Color Temperatures, White Balance and Utilizing Sunlight When Shooting

Color Temperature in a Nutshell

All light has a color temperature. Color temperature affects what color that light will look like on video. Sunlight, fluorescent lights, and light from incandescent bulbs (a.k.a. tungsten), all appear as different colors on camera, because they all have different color temperatures.

White Balance

Your camera’s white balance function compensates for the variations in color temperature by making the dominant colored light appear as normal white light regardless of its true color. When a camera has not been properly white balanced, sunlit scenes look hideously blue or indoor scenes look horribly orange. Most cameras have built-in preset functions for daylight and indoor white balance and fairly reliable auto-white balance (AWB) functions. Use these presets or auto if you like the look, but if you want to shoot like the pros, there’s only one way to go baby . . . manual.

When to White Balance

You should always white balance anytime the lighting condition changes, such as the sun is lower in the sky or you turned on some overhead florescent lights. If you even think the lighting conditions may have changed, you should re-white-balance just to be sure. Remember to white balance before adding gels to your lights or your white balance will not be correct. You should use pure white cards or standard bright white paper for normal white balancing. (A crisp white T-shirt will also do in a pinch.) Avoid using off-white and cream-colored paper to white balance.

White Balance Special Effects

White-balancing on colored cards will produce different looks. The cooler the color you white-balance to, the warmer the look and vice versa. Using a very pale blue or pale green card, known as a warm card, is a common technique to warm up an image. Unless you’re sure you like the look, it’s better to do color effects in editing, because you’re pretty much stuck with that look once you white balance and it’s nearly impossible to restore a normal white balance after the fact.

Mixed Sun and Indoor Lighting

When shooting in mixed lighting sources you can white-balance normally to split the difference or you can gel either light source to match the other. Color temperature orange (CTO) gels are used to make daylight appear as indoor (tungsten) light. Color temperature blue (CTB) gels are used to make indoor light appear the same color temperature as daylight.

Hot Tip: Working with the Sun

Clear and Sunny

Light Quality:

hard and bright


  • beware of dark “racoon eyes” from subjects lit overhead midday
  • use soft white reflectors in bright sun
  • shoot early or late in the day when the sun is lower in the sky
  • shoot in a shaded area
  • use an ND filter

Partly Cloudy

Light Quality:

inconsistent alternating hard and soft


  • try to time shorter shots with movement of the clouds so you have consistent lighting
  • try using auto-exposure if light keeps changing
  • shoot early or late in the day when the sun is lower in the sky
  • shoot in the shade for more consistent and less harsh lighting conditions


Light Quality:

soft, even and consistent


  • great conditions for shooting
  • looks better on-camera than in real-life
  • use soft silver or white reflectors
  • try hard silver reflectors if very overcast

Clear Sky Moonlight

Light Quality:

hard, cool, pale blue


  • shoot with a fast lens (f 2.8 or lower)
  • use a little bit of gain to boost exposure
  • try lowering your shutter speed a little
  • large sensor cameras are preferable

Sun as Hairlight

I think this is arguably the easiest and most attractive way to utilize sunlight. The sun forming a glowing rim of light through people’s hair always looks nice. When appropriate, add in a reflector or artificial light as a key light and you’ll have a well-exposed subject that stands out from the background.

No Reflector: Hair, fields of wheat, foliage, water or almost anything else that lets some light pass thru looks good backlit.

With Soft Silver Reflector Fill: A reflector will help fill in the shadows in a subject’s face and eyes.

With Soft Gold Reflector Fill: A gold reflector warms up the skin tone and mimics the look of golden hour sunlight.

Sun as (Frontal) Key Light

You can also use the sun as your key light. This generally looks best during golden hour when the sun is lower in the sky in the early morning and late evening hours or on overcast days when shadows are less harsh and daylight is diffused and even.

Midday Full Sun (no Reflector): The sun is a great keylight all by itself a lot of the time, but you have to look out for “raccoon eyes”

Midday Full Sun with Reflector: Here I used a reflector to fill in the dark shadows of my subjects eyes.

Sun as Side Key (no Reflector): You can also use the sun as a key on one side coming from the left or right.

Sun as Side Key with Reflector: The sun as side key will usually look best with a reflector or other fill light on the dark side of the face.

To get a good silhouette, your background must be bright and the light on the camera-side of your subject must be considerably darker than the background. Exposing for the bright background will usually render unlit subjects as well-defined black silhouettes. The sunlit sky makes this easy outdoors, but indoors it’s trickier to find a background bright enough to actually create a good silhouette.

Supplementing Sunlight with Artificial Lighting

Artificial lights can be used to supplement any exterior scene, but an overcast sky is the easiest daylight scenario to work with because you don’t have issues of harsh shadows, high contrast, raccoon eyes or the inconsistent lighting conditions that come with shooting on a partly cloudy day . . . Instead the cloud cover acts like a giant piece of diffusion giving you soft even consistent light.

No Reflector: Using the sun as a hairlight helps avoid “raccoon eyes” and separates the subject from the background.

With Artificial Light and CTB Gel: If you add an artificial light and gel it with a CTB (color temperature blue) gel it will match the sunlight.

With Tungsten Light and No Gel: If you use a standard tungsten light without a daylight-balancing CTB gel, it will give you a warmer look that contrasts the rest of the scene.

Excerpt from The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide: A Down & Dirty DV Production by Anthony Q. Artis, © 2014. Taylor & Francis Goup, LLC. All rights reserved.

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