I do not consider myself a “gearhead”–that is, one who salivates over the next big thing and cannot wait to buy/try it. That said, as a photographer trying to become as flexible as possible, there are certain additions to the camera bag that I have found essential to better photography.
Some items of gear make the most obvious sense—a tripod is necessary for many, many situations to get better photographs. By “better”, I mean it in the technical aspect: an image taken at base ISO with a longer exposure will always look better than taken handheld at a jacked-up ISO and faster shutter speed (better dynamic range, less noise, etc.). Also, panoramas are much easier to shoot on a tripod (even if you aren’t using a dedicated pano head), since you don’t have to worry about keeping your arms level when turning.
Then, there are other essential items of gear that some photographers either take for granted or haven’t found the need for yet. A good example of this is a Rocket Air Blower. Giottos makes an excellent one (the large size) that I use on a daily basis. This tiny (and cheap) piece of gear is absolutely critical for getting dust and foreign objects off of lens elements or a sensor. When used right, a blower can greatly extend the time in-between necessary wet cleanings. I won’t write a review on any sort of air blower, but trust me, if you’re serious about keeping your gear clean and your images free of spots, spend $10 and buy one.
Finally, there are the specialized pieces of gear that can be important depending on a photographer’s situation or style of photography. The piece of gear up for review today is the pocket-sized version of Michael Tape’s WhiBal G7 (currently selling for about $20). This credit-card-sized grey card claims to have a true spectrally neutral grey area, sporting other features such as a shadow/highlight area, a resolution/aberration test area, and small inch/centimeter markings.
The basic function of a grey/white-balance card is to achieve accurate (or neutral) color, dependent on a given light source. By holding the card towards the camera, reflecting the same light that is hitting the subject, truly accurate white balance can be attained either through spot-metering on the card, or selecting the card via a dropper in post production. However, what is “accurate” is not always necessarily aesthetically pleasing. For instance, portraits tend to look better a little warmer than true color (by about 250-500 degrees kelvin), and figuring out the correct white balance for snow can be a crap-shoot even with a grey card.
When the light source is one-directional and consistent, white balance tools such as the WhiBal shine, as in the above/below example of a subject lit by a window (the portrait examples used in this review are from the same portrait shoot I briefly shared here):
Using the WhiBal in a studio situation is a cinch too. Simply take a shot of the card in the light before or after taking the pictures of the subject, and using the mentioned methods (spot metering before shooting or adjusting in post) will give you neutral colors. I don’t have my own home studio set-up (yet?) though, so I can’t provide my own example here. The concept of consistent light is still the same, however.
Studio issues aside, as an example of adjusting the white balance in post-processing (and to show one of the huge advantages of shooting in RAW), I accidentally shot this scene with two major problems: the white balance was accidentally set to fluorescent (making everything a shade of blue), and there is mixed lighting sources from ambient light in the front and rear light from a setting sun:
However, since I had the subject hold the WhiBal card up to his face, facing me (and reflecting the more important ambient light), I achieved much more accurate color for this sunset scene:
Even in my brief time using the WhiBal so far, I have found it is NOT a fool-proof device. For one, too much mixed ambient light can really screw up white balance that should be neutral for a given subject. In this example I was careful to have one of the subjects keep the card facing me to reflect as much ambient light as possible (also making sure both subjects didn’t change position), but the result came out much too warm, even for my colorblind eyes:
With a bit of trial and error, getting more accurate skin tones required decreasing the temperature by about 600 degrees kelvin. This is a good deal off compared to what should be neutral, and was a situation I could replicate easily depending on the amount of ambient light.
One quick item of note, using the WhiBal under fluorescent lighting isn’t recommended, shots consistently came out greener than they should have been. Of course, most photographers tend to shy away from taking “serious” photographs in fluorescent light for this reason anyway.
Let’s hit a short recap:
- Small enough to fit in a standard wallet slot
- Multiple functions that work extremely well (white balancing, finding true white/black points, checking resolution and chromatic aberrations)
- Waterproof (card is printed with ink all the way through rather than just on top)
- Scratchproof to a certain extent–scratches do not affect color but can be visible
- The “feel” of durability similar to a normal credit card
- Small size can easily make the WhiBal an item to accidentally lose
- Depending on the amount of ambient light, neutrality for the subject may not be attained
- Requires extra time in a portrait session, getting a subject to hold the card properly toward the camera can be annoying for everyone involved
That’s all for this gear review, guys and gals, thanks for dropping by! I must say white balance tools like these are very welcome in giving me a bit more confidence in acquiring more accurate color in my photographs! 🙂