David Cardinal: Using SpyderCUBE in the field – Lessons from Myanmar

While many of the benefits of shooting with a SpyderCUBE – like matching product colors to catalog photos or ferreting out the precise white balance of a complex set of studio lighting – are best achieved in controlled conditions, with a little perseverance your SpyderCUBE can be a very helpful tool in the field as well. I took one with me on the photo tour I just led to Cambodia and Myanmar (Burma), and put it through its paces. I’ll admit that some of the ‘CUBE’ shots from the trip were taken for effect, but the SpyderCUBE helped me get the right color balance and set highlights and shadows very quickly in a number of tricky situations.




Myanmar (also known as Burma) not only has tens of thousands of pagodas and temples, it also has some amazing caves and crypts. These pose unique lighting challenges because of their chaotic mix of light sources. A single chamber can have a mix of fluorescent, compact fluorescent, incandescent, sodium, LED and colored “Christmas” lights. Obviously even the gray patches on a SpyderCUBE can’t perform a miracle and balance all those light sources, but it can help you pick the best possible white balance to deal with the surroundings.


In the case of this Buddha statue in a niche along an underground stone hallway in Mrauk U – historic capital of the ancient Arakan Kingdom — the incandescent light was mixed with some thrown light from outside the niche. This first version of the image shows that the camera’s Auto white balance is overwhelmed and makes the scene out to be quite red. This may be artistically pleasing, but isn’t an accurate rendition of how the statue would look in a more neutral setting. The default exposure is also quite dark as the light source in the frame fools the camera’s meter.




Using Adobe’s Auto White Balance and bumping the exposure in gets us a little closer to reality, as we’ve changed the red into something of a yellow-orange, but we still aren’t seeing the true colors of the stone.




In this version I’ve picked up the white balance from the gray patches of the SpyderCUBE using the eyedropper in Camera Raw (or in Lightroom). Finally, we can see the stone statue close to the way it might look if we had a more ideal light source illuminating it. I’ve also used the white patches on the SpyderCUBE to help me set a more realistic exposure than the one chosen by my camera’s meter.




Pindaya Cave in Myanmar’s Shan State is one of the most strangely lit places on earth. It has at least one – and usually many – of just about every kind and color of light. To complicate things further, I often use one or more flashes to reach into the darker areas as part of a wide-angle shot. I’ve been to the cave several times over the years and struggled with how to adjust the white balance, white points, and do color correction for many of my shots. This year I brought a SpyderCUBE along, and it really helped.


The first image shown above was a sample I did in one of the early chambers, to get a sense of how the ‘Cube’ might work out. Encouraged by the early results I deployed it in the area where I’ve often taken wide-angle images that span several chambers.




Simply using the camera’s Auto White Balance (or Photoshop’s) leaves the rock a misleading orange-red color. It is somewhat appealing, but not appropriate for the mostly sandstone walls and carvings.




Using a SpyderCUBE in the same scene to pick a white balance (I then re-used that White Balance on this image without the Cube) provides a more realistic version of how the cave rocks should really look. The white patch on the Cube is also useful to pick a level for the whites in the image – as there are several point light sources in the scene that will blow out any attempt to trim the specular highlights down into the visible tonal range.


For the record, the shots I did in some of the larger chambers with the SpyderCUBE were the least garish and most accurate of any I’ve ever gotten in those caves.




Okay, this outdoor image doesn’t really need a SpyderCUBE for anything in particular, but it seemed natural to pose it alongside all the other statues for sale by this sidewalk vendor in Yangon. He got a kick of out if too!




Monks, even novices, are not supposed to care what color their robes are. But photographers, of course, always do. I wanted to capture both the deep red of this novice’s robe and the reddish hue from the setting sun shining on the bricks of the Sulamani temple in Bagan, Myanmar. Having the novice hold a SpyderCUBE for the first image was a quick and simple solution. Since I leave the Cube in the outside pocket of my bag attached to the tiny tripod Datacolor provided with it, it only takes a couple seconds to either set it up or hand it to someone to hold.


Once again the SpyderCUBE impressed me with its versatility on this trip. I love that it is so tiny that I can put it (even with mini-tripod attached) into a shirt pocket or a side pocket of my camera bag. It’s easy to pose or have someone hold it. For my next experiment I may see if having a small Joby pod attached to it will give me even more flexibility by allowing me to attach it to poles or other frames.


If you’d like to learn more about Myanmar, Cambodia, or photographing the peoples, temples, and cultural sites of Southeast Asia, please visit my site at CardinalPhoto.com.



About the Author – David Cardinal


David is an award-winning professional travel and nature photographer, as well as a prolific writer on photography and other technical topics. He is a frequent contributor to Extremetech.com, and has been published in Outdoor Photographer, Photoshop User, PC Magazine, London Daily Mail, and many other magazines and websites. He has spoken on digital imaging and on the internet at Stanford, Dartmouth, Google, Electronic Imaging, and at B&H’s OPTIC conference. His clients include the BBC, Asia Development Bank, US Fish and Wildlife, California Fish and Game, National Wildlife Federation, American Prairie Foundation, DxO Labs, Datacolor, Photodex, and Lexar. David is also a Datacolor Expert. In addition to leading photo tours worldwide, he has shot high school sports professionally for CBS Interactive. He co-authored one of the first books on digital photography with colleague Moose Peterson and has taught workshops for North American Nature Photography Association and Digital Landscape Workshop Series.

David's travel and nature photo tours and safaris include destinations in Africa, Southeast Asia, and throughout North America. His images of creatures in the wild help communicate the importance of our natural heritage and our responsibility to preserve it, while his journalistic efforts span both photography and technology.