What Is White?

When we looked at color and color mixing, one of the things we examined was the fact that when red, green and blue lights are mixed in equal proportions, the result is neutral gray light.
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When we looked at color and color mixing, one of the things we examined was the fact that when red, green and blue lights are mixed in equal proportions, the result is neutral gray light. If we consider a range of grays from no light to maximum brilliance – otherwise known as a gray scale – the most brilliant form of gray is white and the least brilliant form of gray is black. The answer to the question, "What, exactly, is black?" is straightforward: It is the absence of all light. The answer to the question, "What, exactly, is white?" is less straightforward.

What "white" means in a given situation is closely related to the concept of color temperature. The color temperature model is based on a theoretical standardized material called a black body radiator, which absorbs all incident radiation. It does not reflect any energy but rather, all the energy it emits is generated by heating the material.

This black body radiator is theoretical, but its behavior is closely approximated by many metals. The color temperature of a black body radiator is determined by the energy distribution of the visible light it emits when heated to a given temperature. Color temperature is expressed in Kelvins.


The Kelvin temperature scale – named for the father of thermodynamics, Lord Kelvin – determines absolute temperature, based on the average kinetic energy of a substance’s molecules due to heat agitation. Zero Kelvin is absolute zero, that point at which molecular motion has ceased.

The Kelvin scale is based on centigrade degrees (also known as degrees Celsius) – one-centigrade degree being 1/100 of the difference between the temperature of melting ice and that of boiling water. Ice melts at 0 degree Celsius and water boils at 100 degrees Celsius. Zero Kelvin (not zero degree Kelvin) corresponds to -273.15 degrees Celsius, so ice melts at +273.15 K and water boils at +373.15 K. We note in passing that there is an absolute temperature scale in the English system as well – the Rankin scale – that is based on Fahrenheit degrees.

To get back to our black body radiator – if it is heated to a temperature of about 900 K, the spectrum of visible light it emits will cause it to glow a dull red. Heated to between 1,500 and 2,000 K, it emits a yellowish-red color. At 3,000 K the black body radiates a yellowish-white color, and at 5,000 K a bluish-white color is apparent.

In scientific terms, the color temperature of a light source may be defined as the value of the absolute temperature of a black body radiator when the radiator’s chromaticity matches that of the light source. Although some light sources – a tungsten filament, for example – behave quite similarly to a black body radiator, emitting a continuous spectrum of light, others less closely approximate the chromaticity of a black body.

A fluorescent lamp, for example, emits spikes of color. This type of radiator has a "correlated" color temperature, arrived at through a calculated chromaticity. The concept of color temperature – and the associated concept of a "white point" – are important in both film and video photography, and in video displays as well.


The sun behaves as a textbook black body radiator. Its internal temperature reaches millions of degrees and its surface temperature is about 6,000 K. The sun, therefore, intrinsically radiates bluish-white light, and that is what a passenger in the space shuttle sees.

Before we earthbound observers see the sun’s light, however, it must pass through the earth’s atmosphere, which filters, diffuses and reflects it – often radically altering its correlated color temperature, giving us blue skies and red sunsets. The coordinated color temperature of outdoor daylight may range from about 2,000 K to 30,000 K, depending on many factors – among the more important of which are the mix of direct sunlight with diffused and reflected light (skylight), the degree of refraction through the atmosphere and the contents of the atmosphere (dust, water vapor, etc.).

How can the correlated color temperature of daylight reach 30,000 K, when the color temperature of the sun is only 6,000 K? As the lower frequency components of the light are absorbed, the remaining bluer components predominate, shifting the correlated color temperature upward.

In the early morning and late evening, sunlight passes through the atmosphere in a direction nearly parallel to the earth’s surface. It therefore passes through a relatively thick layer of atmosphere, causing a large refraction. This emphasizes the redder components and results in a low-correlated color temperature.

A chart of approximate correlated color temperatures from Kodak shows sunrise or sunset at about 2,000 K, a little higher than a candle flame (1,850 K), while average summer sunlight at noon in Washington, D.C. is about 5,400 K. At noon, the sun is almost directly overhead and sunlight travels nearly perpendicularly to the earth’s surface, causing it to pass through a relatively thin layer of atmosphere and minimizing refraction, generating a higher correlated color temperature.

Average summer shade is listed at 8,000 K, with summer skylight varying from 9,500 to 30,000 K. A 100-watt incandescent lamp is about 2,865 K. Tungsten lamps of the type used for most television and film photography are in the 3,200 K range. Some other correlated color temperatures to note are average summer sunlight plus skylight at 6,500 K and average summer shade at 7,100 K.


What does all this have to do with television? Any photographer knows film that is intended for daylight or arc lamp shooting is balanced for a color temperature of about 5,500 K, while film intended for shooting under tungsten light is balanced for about 3,200 K. 5,500 K light is much bluer than 3,200 K light, and if outdoor film is shot using tungsten illumination, the pictures that result will have a distinctly yellow cast – particularly apparent in the areas that should look white.

Conversely, if tungsten film is used to shoot outdoors, the resulting pictures will have a blue cast. These colorimetry errors can be compensated using appropriate filters to alter the color balance of the light striking the film. A daylight film, for example, can be used under tungsten illumination with the proper filter over the camera lens.

In addition to altering the color balance, the filter will of course reduce the amount of light reaching the film, and thus the exposure index or speed of the film. Most color negative film used for television production is balanced for tungsten light at 3,200 K, so that it may be used for indoor shooting with no compensation.

When shooting outdoors, a filter is placed over the lens to reduce the correlated color temperature of the light striking the film. This also reduces the exposure index of the film – but this is not typically a big problem when shooting in sunlight.

An example is Kodak Vision 500T, a high-speed color negative film used in shooting for television. This film is balanced for a color temperature of 3,200 K, and has an exposure index of 500. When used in 5,500 K daylight, Kodak recommends the use of a No. 85 gelatin filter, which reduces the exposure index to 320. This filter effectively establishes the proper white point: It will cause a white sheet of paper to look white and not blue.

Video cameras are subject to the same principles of color balance as film cameras, and shooting is usually done under lighting conditions similar to those used for film shooting – although white-balance is typically adjusted electronically rather than with gelatin filters.


Displays have correlated color temperatures too, of course. Professional television picture monitors use a standardized set of phosphors and are adjusted for a color temperature of 6,500 K. Adherence to this specification is particularly important when evaluating or correcting color. Anyone, viewing the pictures anywhere, must see the same color balance as anyone else.

If a master tape is produced using monitors employing SMPTE phosphors set at 6,500 K, it would not do to apply subsequent color correction using a monitor that was set at 9,300 K, because the pictures – as viewed on the 9,300 K monitor – would appear to have a yellow-orange cast. Correcting to the 9,300 K monitor would result in a product that was much too blue.

Although professional monitors are set at 6,500 K, other factors – including the desire for a brighter image – cause the color temperature of consumer television sets to be set at around 7,100 K in the United States. This higher color temperature produces a brighter, but somewhat bluer, picture.

Preferences differ in other parts of the world. European consumer sets are typically closer to 6,500 K than U.S. sets, while sets sold for use in Japan are set at 9,300 K. Computer monitors are also typically set at 9,300 K. This color temperature had its origin in the black-and-white TV days, when the best phosphor available for monitors (a yellow-blue combination) had a color temperature of 9,300 K.

Black-and-white monitors used in television production and broadcast today are 6,500 K monitors because they are intermixed with 6,500 K color monitors.

We have spoken by implication mostly of CRT displays, but other technologies – such as LCD, DLP and plasma – have their own sets of color temperature considerations. It is interesting to ponder momentarily that all of what we might call "light transducers," from the simplest box camera to the most cutting-edge micromirror projector, are subject to the same fundamental physical laws.