Thursday, June 30, 2011

Spider and I

Spider and I sit watching the sky
On a world without sound
We knit a web to catch one tiny fly
For our world without sound

We sleep in the morning
We dream of a ship that sails away
A thousand miles away
(Brian Eno)

I can't help but think of Brian Eno's haunting song "Spider and I", a flashback from decades ago. Now, I hear the song in my head when I paddle into the creeks of Biscayne Bay. If you paddle through any mangrove creek in the summer and look up every few seconds or so, you will see a golden silk (banana) spider and her very large orb web above you. So it is that one of my favorite past times is to get into the creeks and search for spiders and attempt to photograph these creatures.
It isn't easy and many would say, "Why bother?" when you can walk in a park and find the spiders at eye level. Indeed, why photograph an ibis from a canoe when you can find them in parks as well? It's quite simple why I bother with it. First and foremost, the challenge and learning to get better at it. But I think the primary reason I do it is simply because the spiders are as much a part of Biscayne Bay as the birds and sharks. So why not photograph them?

What goes into photographing this awesome spider involves several attempts at keeping the boat in the right place and minimizing movement. Noise and closeness are not a problem; the spider does not see, but rather senses vibration. As long as I do not disrupt the web, I can stay with a particular spider without it running away.

First, I look for a subject that I can capture with only the sky as a background. Lighting is important of course, but I am finding that with my flash, back light as well as side light can work quite well. I especially like the back light because it illuminates the spider's thin legs, giving them a bright yellow radiance. Before I anchor, I move my boat around a bit and find a good angle from which to shoot. I am often looking straight up and not paying attention to what is level with me and the boat (like branches or my paddle falling out of the boat because I absentmindedly layed it across the gunwales). Once I know where I want to be, I have to figure out how to anchor the boat so I will stay in that particular spot. This is difficult with any amount of current. The key is to anchor so the boat moves away from the anchor with the current. But most important, I need to face the spider. Sometimes, it takes a few attempts to figure out where the boat will end up once anchored.

Once anchored, I can meter the exposure, get the flash ready and start shooting. Taking several shots of the same composition is necessary. The boat is almost always moving, the worse condition for shooting close ups. If the spider is completely on one plane, I can get away with a wide aperture and thus, increase my shutter speed to a reasonable level to get a sharp image. But most of the time, the spider is not on the same plane, rather its head and front legs are facing me and its hind legs and abdomen are farther away. With the size of the spider, we are talking about a 3-4 inch distance between tip of back legs and front legs. And typically, I am no more than 5-7 feet away from the spider. Without a significant dof, I cannot get the spider in focus.

The other morning I experimented with a slow shutter speed, 1/200 and increased the dof with an aperture of f16. With the fill flash, I had an advantage. With lots of attempts, I was pleased to find a few sharp images, with spider in focus. Movement of the boat is inevitable, so I set the focus to automatic spot (not continuous) and aim at the head. As soon as the camera signals I have focus, I shoot instantly.
With practice, the images have improved. Now, my goal is to capture the spider in various lighting and positions, try to find something different each time. In the meantime, enjoy these photos of the golden silk spider. A couple are from 2 years ago, a few from last year and the remainder from this past week on Biscayne Bay.

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