Spiders may not be the most popular creatures around. When it comes to macro photography, though, they’re one of the most fascinating, detailed and varied subjects you can choose. We’re about to give you some tips on photographing spiders up close, as well as some striking examples of why you might want to give it a try.
Gearing Up for Photographing Spiders
Knowing what equipment to have on hand for spider macrophotography is a matter of knowing a few things about your potential subjects:
- Most spiders are small
- They are often shy
- Most can move quickly
A macro lens
To get a closeup, you’re going to want a lens that’s capable of macro magnification. That means you’ll want one with a reproduction ratio of at least 1:1. You’re also going to want a lens that captures fine details well – spiders are very intricate subjects.
Being able to keep your distance a bit will help both you and your subject. (For many people, a sudden movement by a spider is enough to trigger quite an involuntary response.) A long focal length will help you avoid spooking your subjects – and possibly yourself.
You’ll want a lens with a wide maximum aperture. While you won’t be shooting at the widest setting most of the time, photographing spiders takes fast shutter speeds. The lower the f/numbers, the higher your chances of getting the shot in low light and freezing any motion.
Our Irix 150mm f/2.8 1:1 Macro Dragonfly lens was engineered with challenging macro subjects in mind. Its extended focal length, fast maximum aperture and true macro capability give you just the right combination for capturing our arachnid pals. It’s also much more affordable than most comparable lenses.
A flash unit (or two)
Although not always necessary, having a flash will increase your chances of success with skittish macro subjects. Of course, a ring flash or other macro-specific device may be beneficial, but a simple external flash may be enough for photographing spiders, especially if you have a reflector.
Don’t worry about spending lots of money on this. All you need is something to scatter the light from your flash, to create more even light and avoid hot spots. Anything, including translucent white plastic, foam, or even paper will work. If your flash has a built-in diffuser or bounce reflector, that’s probably good enough for most situations.
While the items above (and your camera, of course) are all you should need for the photos themselves, you’ll want to make yourself a list of essentials for the location you’ll be shooting. Scissors or pruning shears on hand may help you gently clear obstructions. A piece of poster board can be used to hide distracting backgrounds and may double as a reflector. A tarp or sheet of plastic might keep your clothes dry. Plan ahead.
Keep in mind that your photo shoots may not be limited to the outdoors. We’ll discuss photographing spiders in the studio a bit later in this article.
If you’re going to shoot spiders in their natural habitat, you’ll obviously want to know where to locate them. Fortunately, with an estimated 3,000 or more species here in the United States, you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding them almost anywhere.
Generally speaking, you’ll need to know a little about a spider’s habits if you’re looking for a particular type. Orb weavers and garden spiders are easy enough to find. Common house dwellers are, too, if you look in the dark, protected areas, like crawl spaces. Most of the jumping spiders can be found hunting in sunny areas. Don’t forget to look in the grass for wolf spiders, grass spiders, etc.
Chances are, you already have a few spider photography locations in mind. If you find yourself truly fascinated with it, there are a number of great guides available online and in print.
Get to Know Your Equipment
Working with a small, live subject isn’t the best scenario for learning how to use your camera, lens and lighting equipment. If you’re not completely familiar with shooting macro, especially with supplemental flash, practice in an environment you can easily control.
Lighting a subject as intricate as a spider isn’t easy to master. Macro focusing requires patience and a steady hand. Finding the right aperture for the depth of field you want to achieve takes practice. Set up some small projects and use them to work out the best methods for you and your gear. You’ll be glad you did.
Because of the differences in lighting equipment, lenses and cameras, as well as different shooting situations, throwing out the “best” settings for shooting spiders would be inaccurate, to say the least. We will offer a few recommendations:
- Try to keep your shutter speed high (1/125s is a good starting place)
- Start at f/8 to f/11 with your aperture. Remember that diffraction at maximum and minimum settings may adversely affect sharpness
- Try to keep ISO as low as possible to avoid noise
- Burst (Continuous) mode for your shutter may be helpful
Take some test Shots
Get a feel for the settings before you start by taking a few test shots of foliage or other parts of the surroundings that you can use to judge your exposure settings, depth of field, etc.
Stalking your Subjects
While most web weavers will stay fairly still, jumping spiders and other hunting types will be more easily disturbed. In either case, a slow approach will be less likely to chase your subjects away. Fiddling with your lighting gear, etc. is likely to spook them, too, so try to have things in position ahead of time.
Your subject is going to be aware of you. (Multiple eyes are a definite advantage.) Don’t try to conceal yourself; just move slowly and be still as much as possible. Some spider species will strike a challenging pose when you get close. If you’re ready, it can be a great opportunity to shoot.
Don’t forget Composition
A good macro photo is nice, but a great macro photo is a matter of more than just capturing the subject. Pay attention to the framing of your subject. Try to avoid cluttered images and distracting backgrounds. Use depth of field to isolate your subject.
While modern autofocus systems may resolve well enough, you’ll probably get better results with manual focusing. Remember that even the slightest movement of the camera or subject will shift the focus at macro magnification. This can delay your AF system or cause it to “hunt” without resolving. In many cases, you can prefocus, then simply move back and forth slightly while shooting short “bursts” to make sure you get a shot with the correct focus.
Focus on the eyes when photographing spiders. A spider’s eyes aren’t usually considered “expressive”, but there are other good reasons to focus in them for their “portraits”. Not only can you capture reflections of yourself and/or the surroundings in them, but they’re located close to the main areas of interest, such as mouth parts and front legs.
Try Focus Stacking
If your subject stays still long enough, you might want to consider focus stacking. Obviously, this tends to work best with the camera stabilized. For some tips on focus stacking, check out this article.
Bring the Subjects Indoors
If you’re not squeamish about spiders in the house, you can easily set up a more controlled environment for your spider shoots. Setting up a “stage” in your studio can help eliminate problems caused by wind and weather, poor lighting conditions and much more. You can also set up a more permanent arrangement for your flash head(s).
While you’re indoors, you can even consider taking your spider photography to a whole new level, with the help of a confident model:
Shots like the one above, of course, aren’t exactly macro, but fortunately, the Irix 150mm f/2.8 Dragonfly is an awesome portrait lens, too!
Get Out and Give it a Try
Spider photography with a macro lens is a challenge that can open your eyes to a whole new, small world. With a good macro lens, a little bit of lighting gear and practice, you may find a new appreciation for these creatures.