Why Color Temperature Is Important in Filmmaking and Editing

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Photo Source: “Blade Runner 2049” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

The distinct vibrant palettes across Wes Anderson’s oeuvre, from “The Royal Tenenbaums” to “Moonrise Kingdom.” The sinister reds used in “Mandy.” The icy blues in “The Dark Knight.” The pink-purple spectrum in “Blade Runner 2049.” And the orange glow of “Mad Max: Fury Road.” These films all reveal that color is an integral part of movie magic. Filmmakers and editors refine color and its temperature to convey the mood, tone, and emotion of a story and its characters. 


What is color temperature?

Scene from 'Mad Max Fury Road'“Mad Max Fury Road” Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Color temperature is the scientific measurement of a light source’s level of color when heated, covering a range from warmer orange to cool blue tones. It describes the coolness or warmth of a color being emitted by a light source.

How to measure color temperature

Color temperature chartElena Pimukova/Shutterstock

Applying Planck’s law to the Kelvin temperature scale creates the color temperature chart used to measure color temperature. 

Planck’s law

Planck’s law shows how light color in the form of electromagnetic radiation changes in a “blackbody” (a physical object that absorbs all colors of light that fall on it) when the temperature changes. Different heat levels mean different hues. 

Kelvin scale

Color heat level is measured using the Kelvin temperature scale, which includes a wide spectrum of colors (deep red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet) and temperatures (1,000 to 10,000 Kelvin degrees, or “K”). When the source temperature changes, so too does the color. 

The blackbody turns red, orange, or yellow at 5,000 K or below. If it reaches temperatures above 5,500 K, it will turn white, blue, or violet. This means that while we usually view red, orange, and yellow as warm colors and blue and white as cold ones, it’s actually the opposite. Think of it as the high-temperature white-blue flames on a stove or sparks on a welding job, as opposed to a lower temperature orange-red candle flame.

Some common light sources and their color temperatures on the Kelvin scale are:

  • Lit match: 1,700 K
  • Candlelight: 1,900 K
  • Golden hour: 3,000 K
  • Indoor tungsten (artificial light, household and studio lamps, photoflood lamps): 3,200 K (considered the most commonly used light sources in films and videos)
  • White fluorescent: 4,200 K
  • Daylight: 5,600 K (natural light, the second most common)
  • Overcast: 6,500 K
  • Heavily overcast: 9,000 K
  • Skylight: 10,000K

The scale is used in cinematography to “determine how the imaging sensor of a camera perceives different colors of light,” director and cinematographer Jason J. Tomaric (“Cl.One,” “One,” “The Uninvited”) told FilmSkills. “We also use it to identify the color of a light source and how we then mix and match those different colors to achieve the desired look onscreen.”

Why color temperature is important in filmmaking

Scene from 'The French Dispatch'“The French Dispatch” Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Color temperature isn’t just used to create aesthetically appealing visuals. It also creates a foundation for film prep and white balancing, sets mood and tone, enhances emotion, and helps immerse the audience into the filmic world.

Film prep

In preproduction, cinematographers consider color temperature while preparing and designing the film’s look with directors. The desired color temperature dictates how shots are set up, lit, and eventually edited. When cinematographers know what they want the final product to look like, they can color-correct in real time while shooting footage, instead of pushing it fully to postproduction

Once the color temperature and best light sources are established, the next step is setting an accurate white balance. 

White balancing

White balance ensures that color temperatures within a shot are properly balanced and recorded, so that everything in frame appears natural—how we see colors in-person. The human eye often auto-adjusts when it sees the color white under varying light conditions. However, cameras lack this ability, and will often capture white as yellow, orange, or even blue. 

This means that the camera must be modified to fit our view of the world. A set white value is a comparison point for what looks warmer or cooler. The most commonly used white balance (3,200 K) makes tungsten lights “appear neutral and normal” and daylight sources “appear cool and blue,” explained David Mace-Kaff (“Girls’ Night Out,” “The Lost One”) in a video for Creative Path Films. Alternatively, changing the white balance to 5,000 K makes “any daylight sources appear normal” and tungsten sources “appear warm and orange.”

RELATED: High-Key Lighting vs. Low-Key Lighting in Film 

The goal with white balancing is to eliminate harsh color casts from a light source by adjusting the Kelvin temperature in-camera. This adjustment should accurately match the shoot setting, or should lean toward a color spectrum extreme to reflect the mood of a scene or entire project at hand—for instance, the very intentional yellow glow of the Coen brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” 

Color temperature and white balancing also help blend different light sources in a shot. For example, a shot depicting sunlight shining through a window into an artificially lit room requires light source blending. “Once you get the hang of how different white balances interact with different light sources,” said Mace-Kaff, “it unlocks a whole world of creative potential and you can really start to build a mood and style.” 

Mood and tone

Color temperature can “be used very, very subtly or it can be highly stylized—it depends on your taste and the genre of your film,” Mace-Kaff said. “Something that I think is the most potent aspect of cinematography is thinking about how light and imagery tell stories.... It’s color itself,” said cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (“Nocturnal Animals,” “The Greatest Showman”) in a master class. “I think sometimes that slips in unconsciously to you as you watch an image. And not just color but color contrast—the juxtaposition of colors.” For example, masters of color palettes such as Wes Anderson and Stanley Kubrick often juxtapose bright colors with desaturated tones for dramatic effect.

Many comedies, such as “Mean Girls,” “School of Rock,” and “Step Brothers,” use lower Kelvin temperatures to give them a warm, inviting, comfortable look. It would be jarring if they shared the icy tone of “The Ring,” desaturated grays of “Oblivion,” or sickly green in “The Matrix.” Horror, sci-fi, dystopian, and thriller movies strive to make audiences feel tense and unsettled, so they often use higher Kelvin temperatures. Grounded dramas and period pieces usually use desaturated color temperatures to create a sense of time distance. 


Color conveys emotion in a way that even the best acting cannot. It reflects the mood of a film and its characters, engendering certain emotions in the audience. 

According to No Film School, each color conjures up certain emotions in specific contexts: 

  • Red (Anger, Passion, Love, Excitement, Aggression, Violence, Heat)
  • Pink (Love, Innocence, Happiness, Romance, Femininity, Delicacy, Playfulness)
  • Yellow (Wisdom, Joy, Hope, Imagination, Cowardice, Betrayal, Insecurity, Jealousy, Deceit)
  • Orange (Humor, Energy, Warmth, Enthusiasm, Flamboyant)
  • Green (Nature, Healing, Soothing, Perseverance, Renewal, Envy, Destruction)
  • Blue (Tranquility, Calm, Cleanliness, Cold, Technology, Depression)
  • Purple/Violet (Eroticism, Nobility, Mystery, Cruelty, Power)
  • Brown (Earth, Outdoors, Comfort, Simplicity)
  • Black (Sophistication, Elegance, Wealth, Fear, Anonymity, Unhappiness, Evil, Sadness, Remorse)
  • White (Purity, Simplicity, Cleanliness, Innocence, Sterility, Love, Precision)

Film franchises may use different color temperatures across films to convey different emotions and character arcs. For example, the first movie of the “Harry Potter” film franchise introduces the enchanting wizarding world through the eyes of young Harry. The warm, inviting reddish-orange amber of Hogwarts’ candlelit interior is on the lower end of the Kelvin scale, reflecting Harry’s sense of finally finding a home. The final film, however, has a color temperature on the higher end of the Kelvin scale—desaturated, severe blues, greens, and grays—which indicates the characters’ bleak outlook and anguish that Voldemort has been resurrected.

How to adjust color temperature during filming

Crew member working with lighting equipmentguruXOX/Shutterstock

These steps allow you to adjust color temperature while shooting footage: 

  • Establish white balance: Shoots usually use tungsten lights (3,200 K), which give off a warm, orangey glow. You can accommodate for different hues and moods with lighting kits. For example, a fluorescent softbox unit creates a neutral white (around 4,200 K) that’s in between candlelight and the deep blue ocean. 
  • Use color filters: Color filters and gels that soften, over-stylize, or outright change color are often used in the industry. These are attached to a light or lamp to alter in-camera color temperatures. Although they’re available in every shade, the two most common filters and gels on film sets are Color Temperature Orange (CTO) and Color Temperature Blue (CTB)—the two dominant hues on the spectrum. They also help accentuate certain objects or parts within a frame, and allow multiple light sources to be mixed in one scene. For these shots, the dominant light in the scene establishes the white balance. 
  • Test color temperature: A color temperature meter can read light temps and provide white balance settings that you can then enter into your camera.

How to adjust color temperature in postproduction

Color correction softwaregnepphoto/Shutterstock

Once the color temperature and white balance are captured on set, it’s up to the editor to finesse footage color temperature for the best possible final product. Editors color-correct (adjusting and restoring colors), color grade (manipulating the color wheel even more to establish the right mood or tone), and tweak white balance.

Adjust the color temperature using film editing software such as Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro, Adobe After Effects, and DaVinci Resolve, using the following steps: 

  1. Pull up the footage in the film editing program and select the specific clip you’d like to edit.
  2. Open the color setting.
  3. Activate the white balance tool and adjust using slider controls. 
  4. Adjust the contrast and brightness using slider controls.
  5. Select the base temperature (orange or blue) and then increase or decrease it using slider controls.
  6. Select the base tint (red or green) and then increase or decrease it using slider controls. 
  7. Check the white balance one more time; if all looks good, export your video file. 

Editors should be mindful of directors’ and cinematographers’ visions for the film, as well as the film’s setting, mood, and tone.

Examples of different kinds of color temperature

“Three Colors: Blue”

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blue” is the first in a trilogy that tells its harrowing stories through deep, dark blue lighting. The color temperature engenders a sense of sorrow as the film tells Julie’s haunting, heartbreaking story.

Scene from 'Three Colors: Blue'“Three Colors: Blue” Courtesy of MK2 Diffusion

“The Shining”

Stanley Kubrick cloaks the classic Stephen King adaptation in a variety of eye-popping colors, including great uses of green—but the most impactful is his use of crimson red seen in the iconic river of blood and the red hallway

Scene from 'The Shining'“The Shining” Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

“Moonrise Kingdom”

In his nostalgic 1960s tale about young love, Wes Anderson primarily uses muted yellow and autumnal browns and golds: nostalgic, warm, and whimsical.

Scene from 'Moonrise Kingdom'“Moonrise Kingdom” Courtesy of Focus Features