Your camera is colorblind. It may very well be able to record some beautiful colors, and it is often pretty good, but it’s not going to be dependable when accurate color is important. In fact, when your camera is trying to find the middle-ground, it’s aiming to meet the typical exposure average of 18% gray. Metering for gray is fine for casual shooting. But when it comes to more regimented photographic styles – such as portraiture or commercial photography – color needs to be perfect, and your gray cards aren’t enough. That’s where a system like the Datacolor SpyderCHECKR Pro comes in. Used properly, the SpyderCHECKR system will help you to accurately render colors in your projects and for your clients.
You’ve probably seen the SpyderCHECKR, or something like it; maybe in behind-the-scenes summaries from your favorite photographers. It is basically a metallic book with a grid of colors. Each of those colors has been printed and checked for accuracy before the product is even packaged. This color grid is the basis for the post-processing color correction software that makes up the other leg of the system. In practice, you would get your light set up the way you want it, take a photo with the SpyderCHECKR in place as a reference. Maybe your client and/or subject holds it, maybe your assistant does a mock-up. If you don’t have someone to hold it, the case has a standard tripod socket on the bottom. The point is that you now have a reference shot that all the rest of your photos can be balanced to, so long as you don’t change the lighting setup. If you need to change the light, just snap another quick shot with the ColorCHECKR and you have a new reference shot. The system lends itself better to a studio environment, but you can use it outdoors as well. Just be aware that you want to do more tests outdoors as natural light from the sun changes fairly quickly.
So you have your reference shots and you have all of the photographs that you are looking to balance. On the back end, there is a software component that will analyze your reference shot based using the SpyderCHECKR device. It’s going to analyze each and every color and generate a preset that you can use when processing the rest of the photos in that set. If you use Lightroom, the process is fairly seamless – though you may need to quit and restart Lightroom before the preset is available to your workflow. The system also works with Adobe Camera RAW, Adobe Photoshop and Hassleblad Phocus. The system is far better than a gray card because it’s considering a wider range of colors and it will therefore create far more accurate presets taking all colors into consideration. It is worth noting that each card can be flipped around to reveal a grayscale grid for a more traditional white balancing approach. Simply open up the frame on either side and flip the card over.
The system is ideal for commercial or portrait photographers where accurate color rendering is absolutely key. But the system is still useful for artistic photography styles where you need repeatable results. In such cases, the SpyderCHECKR simply gives you a starting point with a perfectly rendered color set. You can then apply your own presets on top of that to achieve whatever color distortions you wish. Regardless of how you use the system, the most noticeable benefit of a system like this is time: It will save you plenty, especially when you are doing multiple shots in a session utilizing similar lighting schemes. It will save you from having to manually adjust each and every one of those photos by feel. Instead, you are simply grabbing a preset from your reference shot, and you can quickly apply it to every shot in a matter of seconds.
You may have realized by now that the system is entirely dependent on the accuracy of the color cards. Datacolor of course realizes that, which is why the quality control on these cards are so high during manufacturing. But sunlight can cause fading of these cards. That is the reason the system is hinged to close like a book. When not in use, you are encouraged to keep the SpyderCHECKR closed so as to prevent any sunlight induced fading. To make sure that your system is still dependable, there is a small photo-sensitive red patch on the lower left side of the SpyderCHECKR that will indicate when it’s seen too much sun by fading from red to yellow. When that happens, you should probably order new replacement cards. For the record, the cards can take an equivalent of 30 days (720 hours) of sunlight. If you keep it closed, the system will last you several years without concern.
The SpyderCUBE comes with the SpyderCHECKR Pro package. It can be used in conjunction with the SpyderCHECKR, or it can be used alone. The purpose of the SpyderCUBE is not unlike a traditional gray card in that it has points that can be used to calibrate the black point, the white point and of course the 18% gray point by selecting those points in post. The system is designed to be used in post as it is much too small to use as a target for a camera pre-set, in most cases. Like the SpyderCHECKR, you really only need one test shot for each light setup. You can create your own preset off of your test shot and then apply that to each shot in the set. The cube has a hole in the front (which should face the camera when you take your test shot) and it has a small post that fits a standard tripod bolt. It will also screw into the top of the SpyderCHECKR if you wish to use the two devices together. The cube has three color patches: black, 18% gray and white. In post, you would use the hole as the absolute black point. The brightest face on the white section becomes your white point. And then you can take a white balance (aka: gray point) reading on the brighter grace surface. You would focus on the brighter surface because this represents your primary light source. If your software doesn’t have a black point selection tool, you can manually adjust the black point so that there is a noticeable difference between the black trap (the hole) and the surround black area, which will be brighter as it is reflecting light. On top of the cube is a chrome ball that can be used to analyze catch lights or to simply have an understanding of where the light sources are relative to the scene. The SpyderCube has an advantage over traditional gray card methods because its faceted design takes into consideration all light sources and you can better adjust your images in post accordingly.
The included software ships on a CD, but it is also available as a download from Datacolor’s website if you don’t have a CD-ROM (under Support -> Downloads). Don’t throw out that CD, though, because you’ll need a serial number from the CD to register the fotware. The software can work stand-alone but is ideally suited to be used with Lightroom, if you have it. We conducted our evaluation using Lightroom where it will show up in the right-click menu on any photo (Library Mode) and you can “Edit in” SpyderCHECKR Editing. If you work in RAW, Lightroom will need to export a TIFF for use in the Datacolor software. But that is only for the reference shot; you will not need to export any of your other photos.
Creating your reference photo is pretty simple. You will have a photo of your subject or scene with the SpyderCHECKR in the shot. In post, using your software (before you export to be analyzed by the SpyderCHECKR software), you can do some preliminary white balancing by selecting the 20% gray square (panel E2) with the WB dropper. If you’re using the SpyderCUBE in conjunction, you can white balance off of that instead. So your shot is pretty much ready to be analyzed, but there’s one more step. You need to crop the image so that the entire image consists of only the SpyderCHECKR grid. On the device, there are four white dots in each corner. You would use that as your reference point. Once that’s done, you can export to the software by accessing the right-click menu and selecting “Edit in” SpyderCHECKR Editing.
The SpyderCHECKR software is a pretty simple interface. If you cropped your photo before exporting to the software, the grid should be pretty closely lined up with your photo of the device. But you have another opportunity to adjust and realign the frame so that it matches up. There aren’t too many options to mess with; the defaults should work pretty well for most people. Once everything is lined up, all you’ll have to do is click the “Save Calibration” button and the software does the rest. It will automatically create a preset in your chosen software. It’s really that simple.
If you’re using Lightroom like we are, you’ll actually have to quit and restart Lightroom. This is a mild annoyance, but I can’t hold it against Datacolor. It’s actually caused by Lightroom as it only reads your preset library from disk at startup, unless you create it direct from within the software. And since Adobe won’t give control of those presets to any third party software, there’s really nothing that can be done. However, if you have a number of samples to calibrate against, you can use the calibration software in all of them before you need to restart Lightroom, then they will all show up the next time you start. So you have a bunch of new presets thanks to the calibration software. Under the Develop pane in Lightroom, you can apply those presets to all you photos. And that’s it, your images are all now color balanced.
The results are, as you would expect, pretty impressive. I had always considered myself to be pretty good at balancing and adjusting by sight. And I guess I am not too bad, but I’m not perfect. After applying the SpyderCHECKR’s presets, you see where your camera’s metering flaws lie. Blues and reds, in particular, were most noticeably off. My before and after samples shown here were both created from the same shot. I white balanced for both iterations using the exact same method. But only the “after” image went through the SpyderCHECKR software. The differences appear subtle, but they are significant. Cameras – and our eyes – are most sensitive to blue, so we expect that to be off-tint a little. As a direct result, the red end of the spectrum is often over-compensated. As you can see in the “before” shot, the reds appear to be more saturated…almost orange. And the luminosity is significantly brighter. An undesired side-effect is that we lose info in these areas.
For example, if you view the full-sized image and focus on the caps for the beef and chicken bullion jars, you will see far less detail of the ridges in the “before” sample as compared to the “after”. The inverse is true of the blue: The detail is exaggerated, almost posterized. Now look at both caps in the “after” sample. Notice first that the detail is accurate. But most importantly, the detail and illuminance seems balanced between both caps whereas in the “before” shot, the red cap seemed as if it had it’s own light source. Likewise, there is more definition in the top of the cranberries bag and the reflection in the pasta sauce jar is a little more refined. You could, in theory, get the same improvements by adjusting contrast or exposure, but then you would lose definition in colors that were pretty accurate to begin with, like the mid-yellows (the picture of the rice on the front of the Zataran’s box) or the paler blues (Bombay bottle).
[Editor's note: to ease in comparison, we recommend that you either download each photo or right-click and open each in their own tab/window so that you can flip back and forth between them quickly to see what has changed. Viewing in our pop-up interface, the photos will be reduced, and the improvements may not be as obvious.]
If you are a commercial or portrait photographer where color needs to be perfect, then in my mind it’s a no brainer: You should have some sort of color sampling and calibration system. There are several systems available. The SpyderCHECKR Pro (which includes the SpyderCUBE) is among the most economical systems. The SpyderCHECKR has a few features we really like, such as the tripod socket, the durable light-tight case (which in our opinion is an absolute must) and the FadeCheckr system that tells you when your color patch insert has seen too much sun. And when that FadeCheckr turns yellow from too much sun, you can actually replace the target cards instead of buying a whole new system. The software is quite easy to use, and it integrates well with our favorite software. Where the system really shines is when you have a massive set of photos to calibrate. The SpyderCHECKR Pro saves you a great deal of time.
There are some photographers out there that will have little or no use for such a system. If your shooting style or genre doesn’t require spot-on accurate color, then a system like this might be more of a nuisance than it would be worth to you. I wouldn’t ask my assistant to hold up the device for a quick calibration reading before doing some candid street photography. For that matter, I wouldn’t have an assistant when I’m shooting on the street. So let’s be honest: If a photograph doesn’t need accurate colors, I suspect the SpyderCHECKR would remain in my bag.
But if you are in need of accurate colors, or if you want to calibrate lots of photos very quickly, then the system should probably be very close to the top of your wishlist.
Things We Liked
- Large, reversible color (and grayscale) targets.
- Target cards can be replaced when they fade from too much sun.
- FadeCheckr: A red indicator patch that fades to yellow when it sees too much sun.
- Durable protective case protects cards from sun, inclement weather and whatever is banging around in your gear bag.
- Simple, effective and easy-to-use software.
- Direct integration with Lightroom.
Things We Didn’t Like
- You’ll need to restart Lightroom to use your new presets (albeit, this is a Lightroom issue, not a Datacolor issue)
- Why do you need a serial number to activate the software? It’s not like you can use it without the physical device.
When color accuracy matters, SpyderCHECKR Pro is your ideal solution.
If you are a portrait or commercial photographer where color matters, the SpyderCHECKR Pro system will help to ensure absolute color accuracy.
- Color Accuracy
- Durability and Protection
- Software: Ease of Use
- SpyderCHECKR (In Use)
- SpyderCUBE (In Use)
- Ease of Use