Warm vs Cool Light
- What is Color Temperature?
- Warm Light vs. Cool Light
- Warm White vs. Cool White Light
- When to Find Warm Lighting and Cool Lighting
- Warm Lighting - Sunrise and Sunset
- Cool Lighting - Throughout the Day
- How to Control Color Temperature in Your Photos
- 5 Creative Ways to Use Golden Hour Lighting
- Working With Good Landscape Photography Lighting and Its Effect on Your Photos
- White balance controls color casts in an image. For example, midday light, which is blue, can be tempered or even changed by using different white balance settings.
- Cameras have several white balance settings to account for different lighting situations. For example, the “cloudy” white balance setting warms up the colors in an image to compensate for the cool color temperature of natural light on a cloudy day.
- White balance can be adjusted manually as well. This involves the use of a gray card and your camera’s histogram. This is a far more precise method of adjusting white balance, though it is a much more involved process, too.
photo by DieterMeyrl via iStock
Light has many different properties - intensity, direction, and color among them. Each of these properties of light can influence the quality of the images you take.
For example, light that is extremely intense (like sunlight at noon on a cloudless day) is very harsh, blue in tone, and creates deep shadows. On the other hand, light at dawn or dusk is very soft, golden in tone, and creates much less contrast.
If you ask me, the color of light is the most difficult concept about light to understand. That’s where this guide comes in.
Let's discuss warm natural light, cool natural light, and how they influence your photos.
Table of Contents
What is Color Temperature?
First things first, we need to define color temperature.
Basically, color temperature refers to the color we perceive light to be, as LensProToGo explains in the video above.
Since each of us sees color slightly differently, color temperature is measured on a standard scale in Kelvins (K).
A low Kelvin value (i.e., below 4000K) is “warm light” whereas a high Kelvin value (i.e., above 4000K) is “cool light.”
Warm light is seen as being yellow, orange, and red - tones that are associated with warmth. Cool light is seen as being predominantly blue.
As noted above, warm light is associated with dawn and dusk while cool light is associated with midday lighting. Naturally, you can create warm and cool light with artificial lighting as well.
Warm Light vs Cool Light
Photo by Jose Magana on Unsplash
To further explore warm light vs cool light, let's examine how they influence how an image looks.
In the example above, warm light softly illuminates the scene at Horseshoe bend. Note how the warmth of the light accentuates the redness of the landscape.
Compare that with the image below, taken during midday.
photo by LUNAMARINA via iStock
In this case, the cool light gives the shot a completely different look.
For example, the shadows along the rim of the canyon are much more pronounced and the red earth takes on a more yellowish tone than we see in the first shot.
Warm White vs Cool White Light
photo by scyther5 via iStock
Color temperatures don’t have to be as extreme as the Horseshoe Bend examples to have a significant impact on how your images look.
In fact, a much smaller variation - such as between warm white light and cool white light - can make your images look completely different.
On the color temperature scale, warm white lighting is considered to be around 3000K while cool white light is a slightly higher temperature at around 5000K (though it can range from 4000K light to 6000K light).
In the example above, warm white lighting was used to illuminate the portrait. Note how the man’s skin tone has a slightly warm look to it despite his shirt and the background of the shot having cooler color temperatures.
Contrast that image with the one below, shot with cool white light.
photo by yasinemir via iStock
As you can see, the man’s skin tone has a slightly cool look.
Though some people argue that warm light has a “dirty” look to it, the reality is that warm light tends to be more inviting from a visual standpoint. Cool white light is crisp and clean, but can quickly look very clinical as well.
When to Find Warm Lighting and Cool Lighting
Photo by Aaron Carrion on Unsplash
Again, though you can easily manipulate the color temperature of light in a shot when using artificial lighting, if you’re relying on natural lighting you’ll need to plan your photoshoot according to the time of day when your desired color temperature is prevalent.
Warm Lighting - Sunrise and Sunset
photo by Susanne Neumann via iStock
They don’t call it golden hour for nothing…
Golden lighting is about 3500K and occurs around sunrise and sunset. This type of lighting is revered for its warmth and softness. Natural-light portraits and landscapes benefit the most from warm lighting.
Warm lighting can change rapidly due to the rising or setting sun. You might find the light to be intensely orange, red, yellow, or even pink.
Cool Lighting - Throughout the Day
photo by SeanXu via iStock
Cool light (around 5000-6500K) is the most common color temperature for natural light because it’s present from about one hour after sunrise until about one hour before sunset.
This color temperature is fairly neutral, though in terms of the color temperature scale, it’s quite blue in Kelvins.
Photo by Melody Jacob on Unsplash
Because this type of light is quite intense, it creates deep shadows. That contrast increases the vibrancy of colors, which can be quite pleasing in a photograph, though the intense shadows can be a detriment.
However, unlike warm lighting at sunrise or sunset, blue light tends to be much more consistent over the course of the day, barring weather events that change its temperature (i.e., cloud cover, which cools down the light).
How to Control Color Temperature in Your Photos
photo by Rawpixel via iStock
There are a multitude of ways you can control the color temperature in your photos, each of which have to do with manipulating the white balance of the shot.
You can learn all about white balance in this guide, but here’s a quick overview:
You can also change the white balance of an image in post-processing.
As Aaron from PHLEARN demonstrates in the video above, this is a fairly easy and straightforward process in programs like Photoshop.
With that, you have a solid introduction to warm light, cool light, warm white light, cool white light, and various other aspects of color temperature.
Be sure to check out the guides I’ve linked to above and view the YouTube videos I’ve embedded to get more instruction on this sometimes confusing topic.