If I had to pick one thing that drew me into taking a serious interest in photography it would be insects. My “photographic journey” started with me pointing an old point-and-shoot at various creepy-crawlies I’d find around the garden. The camera in question had a pretty decent macro function and the detail that the photos revealed beyond what I could see with my naked eye fascinated me. After a while I found myself wanting more control and more detail then I could get from my compact camera – I got my first DSLR at the end of 2009 and my interest has grown from there.
While insects were a massive source of inspiration I have to confess that, in the early days of my photography, I was a complete wimp when it came to spiders. Just being in the same room as one would make me slightly uncomfortable and there was no chance I was getting close to any by choice. Almost five years of crawling through all kinds of vegetation full of a whole host of creepy-crawlies for the sake of photos has left me with little option but to face that fear though and, while they’re still not my favourite creature, spiders have now become more of a source of fascination than fear.
In order to fill an eight-legged hole in my photo library, I recently set out to photograph some spiders with one particularly photogenic little arachnid as my primary goal; the Wasp Spider.
Native to central Europe, northern Europe, north Africa and parts of Asia, wasp spiders were first recorded in the UK in the 1920s. Originally they were only found along the South Coast, but they’ve spread rapidly in recent years and are now found across large parts of the South of England. After some searching around on the internet, I came up with a possible location local to me and headed out to hunt down some spiders. The site I chose was typical of their favoured habitat of rough grassland. It also happened to be on an incredibly steep hill and was peppered with small, incredibly prickly shrubs, both of which added to the challenge. After a few fruitless hours of combing through shrubs and patches of long grass, I finally found my first wasp spider.
Despite being relatively large and brightly coloured (in the case of the females – males are smaller and fairly drab in comparison), they’re not the easiest thing to spot as they tend to weave their webs low down amongst vegetation where they blend in surprisingly well. They’re a type of orb web spider, so their webs look fairly similar to other orb web species like the common Garden Spider. They decorate these webs with zig-zag patterns called stabilimenta:
Whilst the biggest challenge was probably finding the spiders in the first place, from a photographic point of view the most challenging element was capturing them against a smooth background rather than one cluttered with slightly out of focus vegetation. Given how low the web was, this ultimately meant lying with one side of my face almost flat against the ground and with my left arm in a thorn bush. This less than comfortable position allowed me to get the camera angled almost slightly upwards giving a background that included more distant vegetation and sky.
Having captured some portraits in natural surroundings, I went on to try some more creative approaches. For the following shot, I chose to under-expose and rely solely on flash to light the spider. This meant that the background became completely black, creating more contrast within the scene, accentuating the vivid colours of the spider.
I also created a black and white conversion to highlight the spider’s intricately patterned abdomen.
A couple of Garden Spiders (Araneus diadematus) that caught my eye whilst I was searching for the Wasp Spider:
With the exception of the habitat shot, for which I used a wide-angle Sigma 10-20mm lens, all the photos in this blog post were captured using a Canon 100mm USM Macro lens. The size of the subject, and the fact that, for the most part I wanted to keep the whole of the spider in the frame, meant that I was not exactly pushing the lens to its limits. However, its sharpness, the working distance it gave me, and the knowledge that I wasn’t going to run into issues of going beyond its minimum focussing distance made it the obvious choice for the job.
For all of these photos I used a combination of natural light and a single flash. The main purpose of using flash was to allow me to use a small enough aperture to keep the whole spider in focus while keeping a low ISO to avoid losing detail to noise, and a reasonable shutter speed. This wouldn’t have been possible using natural light alone. I positioned the flash off camera and used radio triggers to fire it in order to give me maximum flexibility and control over the lighting.
For the “night time” shot, I chose camera settings that, relying on natural light alone, would’ve resulted in severe under-exposure. I then used flash to correctly expose the subject, with it positioned in such a way that it would light the spider but not the immediate background.
Although I chose to use the natural background for most of the photos, for the image with the bright yellow background showing the stabilimentum I carefully placed a piece of coloured card behind the web.