Sunday 15 September 2013

Spider portraiture

It is quite flattering that several people have congratulated me over the years on the invertebrate photos I feature in BugBlog, thank you guys! I don't claim to be a photographer, but I am happy to share a few tips on the white bowl technique, which I regularly use on critters found around the house and garden, especially on non-flying ones. As today I found the first male house spider, Tegenaria sp., of the season, I thought a post on this topic was timely.
Before my daughter finished saying 'spider!' I got the little beast running across the kitchen floor into a little plastic pot. For this, I save any little plastic pot I come across. You know the onion salad pot from an indian takeaway? ideal! To hold the bug for a few minutes the pot does not even need to have holes on the top. I also have a 'proper' bug viewing pot (like the one featured in the photos below). My bug pots are always available on the side of the kitchen and I always carry one in my bag.
The second piece of equipment is the bowl. A flat-bottomed white bowl, like those used for soup, is ideal, as its sides help reflect the light. Better if there is a smooth transition from the bottom to the sides, as it will reduce undesirable reflections.
 I take the bug pot and bowl to the conservatory (or outside, weather permitting), as I like as much natural light as possible.
And push the cat out of the chair (sorry!).
 Then I remove the lid of the bug pot, put the bowl on top, turn it round to transfer the spider to the bowl surface.
I'd like to say that, although it is a common technique, I don't like to use the fridge to cool down the animal, I am impatient and I want to get the photos and release the animal as soon as possible. Many of the bugs are naturally slow and settle quickly on the pot, or stop long enough for the shots. Male spiders at this time of the year are challenging, as they are very jittery and require a bit of attention until they are posing well. Usually, tapping on the table will startle them and they will stop running around. Unfortunately, they often stop leaning on the side of the pot, so when you remove it, they are settled in awkwardly like so...
...which is not ideal. I move the pot slowly until the spider is in the middle and blow softly under the pot, until the spider spread its legs.
Now lets go to camera settings. I don't own a DSLR, just a bridge camera (Canon Powershot G12, if you are wondering), but you can achieve a similar effect with any portable camera. I first set the flash on, and increase the flash setting to +2, this is important if the bug is dark, as the auto flash setting will result on an overall dark animal and not a very white background. You might need to experiment with your camera to find the best flash setting.
No flash
Flash on to +1
Then I set the focal point to the top left hand side of the visual field (nearer to the flash itself), instead of the central position. This ensures the animal is not in the shade of the objective. If I didn't do this, once I cropped the photo, the bottom right corner would be grey, not white, as it would be shaded by the objective. You can simulate this on a cameral without this setting by focusing in the middle point and then moving the camera trying not to lose the focus so that the animal is located in the top left hand side of the visual field.
 Today, I experimented by holding the camera vertical, so that the flash light came exactly in front of the spider.
Set the camera to macro, and fire away. I usually take lots of photos, as I want to get the focus right on the animal's eyes and I try also several angles, which are often useful for ID purposes.
  I download the photos in the computer and do some basic processing. Crop the white/grey space out, adjust the levels so that the white background is actually white, remove specks of dust or dirt and sharpen a little. That's it!
White level adjustment
 This one is my favourite of the session today. Although the white background is not perfect, as it is greyer on the right hand side, I like the spooky effect of the spider leg shadows.


RayHolden said...

Ever since you first wrote about your white bowl, I've been trying to find one, but... the best I could find was the bowl that sits on top of kitchen scales.

Do you never pop them in the fridge for a while? Not even bugs that will quickly take to the wing, such as bees and wasps ...and 'hoppers? I do, even at friends' houses.

Ragged Robin said...

Great post - thanks so much for all the photographic tips - I have learnt such a lot :)

Jess said...

This is awesome and very useful for me as I am rubbish at taking photos with my camera! Definitely going to try this :-)

Africa Gomez said...

Thank you Jess, I hope it helps!