SpyderCUBE White Balance Tool – A Must Have Gadget
Once in a while a product comes along that is so clever, so right, it is just a “must have” product.Â While at PMA, I stumbled on such a product.Â The SpyderCUBE by Datacolor is one of those products.Â Nothing it does is really new, but it does everything right, in a small package, with more features than most any competitive product on the market.Â For me personally, this gadget has single-handedly obsoleted my gray cards, ExpoDisc and most all other white balance devices I have seen.
First, this is an ABS plastic/resin cube with a tripod mount on the bottom stem and a metallic ball on the top.Â By putting this object in a photo you shoot, you get a whole slew of exposure, white balance, specular highlight, black level, absolute black, neutral gray and white readings in light from multiple directions, all in one place from a single tool.
It’s not a complexly built product, but it is a lot more sophisticated than a piece of gray cardboard that gets bent up in the pouch of your camera bag.Â Each and every feature and surface of the device has a specific purpose.Â If you use Aperture or Lightroom, taking advantage of this tool is quick and easy.
Features & Benefits (from the Datacolor website)
- Capture accurate color without a lot of trial and error manipulation
- Spectrally Neutral, so that Cube responds accurately to all lighting conditions
- Provides reference values to check and adjust RAW control settings
- Includes Black Trap for shadow detail control
- Allows users to instantly correct color images by setting color temperature value
- Allows users to accurately adjust shadows and highlight detail in any RAW image
- Ideal for location shooting (outdoor or indoor) and studios
- Essential for RAW conversion, and can also be used when correcting images in a JPG workflow
Yes, you read that right… this will also help you get that perfect white balance even if you shoot JPEGs instead of RAW.Â That means you can white balance photos from your small PHD cameras* too.
The SpyderCube is made of what Datacolor calls “ABS Cycoloy”, a hybrid resin that is fade proof and extremely durable.Â They tell us that the colors are pigmented all the way through the resin for durability, and are scientifically formulated to provide optimal color values, including an 18% gray which defines a new standard for spectral neutrality to provide accurate color balance under any light source.
I have used this product in a couple of tests so far with my Canon 5D Mark II, and the results are both amazing and as expected.Â At the beginning of my shoot, I put this SpyderCUBE (attached to a flexible tripod) on a flat surface somewhere in the shoot.Â I take an initial shot with it in the photo.Â Once I get into Lightroom, I use the eyedropper to set my white balance setting for the room, and then apply that setting across the rest of the photos that I shot in that scene.
Another possibility is to use the cube in a photo to set the on-camera custom white balance.Â If you get the cube to take up a a good bit of the image, the camera can set white balance right from it.
So, here are some tests that I did to see how well this works.Â Follow along with me.
First, I grabbed my Canon 5D Mark II with a 16-35MM F2.8L lens and set white balance to auto white balance (AWB), walked out my back door, sat the SpyderCUBE with a mini-tripod onto a crate of travertine on my back patio.Â There is some white Styrofoam and fairly white stone there in the shot, so I figured it would get a pretty decent white balance with the auto setting on my camera.Â As you can see, the photo isn’t too bad for color (click it to enlarge).Â The camera calculated the white balance at 4500ÂºK.
I then brought the image into Adobe LightRoom to do a little light balance work there.Â In the develop mode of lightroom, there is a small eyedropper you can select and use to point to a neutral gray on the image.Â This is what the SpyderCUBE is all about… giving you that perfect neutral gray in both direct light and indirect light.Â You can see from the image to the right that the Lightroom eyedropper gives a pattern of pixel colors around where you are about to click, as well as the RGB value of the pixel you are hovering over.
Once you click the mouse, Lightroom immediately re-calculates the white balance for the scene and changes the white balance setting to the new calculation.Â In this case, that setting is 500ÂºK warmer, or 5000ÂºK.Â If I had just shot a whole series of photos in this scene, I would now apply the new white balance setting to all of the images in the series to get the color correct on all of them.Â This one step alone can save many of us from manually tweaking the color settings in our images, but shooting outdoors is not typically a hard situation to white balance.
A scenario that is really hard for most cameras to auto white balance is a mixture of indoor light sources, including halogen, tungsten, fluorescent and ambient light from windows.Â I am sure that many of you have had this situation where you shoot an indoor scene with AWB set and what you get is an orange cast image that is just completely wrong as your camera’s auto white balance just cannot figure out the lighting.Â So, I have set up that exact situation with the modeling lights from my strobes through soft boxes and halogen overhead lights, plus mid-day sunlight coming in through the windows.Â This shot is a mess!Â And it is so typical of using the AWB setting on so many cameras when shooting indoors.
Looking at the settings in Lightroom, this image was read as a color temperture of 4050ÂºK.Â The multiple light sources have thrown the camera for a loop.Â But again, with the eyedropper and selecting the neutral gray, and this time you can see a much more dramatic change over the last example.
The corrected image now has a color space of 2750ÂºK, which is 1300ÂºK different than the original calculations by the camera.Â And look how obvious that difference is! As a matter of fact, I could not find a single situation where the color wasn’t ever so slightly off from my camera using the AWB setting.Â That alone tells me that this SpyderCUBE needs to travel everywhere my camera travels.
This brings up another interesting tip with Lightroom and using the Histogram in the upper right corner.Â Let’s take a look at the Histogram for this image (right).Â Notice the triangles at the upper left and right of this image?Â They actually serve a purpose.Â They can tell you if your image has absolute blacks and whites in the range of the image.Â Notice how both triangles are gray – the same color a the background of the Histogram?
If you click on the triangle, it will highlight.Â If you look at your image, it will now show blue wherever absolute black appears in the photo.Â In this case, there really isn’t any absolute black to notice.Â Even the hole in the bottom of the SpyderCUBE is not showing any blue.Â But we can fix this.
Next, we roll our mouse pointer over the lower portion of the Histogram, and click.Â A <|> symbol appears and we can now drag the histogram for the lower light portion of the image and move the black point.Â As we slowly move it left, you will see the triangle turn blue just as the first pixels of absolute black appear on the screen.Â Move it a touch more and it turns white.Â When the triangle is gray, none of the image is at absolute black.Â When it turns blue, the image is perfectly set with the darkest color in the photo at absolute black.Â As you drag further and it turns white you are now clipping some of the darker colors in the image to black.Â This is a powerful tool and tells us a lot about the luminance range of our image.
The upper end of the histogram serves the same purpose with the white point of the image.Â When I click it, the specular highlight of the SpiderCUBE’s chrome ball reflects the brightest light source in the image and pixels begin to appear in red where the white point of the image begins to clip.Â By adjusting this area of the histogram, we can fine tune the white point of the image and control the clipping at the brightest point we wish. You can also click both of the triangles and see the white and black clipping points in red and blue at the same time.
One last test was to see if I could set the camera’s custom white balance from just shooting the SpyderCUBE.Â Using the same lighting setup as the studio shots above, I put the SpyderCUBE about 6″ away from my lens and shot it with AWB.Â As you can see, the same white point issues.Â This shot came out at around 4150ÂºK, which is pretty far off.Â I then went into the menu on the camera and told it to set a custom white balance using this photo as a reference.Â This was an interesting test as I made sure that there were other colors visible in the photo.
The camera re-set the white balance to 2900ÂºK.Â I changed exposure slightly, took the SpyderCUBE out of the shot and re-took the photo with the new white balance setting, and as you can see… a huge improvement!Â Once again, the SpyderCUBE has done its job.Â even with all kinds of strange light combinations, it has saved the day and set the white balance properly.Â From now on, this little baby goes wherever my camera goes.
The SpyderCUBE is available at B&H and Amazon for $59 as of the writing of this review.Â Although it is a bit more than you will pay for a white balance card, and a little bulkier, there are some distinct advantages to having the extra features of this product… like specular highlight and absolute black.
Product Review Scorecard
*PHD Cameras – Acronym for “Push Here, Dummy”, meaning the world of simple point and click digital cameras.