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Reading a Color Temp Meter: Tips and Tricks

Minolta Color Meter

 
Several weeks ago, I went into how to read your light meter and why it is so important. (See the light meter post here.) I know that many of you have said the light meter is dead. Well, you are not on your way to serving yourself well as a cinematographer by thinking this way. You have to have the brick and mortar of light before putting together your creative house.

“Snapshots of Your Color Palette”

This week I will go into how to read a color temp meter and describe why it is important. I have always loved understanding the color of different lights — street lights, fluorescents in a store, neon, moonlight, etc. I’ve talked about taking that snapshot in your mind with light, and I also do the same with color temps and how they mix.

 
color mixes

“How to Read a Color Meter”

There are only two functions you really need to be familiar with on a Minolta Color Meter: Kelvin, which is the K button, and Color Correction, which is the CC button. The color meter that I use is very old school. It’s the original and I love it.

Take any light. We will use a clamp light fixture with a household bulb for this example. Push your K button and a K will show up on the screen.

 
K button
 
This means it is ready to read the color temp.
 
Memory button on side
 
Now push the side memory button and the color temp will show up on the screen.

Color Spectrum
The color spectrum works like this. A lower number means the light is warmer. A higher number means that the light is colder. 3200K is considered balanced tungsten light. 5500K is considered balanced daylight.

Back to Reading our Meter
Our light is at 2730K, which is about 500K warmer than a tungsten balanced light at 3200K. If I loved this warm color, I would need to put Rosco ½ CTS on the light to equal that Kelvin.
 
light and meter

color temp of clamp light on meter
 
Now we need to see if this light is magenta or green in any way. The way you read this is by pushing the CC button and CC will show up on your screen.
 
CC button
 
This means it is ready to read the magenta or green content of your light. There is a quicker way to get this as well. Once you have gotten the color temp of the clamp light at 2710K, you can quickly hit the CC button and it will display its green or magenta content. Anything + is green and anything that is – is magenta. This light happens have a little magenta -1, but not bad.
 
CC -1 level

“How to Read your Light’s Color Temp”

Reading your color temp meter is done the same way as reading a light meter. I make sure that the meter is very close to the light that I am reading so that other color temps cannot influence my readings. I cup my hand around the flat disc as well so that no skylight or other bounce ambient, back light or fill light affects the reading.
 
Wide shot of meter and light

Reading the color temperature with cupping technique

Reading the color temperature with cupping technique

“Matching Day Exteriors”

In the light meter post, I talked about how I use a light meter to match daylight exteriors and about keeping them balanced. To do this correctly, you need a light meter and a color meter. A color meter is essential to this process. Skylight, even when it is overcast, is very blue. To achieve balanced daylight exteriors, aim your meter up to the sky and cup slightly to not get any wall bounce.
 
color meter aimed at sky
 
Today our skylight is reading 9350K. This is the color temp you will have to match when using top light to balance your light levels as the sun sets or if you need to pick up shots after the sun has gone down and light it with artificial. The next reading you will have to take is the day fill ambient reading. I cup my hand to take the top light off the disc and read the color of what is bouncing off walls, trees and some horizon sky light, which comes in at 6000K.

Now the final reading is the sunlight. To get this reading, aim directly at the sun and cup the disc so that it doesn’t get any of the top light or side bounce. In this example, it reads 5350K, which makes sense during the winter. The light is always a little warmer in winter. In the summer, it usually comes in closer to 5500-5600K.

Now you have collected all of these readings and you are prepared if the sun goes down and you all of a sudden have to create day at night. You have the playbook of color temps to have it match seamlessly.
 
color meter aimed at sun

“What is Your Light’s Temperature”

We have discussed how to read a meter and how to read the color and color correction values of a light. Now let’s discuss how to balance a light when it is very green. The color meter enables you to match color temps on the street, in stores and in bars with movie lights. When I shot on film, a green level of +4 was right at the level of the film stock registering it. With the new digital sensors, the color sensitivity is higher, so a +1 or +2 level of green will read pretty significantly on your monitor.

I love embracing all of these different colors (see my post on color temp) and not trying to balance them to daylight or tungsten. When it comes to a light source that is supposed to mimic daylight or tungsten light, your color temp meter is essential. LED lights do not cover the full color spectrum and they tend to be green in a weird way. This is where you use your color meter to find out exactly how much green the LED light puts out. Once you have that information, you can use Rosco minus green to balance it.

LED Reading
We start with this LED light from iKan, which reads +9 green and 6950K.
 
no gel
 
I will first put on a layer of ¼ minus green, which will counteract the green levels of this light to see where the meter goes down to, which is at +6 green and my Kelvin dropped to 6600K.
 
minus green
 
Now another layer of ¼ minus is added, which brings us down to +3 and 6350K.
 
minus green
 
By adding the final ¼ minus green, we end at -1, which is acceptable, but let’s check out where our color temp is with all this gel. With all of this magenta gel comes warmth. We end at 6150K, which is 650K colder than a daylight balanced light.
 
magenta
 
Magenta is my least favorite color. It is an essential one, but I hate pink. I would rather a skin tone be more on the yellow side than pink. Manicuring your magenta level on lights is important if you do not want pinky, peachy skin tones. On film, -3 to -4 would barely show up; on digital sensors, -2 shows up big time.
 
magenta
 
Now that you have the basics to reading both light and color, you are ready to go out there and continue to snap shots of light.

Shot at Revolution Cinema Rentals in San Fernando, CA
Thanks to Paskal Lighting for supplying all the grip and electric gear.

Buy a Color Temp Meter:
B&Hamazon.comeBayAdorama

Author: Shane

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23 Comments

  1. Another cool blog!
    You think your meter is old school I still use a Gossen Color 6!
    Thank you for your continuing efforts to educate us!

    Bill

    Post a Reply
    • Bill Hamell, ha ha, thanks so much for your support and kind words

      Post a Reply
    • Jendra Jarnagin, why are you surprised, it starts at the basics so all the readers start to understand the brick and mortar, then you build the house, if you go right to your new fangled device their foundation is built on SAND!!! I do love that device, looks very interesting and thank you for sharing. It was great seeing you at the DGA event

      Post a Reply
  2. Very helpful post, Shane!

    Post a Reply
    • Seth, thank you so much, so sorry it has taken me awhile to answer your comment. Been slammed with finishing my next feature

      Post a Reply
  3. Sweet seeing the Colormeter II; first one I ever got my hands on. Use the IIIF now. My favorite combo is a color temp meter and the 3″ square gel swatchbooks. I can dial in filter packs first by swapping out gel samples directly over the sensor until I hit the right combo. This is a great way to “dumb down” studio lights to match location practicals like office fluorescents; take a reading off the practicals then find the filter combo that makes your studio lights look just as bad. The Colormeter III has a neat Light Balancing (LB) chart on the back that lists color shifts in MiReDs, very handy to cross reference with the MiReD shifts listed on the swatchbook CTB/CTO samples. Have been surprised a few times by gaffers who don’t own color temp meters. Maybe I’m too old school and like to have my kinoflos and HMIs kinda zeroed out to standard color temps at the start of production.

    As always, great article. So very happy to see someone of your influence talking about the importance of light meters.

    Post a Reply
    • Robert Demers, Thank you for your kind words, these are the comments that make me smile. I love all of you sharing and helping me a bit. I used the 3″ wide gel pack as well, so helpful. I have to go get the new Minolta Colormeter III, everyone tells me. I just love this baby. It has been with me since I started Gaffing in 1991. HA HA dated the shit out of myself.

      Post a Reply
    • Bruce Southerland, thank you so much for sharing to all. Love the feedback

      Post a Reply
  4. Hey Shane,
    Great post – you’re pretty much the only pro doing this level of stuff on the internet and I just can’t get enough of it!

    Question: Are there any reliable color meter mobile apps? I remember you did an app post a while back but I don’t recall a color meter app.

    When you coming to Seattle!?!

    Post a Reply
    • Duane Shrode, thank you for those very kind words, Yes we are, this is what separates us from all the other noise out there. This Blog is designed to blaze the trail for millions in finding your Filmmaking Soul. I have not found any apps that do this or our accurate enough. These color temp meters have all come down in price so maybe a used one is in your range.

      Post a Reply
  5. Thanks for another great article!

    Was just looking at the old Quality Light & Metric sticker on the back of my Color II and wondering where I should be going to get my meters calibrated these days?

    Post a Reply
    • Andrew Takeuchi, You are very welcome and thank you for your support, yes Quality light and metric is still in business.

      Post a Reply
  6. Hey Shane,

    Quick question. It is possible to skew the color meter’s reading by cupping your hand around it? I’m always concerned at light reflecting from my hands skin tone is affecting the color reading, is this a reasonable concern?

    Thanks!

    Post a Reply
    • Addison, yes it is, if the light is very bright I try to hold my hand further away to I shadow the flat sensor. It is something to get used to and a feel for.

      Post a Reply
  7. Shane, I just picked a Minolta color meter II on eBay and plan to use it with my c100 and gh4. I was reading you need to set a film stock on the meter first. What do you suggest I set it at or does it even matter for digital ? Thank you for your time.

    Post a Reply
    • Marvin,
      It doesn’t matter for digital. You are all good to go. I think you will find it very useful.

      Post a Reply
  8. great read! – I’m 60 and after seeing both your articles, I got on to Ebay and picked up Minolta II and a Sekonic L758d to get the most out of the cameras I’ve got. Rather than hunt down someone to calibrate, could I use a known source and see how far off my meter is?

    Post a Reply
  9. Thanks for posting this! I shoot astro-timelapse and I have been adding artificial light to the scenes – but their color was wrong – so I broke out my old Minolta Color Meter II to save the day! (or night!)

    Post a Reply
  10. I’ve recently bought this color meter (New! Can you belive it?) and now I find out you use the same one. I have to say it was like “Ok, if Shane uses it I can trust it”. Thanks Shane for your everyday work in education. My bests, from your beloved Buenos Aires.

    Post a Reply
    • Thank you so much Pablo. I appreciate that you can trust my input! I hope to continue to guide your filmmaking career! Rock on!

      Post a Reply
  11. with the Sekonic C-500 Prodigy Color meter would you suggest I use the “digital” or “film” setting when shooting with my blackmagic cinema camera? Thanks!

    Post a Reply

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