Animals, insects, and moving creatures of any kind can be difficult to photograph, for different reasons. But if you are like the 30% of Americans who describe themselves as arachnophobic, spiders can present an especially difficult photographic challenge. Now, I'm not a psychologist nor do I pretend to know much about the treatment of arachnophobia, but if you simply cannot imagine yourself getting close enough to a spider to photograph it, then I have an alternative suggestion for you. Why not photograph a spiders web instead? Read on to find out how.
[ Top image Dewy Decor by Flickr user CaptPiper]
Now, of course spiders' webs often have spiders in residence, but my theory is that if you first focus on the beauty and intricacies of that spider's web, you may not think its occupant is quite so frightening. Of course I could be completely off-base and it probably depends on just how terrified you are of spiders in general, but you can't argue that there is a lot of beauty to those delicate structures that spiders call home.
So shake off that trepidation the next time you encounter a spiders web and take a step backwards, then take a look at its structure and ask yourself whether it might make an interesting or even beautiful photograph.
Show some respect
The first thing to remember, though if you are an arachnophobic it's probably not going to be far from your mind, is that a spider's web is someone's home. If you damage a spider's web, you're creating unnecessary work for its occupant—she's going to have to rebuild that web at some point. Now you may not care, especially if spiders haunt your nightmares, but I think if you start to think of those little builders and their homes as worthy of being photographed, you'll also start to think of them as worthy of being preserved. So try your best not to damage the spider's webs, and then both you and the spider can walk away from the experience no worse for wear.
You might be tempted to spray a little bit of water on that web so you can get that dewdrop look, but even a little bit of incorrectly applied mist has the potential to damage the web, so it's probably going to be better to wait until a morning where there is a lot of natural dew.
Evening sunlight by Flickr user Appalachian dreamer
What you need
Spiderweb photography is just like any macro photography – you need to have either a macro lens for your DSLR camera, or you need a good point-and-shoot camera with a closer focusing macro mode. You also need to have a tripod — tripods can help you get that focus point right (I'll explain that in detail later on in this article). Along with the tripod you will need to have some way to remotely release your shutter. I often recommend using a self timer if you don't have a remote release, but that can be problematic for photographing spider's webs, especially if they have spiders in them, because you want your exposure to happen the moment you press the button. So a remote release is going to allow you to make the exposure you want, without risking the camera shake that can happen if you manually touch your shutter button.
You will also need a camera that has the ability to focus manually. That is not to say that you will not be able to get great photographs of spiders' webs with a point-and-shoot camera that does not have manual focus, but you may find it difficult because a spider's web is so fine that your autofocus may not be able to lock onto it, preferring instead to lock onto whatever is in the background. This is where it can help to have an actual spider in the web — if you use your autofocus to lock onto the spider itself the web is going to come into focus too, provided you're not using an aperture so wide that the spider is on a different plane of focus than the web is.
WEB-2 by Flickr user puliarf
Spiders webs are very light, delicate, and can be difficult to see. Have you ever had the experience of someone pointing out a spiders web to you and it taking a few moments and a couple of different angles before you could actually see it for yourself? That's because spider's silk is extremely fine, averaging around .003 mm in diameter for the average garden spider. So unless you are standing in such a way that the light reflects off the web rather than passing through it, you're not going to see it. That means that your camera isn't going to see it either. You can help make the spider's web more visible by orienting your camera so that the web is in front of a dark background. Green foliage will help the web stand out, while lighter colors such as dry grass or a cloudy sky may not. And the more evenly colored the background, the easier the web will be to see. Backgrounds that transition from light to dark and back again are going to cause some of the strands to appear fainter or disappear altogether, while other strands will stand out quite well.
If you've ever photographed delicate flowers on a windy day, you know how challenging it can be. In fact wind (or lack thereof) is the primary reason, besides the light, that flower photographers prefer working in the early morning. You may find that the same is true for spiders' webs. Even a very slight breeze can be enough to cause that spider's web to shift, which can create motion blur at slow enough shutter speeds but more importantly, can throw that very fine web out of the plane of focus and cause it to be blurry in the image. You'll probably have the best luck avoiding the wind if you do your spider photography early in the morning—that tends to be the most wind-free time of the day.
my new neighbor building his place by Flickr user JesseBarker
Of course wind isn't the only thing that can throw a spider's web out of the plane of focus—the movement in your hands can do that as well. This is where that tripod comes in handy. When you are very close to a very small subject such as a spider's web, you may have difficulty handholding your camera and keeping the web sharp. That's because the web is on a very narrow plane of focus and even a small change in camera position can cause it to leave that plane of focus. So if you mount your camera on a tripod, you can be sure that it locks onto the web and stays there, barring any unforeseen circumstances such as a sudden gust of wind.
Orb spiders in particular weave very symmetrical webs, so a symmetrical composition can be beautiful. But definitely experiment with other ways to compose your image as well—remember that when you get very close to your subject, your depth of field becomes very shallow, so if you are shooting your web at an angle, you may find that you lose focus fairly quickly and only get a very narrow area of the scene in sharp focus, even if you select a narrower aperture. That can make for an interesting composition so don't discount it, but try to get a few shots with the web oriented parallel to your lens as well. Because orb spider webs are one-dimensional, if you make sure the web is parallel to your lens you can use a much wider aperture to blur out the background, which can bring the web forward and make it a lot easier to see.
Photo-A-Day #909b 10/04/07 by Flickr user BenSpark
Don't think you absolutely must use a symmetrical composition on a symmetrical web—if you place the web and its occupant on more of a rule of thirds composition, you can also get an interesting and unique photo. So treat this as an opportunity that you might not find again for a while, and try to shoot from as many different perspectives as you can come up with.
Of course not every spider makes a one-dimensional web — you may also find interesting spider's webs that are all over the place. If you're shooting a web like that, a narrower aperture is probably going to be necessary, but even so you may not be able to get the entire web in focus, especially if you are reasonably close to it.
Pay attention to the light
The light can really make or break your spider's web photographs, so if you're having a tough time capturing your spider's web from one angle, walk around behind it and shoot from the other side. You may find that the light just hits it better on one side than it does on the other. You can also consider adding a little bit of light with your flash. Sometimes just bouncing a small amount of light off of those delicate strands of spider silk can really bring it into the foreground, but take care not to overdo it or you'll end up with an image that looks really unnatural.
It might comfort you to know that you don't ever need to be close enough to the spider to put yourself within striking distance (the vast majority of spiders are not aggressive and will not bite unless provoked, anyway). That probably doesn't help you if you've been suffering with a lifelong case of arachnophobia, but if you can overcome your trepidation long enough to get those photos and really start to admire the beauty of the webs and their occupants rather than worrying about the creepy-crawliness of them, you may actually start to overcome your fear. And even if you don't, you're going to have some beautiful photographs for your portfolio that will, at the very least, impressive those non-arachnophobics in your life.
- What you need
- A macro lens or point and shoot with a macro setting
- A tripod
- A remote release
- Manual focus
- Orient the web so it is in front of a dark background
- Avoid windy days
- Use a tripod to keep your camera steady
- Keep your web in focus by placing it parallel to your lens
- Experiment with different angles
- Center for a symmetrical composition, or use the rule of thirds
- Pay attention to the light
- Shoot during the golden hour
- Add a little flash
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