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Pro Review: Datacolor SpyderCube

By Stan Sholik

I’m sure most professional photographers have some device in their camera bag to white balance their digital captures by now. The majority of these devices, ranging from an ExpoDisc to a coffee filter, provide a white balance by correcting the color temperature of the light before you begin shooting, saving it as a preset for the session.

While this approach yields excellent results for white balance, these devices do nothing to assist us in adjusting midtone brightness, shadow density and contrast to ensure we are taking full advantage of the dynamic range of the capture.

Datacolor, with the introduction of the $59 SpyderCube, takes a different approach to white balance and in doing so provides a device that addresses all of the visual elements we need to extract the maximum tonality from our images. Standing only a little over three inches tall, the SpyderCube is the Mighty Mouse of color balance.

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Also included in the SpyderCube box is a cloth carrying bag, not shown.
©Stan Sholik

Unlike the majority of white balance devices, the SpyderCube isn't designed to give you a camera white balance setting for the photo session. Rather, it is a postproduction tool geared for working with RAW files, but usable with JPEGs within the limitations of available adjustments to JPEG files.

The SpyderCube really is a cube, with a polished sphere at the top and a short cylinder at the base. The sphere at the top provides a specular highlight and the cylinder at the base houses a standard ¼-20 threaded fitting for mounting the unit on a tripod or other compatible support.

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The base of the SpyderCube houses a threaded insert for tripod mounting.
©Stan Sholik

Three faces of the cube are designed to face the camera. The top two are divided diagonally with white and gray surfaces for highlight and 18-percent gray balance. The lower face is black with a fairly deep black hole in it. The black surface provides an area for shadow density control. The black hole is used to provide an absolute black, even in a high key scene.

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The SpyderCube.
©Stan Sholik

The SpyderCube is placed anywhere in the scene. Placement doesn’t seem to be at all critical. I’ve had it out of focus in macro photos and small in the scene with large sets and portraits in the studio. What is critical is positioning the SpyderCube so that the three important faces are seen in the camera.

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The SpyderCube can be placed anywhere in the scene. Before a portrait session I place it on a stool in subject position and shoot so that it will be large enough in the frame to get good readings. ©Stan Sholik

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The SpyderCube doesn’t need to be in focus. Here I held it close to the flower that I would be photographing. ©Stan Sholik

If you’re capturing RAW files you can be as sloppy as you want with white balance. While I would normally white balance accurately by creating a white balance preset, for the purpose of this review I just used a camera setting close to the white balance of my light source.

You need to be precise with highlight exposure of course. By previewing the SpyderCube image with camera set to show flashing highlights on the LCD and adjusting exposure so that the white surface facing your main light is just beginning to flash will yield an optimal exposure.

The rest of the adjustments are carried out in post production. The Datacolor website has videos showing a Lightroom and a Photoshop Camera Raw color balance workflow using the SpyderCube. I go about it slightly differently, so let me briefly explain my process.

After opening the image with the SpyderCube included, I zoom in so that the SpyderCube is large enough for the eyedropper to accurately read the surfaces. If you use Camera Raw, use the color sampler eyedropper and click on each of the important areas of the SpyderCube to set info points.

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In Camera Raw I use the sampler eyedropper to place info points in the important areas. Point 1 (with which I don’t usually bother) is in the specular highlight on the sphere; point 2 is in the lighter 18% gray patch; point 3 is the darker 18% gray patch; point 4 is in the lighter white patch; point 5 is in the darker white patch; point 6 on the dark face; and, point 8 is in the dark trap.

I use the white (gray) balance tool to read the brighter gray surface. Then I adjust my highlight exposure sliders until there is no longer any clipping on the brighter white surface. The specular highlights on the ball at top will still be clipped, but let them go.

Next I set the maximum black by clicking on the black trap and using the black slider (or whatever device the software you use provides) to set this value to 0, 0, 0. Then I use the Shadows tool (Tone Curve tab) to ensure there is separation between the black trap and the black surface surrounding it.

Finally, I use the Brightness tool to adjust the value of the brighter gray surface to 128, 128, 128. The Datacolor videos recommend doing this step before the shadow adjustment, but I found that both the highlight and shadow adjustments will change the midtone value, so I leave that for last. It’s a good idea to check all your points one more time to ensure they are still where you want them, and then zoom out to see the full image. Save the adjustments as a preset (if you’re in Camera Raw) and you are ready to apply the adjustments to the rest of the images in the session.

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After making all of my adjustments, the screen looks like this. I save the adjustments to apply to the captures in the session.

Once you have made the image neutral with highlights and shadows set “by-the-book,” you can adjust the image to look pleasing to your creative taste. I’ve yet to shoot a portrait that looks good to me when it is dead neutral. But having portraits dead neutral each time allows me to apply a color correction on which I have standardized so that my results are consistent session after session.

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For a studio still life, I set my D2x on ‘Flash’ white balance, set the SpyderCube at the edge of the set and made a capture. For high angle shots like this, the design of the SpyderCube is less than ideal. A flat surface on the back would be better, but then it wouldn’t be a cube! ©Stan Sholik

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In post production I corrected the image with the SpyderCube and applied the correction to the final capture. ©Stan Sholik

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The final corrected still life. ©Stan Sholik

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The flower image here is “correct” according to the SpyderCube, but too low key for my taste. So I made a few other adjustments in Camera Raw and created an image more to my liking (below). ©Stan Sholik

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Very few scenes or subjects will have a full range of tonal values and a reliable neutral available to you. With the SpyderCube, you will have them. It’s found a permanent home in my camera bag.