Editor’s Note: A special thanks to our partner Datacolor for helping us to bring more information about color calibration to you.

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Getting accurate color all starts with getting it right in the camera. In Part 1 of this series we covered the concepts of color management, and some of the speed bumps you will contend with. Fortunately, there are loads of things we can do, and tools we can use, to make it easier to display and print consistent colors. In this second part of the series, I’ll cover techniques you can use in the field or studio when creating images to make sure you have the best results going into the digital darkroom, and how to use tools like the Datacolor SpyderCube. and Spyder5Elite.


If you have ever taken any type of computer programming class, you will recognize the acronym GIGO, “Garbage In – Garbage Out”. This refers to the principle that “a computer can do only what it is programmed to do. It is only as good as the data it receives and the instructions it is given.” Errors coming into the system create errors coming out of the system.

The exact same concept applies to photography; errors put into the camera result in poor photos coming out of the camera. It has become almost a cliché, but the saying “get it right in the camera” is the first step in ensuring you don’t experience “GIGO”. It doesn’t matter how good a monitor you have, if you are not working with good photos in terms of correct color and exposure, you are not going to produce great prints quickly or easily. You will have to do an inordinate amount of time-consuming work to produce decent results.

Make Sure you are Shooting in RAW.

One of the many advantages of RAW files is that they capture a huge color space, larger than the standard Adobe RGB, giving you the maximum number of colors to run through your workflow. RAW files are not color managed, they are just a record of all the information that a camera’s sensor captured about the light hitting it during the time of your exposure. Using RAW files in your workflow makes color management easier and accurate.

Shoot in AWB – Auto White Balance

The White Balance Setting allows us to adjust and remove color casts caused by the type of light source and the environmental conditions which have affected the light. If you are shooting in RAW, all color information is captured at the time, so the AWB setting becomes a reference of what the camera thought the white balance should be.

While there are many presets available for white balance on your camera, I tend to shy away from these. Each preset has a fixed color temperature. The real world is rarely this simple. Is it a little cloudy, a lot cloudy, are they big thick rain clouds or wispy high altitude ones? This can result in huge differences between real world color temperatures under certain conditions and the presets programmed in for them.

Shooting in a preset can also make us lose objectivity about the color in our shots during review time. We have to rely on our not always so perfect memory of the colors in our scene, and we can become convinced that the colors produced using the preset are in fact the true ones. Ask any police detective how inaccurate eyewitness testimony can be, our memories of the time we took a photo can contain a fair bit of fantasy about the moment.

Editor’s note: As Jason states RAW files are not color managed. No matter what the white balance setting is on a camera shooting RAW files, the white balance can be changed in post production without any degradation of the photograph.

Lit by both indoor incandescent and fluorescent lights, the colors in this image were way off. But easily corrected in one click using a reference shot for White Balance created with the SpyderCube

Capture Reference Shots for Color and Exposure

Remember, your camera has been programmed with some pretty advanced algorithms. Ultimately though, it is a computer running a program that makes decisions based on what has been programmed into it. Most of the time these standards work pretty well. Sometimes they don’t. As a photographer, it’s important to understand when these assumptions fall apart, we must take control away from the camera’s onboard computer.

For generations, photographers have used tools and techniques to capture reference shots of color and light. The venerable “gray card*” still works as it did decades ago to help determine correct white balance. While there are many products out there for capturing these shots, one of my favorite tools is a twist on the gray card, the Datacolor SpyderCube.

*Editor’s note: Kodak’s 18% Gray Card was great for film photography. Unfortunately, for digital, it has a green bias that keeps it from being a good color reference. 

The SpyderCube gives you an all-in-one white balance and exposure checker when you process your images. Simply take a shot of the SpyderCube, in the same light as the subject. Use the reference shot to make needed adjustments in the field based on the histogram and any “blinkies” showing up that would warn of blown-out highlights. The real advantage to using this is in the digital darkroom. Select the reference image, make adjustments to it in terms of color and exposure correction. Then Sync these adjustments across all images that were shot in this same light. 

Taking a quick reference shot pays off many times over in saving time and getting accurate colors. This way there is really no guessing after the fact! Combining good reference shots with a monitor which has been color calibrated using a Spyder5ELITE are two of the most vital pieces of my color management process.  

Shoot Those Reference Shots Often!

All light will have its color affected by where it comes from, what it passes through, and what material it reflects off. In nature, light is constantly changing, sometimes very quickly as you move, your subject moves, and the sun’s position changes in the sky. It is influenced by how much humidity there is, whether it’s cloudy, the time of day, altitude you are at, and a zillion other variables. Some of these changes are not noticeable in the field as our eyes are constantly adapting (remember we are squishy!). Taking frequent shots ensures you don’t miss these changes and have accurate reference shots to work with later.

Capture Reference Shots If/When You Can

The downside of nearly every gray card based solution is the card has to be in the same light as the subject. The funny thing about nature photography is a lot of subjects don’t allow you to do that.

“Hi Ms. Elk, can I put this gray card on your forehead for a min…GAAAHH (trampling sounds)…NOOOOO…(camera smashing sounds)…”

You get the gist. I know this doesn’t have to be said, but… DO NOT DO THAT!!!

If you miss a reference shot, it is not the end of the world. The idea behind this is to make your colors more accurate and speed up your workflow. There are some situations where it can be cumbersome, dangerous, or nearly impossible to take a reference shot. In rapidly changing light conditions you have to take a new reference shot as the light on your subject changes, which in high action situations can lead to you missing the shot.

Also, your reference shot must be in the same light conditions as your subject is in. Think back to the elk example. You’re standing in the shade, the elk isn’t. To get your reference shot you need to have the same temperature and intensity light fall on your SpyderCube as on the elk. If the light is different than on the subject, the reference shot will give you an inaccurate white balance and exposure. With wildlife, if you can’t take a reference shot at the start in the same light, try to take one after the animal leaves, or you are able to move to similar light.

Quick Tip – Give Yourself a Hand

I recently had a fellow photographer ask me why I kept taking pictures of my hand during a shoot. This is an old trick I picked up from one of my mentors, it is so second nature to do this I forgot it looks completely crazy to everyone you shoot with. Anytime I take a white balance reference shot or start a series of images, say for a panorama or HDR, I take a shot of my hand blocking the lens. I’m conditioned that when I later review my images, the sight of a crappy pic of my hand is a sign something has changed, and I need to do something different with the images immediately following it.

If I am taking a new color reference, I put my hand right out in front of the lens and take a shot, then I take a shot of my SpyderCube. If, as in the wildlife example above, I have to take the reference at the end of the series, I will take the reference shot first and then take a hand photo. This tells me that the reference applies to the photos immediately before the shot of the SpyderCube. You can do the same thing for stitched panoramas, HDR series, different light sources, anything you need to identify later as a sequence of images that should be processed together.

Be sure to check out the rest of the articles in this series!


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