By Stan Sholik
What is white? The question seems simple enough. Anyone with at least average vision can point to an object that others would consider white.
If digital cameras were as able as our brains to discern a white object, photographers would have no need for Phoxle’s SpectraSnap White Balance Filter. But they’re not. Digital sensors record color based on the color temperature of the light falling on the subject.
Unlike our brains, the chips processing the data have to be told what the color temperature of that incident light is. Raw file processing software provides controls that can be used effectively to adjust white balance over a wide range of color temperatures. These are very useful tools, and applied to the raw file data have little effect on the quality of the final image.
The same software can be used to white balance JPEG files, but the additional processing and saving steps will definitely lower the quality of the final image. For photographers shooting JPEGs, the best solution is to white balance before making the image.
All digital cameras provide a setting for automatic white balance as well as settings for several other general lighting conditions. Automatic white balance will often yield a different color balance in various images taken under identical lighting conditions. The other general settings will yield consistent color balance, but not necessarily accurate color.
The most accurate in-camera white balance with JPEG files can only be achieved with a color temperature meter (and possibly color compensating filters), or a device like the SpectraSnap.
The outward appearance of the SpectraSnap is a simple as its use. It is a flat white disc with notches holding a removable blue rubber band. There is also a small hole near the edge through which you can attach the supplied lanyard for carrying the filter around your neck to keep it handy.
To use the SpectraSnap you simply attach it to your lens or lens hood with the rubber band, or remove the rubber band and hold it in front of your lens. Then you perform a custom white balance and use that setting until the lighting conditions change.
The 120mm SpectraSnap is designed for large-diameter lenses such as this 150-500mm telephoto zoom or for mounting on the flower-shaped lens hoods of large-aperture wideangle lenses. It can also be used on smaller diameter lenses, but the 80mm size is more convenient to carry if you don’t need the larger size. Image ©Stan Sholik
Since the SpectraSnap arrives with the rubber band in place, I tried the rubber band technique first, but didn’t like it. Perhaps it was because the band was new, but it took a minute or so of wrestling to mount it on the lens hood of a 17-35mm f/2.8 Nikkor. All the time I was wishing I had one more hand to help. I went through the same struggle mounting it on 150-500mm and 120-400mm lenses. And once it is mounted, you must switch to manual focus in order to do the custom white balance. On smaller diameter lenses I had less trouble. The band holds the filter securely, but I found the process too slow.
The blue rubber band supplied with the SpectraSnap holds the filter securely to your lens. Also included is a lanyard that attaches to the filter. I found the lanyard arrangement much more convenient than dealing with the band. Image ©Stan Sholik
So I ended up removing the rubber band, mounting the filter on the lanyard. After preparing the camera to receive a custom white balance, I focused and held the release part way down, then with my other hand held the SpectraSnap in front of the lens, and completed the exposure. This was quick and simple enough that, for one event I had to photograph with available light, I custom white balanced three separate rooms on two different bodies in less than five minutes. Then as I moved from room to room, all I needed to do was change the custom white balance setting to match the room and the results were excellent.
The only situation I found that gave the SpectraSnap a problem was a church interior lit with the new energy-saving spiral fluorescent bulbs and with daylight filtered through stained glass windows. Shooting from the choir loft to the altar (reflected white balance) before a wedding gave a cooler-than-neutral rendition to the interior. Shooting from the altar back toward the choir loft (like an incident light white balance) gave the same cooler-than-correct result. It was closer to neutral than the auto, daylight, fluorescent or incandescent settings in the camera, but not quite right.
Other than that situation, the SpectraStrip performed perfectly, consistently outperforming the camera presets.
Shooting inside a church using ambient light is always a challenge for wedding photographers. This church is lit with new energy-saving spiral fluorescent bulbs in old fixtures and daylight filtered through stained glass windows. This was the only time the SpectraSnap filter let me down. The church is painted a bone white, fairly close to the result using the camera’s incandescent setting (top). The camera’s daylight setting (center) produced a result that is far too warm. The SpectraSnap (above) produced a neutral result that is too cool compared to the actual church. Images ©Stan Sholik
The SpectraSnap is available in four models: 120mm diameter with neutral and warm versions and 80mm with neutral and warm versions. Each model also includes a rubber mounting band, lanyard, instructions and a fabric carrying case. The SpectraSnap filters are only available directly from Phoxle at this time through their website, www.phoxle.com. Cost of the 120mm models is $59.95 each and the 80mm models is $49.95 each. Technical details about the design and manufacturing of the filters is also available on the website.
Nearly everything in the engine room of this yacht, other than the gray floor, is white. Fluorescent fixtures plus a few 12-volt incandescent bulbs provide illumination. Neither the camera’s automatic (top) nor its fluorescent (center) white balance setting produces a clean white. White balancing with the SpectraSnap produced a perfect result (above). Images ©Stan Sholik
This wine judging was held in a room lit by incandescent bulbs in chandeliers, but there was a row of windows just to the left with bright daylight outside. The camera’s automatic (top) and incandescent (center) setting gave very similar results and a pleasing compromise between the incandescent light on the table and the daylight areas in the back. I custom white balanced using the SpectraSnap pointed at a chandelier and it produced a neutral foreground table (above). Images ©Stan Sholik
Both the 120mm- and 80mm-diameter SpectraSnap filters are available in a neutral white balance model (left) and a warm white balance model (right). The difference is subtle but noticeable when viewed side-by-side. Images ©Stan Sholik
My office is lit with energy-saving fluorescent bulbs. With the camera mounted on a tripod, I held the neutral SpectraSnap in front of the lens and did a custom white balance. The result was perfect (top). Neither the camera’s auto (center) nor fluorescent (above) white balance settings produced a neutral result. Images ©Stan Sholik