let's see what happens when I switch the white balance dial to flash. 

    Continue to 2 of 7 below.
  • 02 of 07

    White Balance Set to Flash

    Lemons on food stand with white balance set on flash
    Evi Abeler Photography

    Do you notice that this image came out a little warmer? When you look at the cake stand you can see that it has a slight yellow cast. This happened because I set the camera's white balance to flash, which is at about 5000K, so a bit cooler than the actual color temperature of the scene. 

    Continue to 3 of 7 below.
  • 03 of 07

    White Balance Set to Fluorescent

    Lemons on a stand with white balance set to fluorescent
    Evi Abeler Photography

    Here you can see the obvious magenta cast in the white cake stand. This shot was taken with the white balance set to fluorescent light. You have probably noticed that most fluorescent light tubes cast a bit of a green light. In this shot, the camera tried to balance the expected green light with its opposite magenta.

    Continue to 4 of 7 below.
  • 04 of 07

    White Balance Set to Tungsten

    Lemons on a stand with white balance set to tungsten
    Evi Abeler Photography

    This is what happens if the white balance of your camera is set to tungsten but you are shooting in daylight. Tungsten, also called incandescent, light bulbs produce a warm, yellow, sometimes even orange light. The camera tried to balance out the yellow and added blue to the picture.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    White Balance Set to Cloudy

    Lemons on a stand with white balance set to cloudy
    Evi Abeler Photography

    This is pretty good, don't you think? It's because the setting "cloudy" assumes that the color temperature is around K5500.

    Continue to 6 of 7 below.
  • 06 of 07

    White Balance Set to Sunny

    Lemons on a stand with white balance set to sunny
    Evi Abeler Photography

    Again, pretty close. The setting "sunny" expects a temperature around K5000.

    Continue to 7 of 7 below.
  • 07 of 07

    White Balance set to Auto

    Lemons on a stand with white balance set to auto
    Evi Abeler Photography

    Does this all sound very confusing and you are ready to set your camera back on auto? This works well most of the time, but keep an eye on how the whites come out. When you set your white balance to "auto", also called AWB, the camera tries to find the white areas in the frame and calculates the best possible white balance. Some very light, very dark or intensely colorful scenes might throw off your camera's computer. In the example here you can see how the whites have a slight yellow cast.