Tips for Arachnids, and Chilopods (Centipedes)
Remember, it’s all about composition!!!
- The top flowers are clipped to my disgruntlement, but other than that I’m happy with the photo. Even the black background contrasts nicely with the white of the flowers. Small spider camouflaged amongst the hoya flowers. Borneo.
Most spiders are harmless, and though they may appear quite vicious, the same rule applies to them as to the snakes below. Even the more poisonous spiders would rather leave you alone than waste their precious venom on you. Like most insects, the focal point is the face and eyes, though this can be complicated by the mouthparts and fangs which one would ideally like to get into focus as well. Therefore a smaller aperture might be of use when photographing frontal portraits at high magnifications. The problem I often face with spiders, day or night is not disturbing them. People are generally very careful when it comes to approaching flying insects because it makes the difference between getting a shot of the insect and getting a shot of the leaf it was sitting on. Yet they do not import that same care when photographing other more terrestrial insects. In my opinion this is a mistake. All insects and animals should be approached slowly and carefully. Even if you still manage to get a photo of the insect, after it has been alerted to your presence it will no longer remain in a natural pose but will adopt either a threatening posture or a cryptic one in which it tries to hide as best it can. The latter also provides good photographic opportunities as mentioned earlier. But your priority should be natural poses/behaviour, which after you have documented you can on to disturb the creature and get it into a better pose.
Unlike a lot of other animals, arachnids can often be found feeding or engaging in other behavioural displays which can be caught to very good effect.
- Mating running crab spiders. Here the male is inserting his sperm packet via his palps into an egg casing that the female has made. An interesting tangle of legs make this scene interesting and the colours are quite complementary. Manu national park, Peru.
So keep your eyes out for these. But watch out when they are feeding, because if you disturb them with your photography, typically when you hold the leaf or branch they are on to stabilize the camera, they will often drop their prey and assume an unnatural, threatened position. So approach with care.
- Kleptoparasitic spider (Argyrodes) inhabiting the web of a larger spider. The kleptoparasite mostly stays out of the way of the larger spider on whose web it lives, but it will steal food, never bothering to build its own web. They are too small to be of any real concern to the larger spider and so they generally go unmolested. There can be dozens of these little spiders on a single web. This photo shows to good effect the use of foreground and background subjects. The former is the main subject and is in focus, whilst the latter is out of focus but still contributes to the story in an important way. Despite the fact that this is technically a portrait shot, it is also demonstrates kleptoparasitic behaviour. Manu national park, Peru.
- Harvestmen are one of the few omnivorous insects. They are cannibalistic eating their own, I have seen them eating fungi and leaf litter, as well as other insects. This is probably one of the reasons for their huge radiation within the tropics and worldwide. Manu national park, Peru.
I find harvestmen quite difficult to shoot well. They are gangly if one wants to incorporate their legs and they have small beady eyes which can be difficult to get into focus. Their legs move across their eyes giving out of focus areas, the list goes on. So generally pictures including the entire spider aren’t ideal. So focus on the body. Many have dorsal patterns that make them particularly amenable to an overhead view.
- This cosmetid harvestman was an ideal candidate for an overhead shot based on its intricate markings and spinular anatomy. Mahdia, Guyana.
Orbweavers and web building spiders
- Large orbweaver ventral portrait. Here the colours on the ventral side were much more interesting than the dorsum. I was also able to get pretty close without disturbing it so the legs remained splayed rather than tucked in which would ruin the effect. The main goal here was to display the colours to good effect. Manu national park, Peru.
- Cyclosa insulana. These spiders build some of the most extraordinary webs and so they really need to be showcased in their microcosm. The circular white thread, a thread quite distinct from that used to form the rest of the web is the stabilimentum. Spiders can form up to 7 different kinds of silk from their spinnerets, modifying the basic silk polymer by different extrusion mechanisms. The purpose of the stabilimentum isn’t fully known. It’s thought that it might be used to alert birds from flying into and destroying the webs. Found during a night hike in Maliau basin Agathis camp, Borneo.
The above picture would have been very easy to make flat and uninteresting despite the amazingly ornate web. Why, because webs are almost always in a single plane like a sheet of paper. And so unless you tilt that plane then it constantly gives only a single perspective. Here the plane is tilted slightly, very subtly and I tried to find the spider itself on an angle to add further interest. Cyclosa spiders in general make for very good subjects because they have a variety of interesting adaptations in web design.
Jumping spiders have lots of personality and are very photogenic so this isn’t a group that is too hard to photograph. They cock their heads to the side as though deliberating their next move, they will often put their front legs out in front of them just before jumping, they have a variety of great poses. When photographing jumpers I prefer the pose immediately before they jump or when they tilt their heads back and look up at the camera with their two large median eyes.
- Jumping spider before take off. Manu national park, Peru.
Sometimes the jumpers won’t readily oblige in their poses and seemingly look everywhere but where you want them to. They naturally jump higher rather than lower. So you can get them to look up by putting your finger or a stick slightly above them with one hand while you wait for the pose and shoot with the other. Or you may have to curl or tilt the branch/leaf that they are sitting on.
- Female Lyssomanes looking up into the camera. Notice the large amount of foreground space that I allowed in this photo which gives her the appearance of being ready to jump right into the camera. Iwokrama, Guyana.
Let the morphological features and behaviour guide what kind of shot you take. Below you can see two ‘decent’ shots, altogether different and both showing an interesting aspect of the same spider’s biology. The first is a front on portrait showing the green eyes and face.
Male Lyssomanes, frontal portrait. Iwokrama reserve, Guyana
- Dorsal view of male Lyssomanes sp. Iwokrama reserve, Guyana.
Second shot isn’t great as it is slightly obscured by a web above it, but it gives a good impression of the long front legs that isn’t nearly as impressive in the first photo.
The eyes of jumpers take up most of their face and a shot missing this key element might be found lacking unless some other important focal point is found. Front on portraits are very common for a reason, they show these eyes to their best advantage. Jumpers will often attack prey that looks huge in comparison to their diminutive size, these can make for very interesting shots as well.
- Here is an example of both points above, where both the eyes and a large prey have been caught. Mahdia, Guyana.
- Hunting spider (Sparassidae). Usually these lie flat when confronted with a camera but this one was feeling bold and approached the lens. So I got a few shots off of this confrontation and therefore got a pretty good pose. Bako national park, Borneo.
Argyrodes and bright spiders
I haven’t taken a lot of photos of these kinds of spiders and those that I have have turned out not quite as well as I’d hoped. I would however recommend very strong diffusion to balance out the metallic sheen many of these spiders have or else cross polarization. I will post images when I have experimented further.
Tarantulas and other mygalomorphs
- Orange legged mygalomorph (Ephebopus cyanognathus). Thanks to Flickr’s Techuser for the ID.
Get over your fear of these friendly giants.They make great subjects. Most are slow and ponderous in their movements (except the above example of course). Try and get them as they are climbing over obstacles. Try and sharpen their hairs to really accentuate that fuzziness that is one of their chief distinguishing features. If you can get a good shot of their jaws and fangs, go for it. Lucky you! They often look quite ominous, and so a picture of one in a frontal portrait coming out of its burrow is usually a pretty good pose to show off as well. They usually come out at night, and stay in their burrows during the day, another reason to try night hikes.
- Orange legged mygalomorph (Ephebopus cyanognathus) emerging from its den. Kaieteur falls, Guyana.
Crab spiders (Thomisidae)
- Crab spider with prey. Here the camouflage is shown to good effect and the typical ’embracing’ pose is shown to good effect. Tukeit, Guyana.
One of the nice things about crab spiders is their penchant for staking out flowers in the hopes of ensnaring nectar seeking insects. However they often have colours that blend in with the flowers making them difficult to differentiate. Try boosting contrast and adding additional sharpening to the edges of the spider to bring out details. They also have an open stance whereby they splay their legs waiting for prey. These can make for excellent poses.
- This crab spider is hiding amongst the hairs of a beautifully quilled leaf. This plant also has nectar stores and is a good place to lay in wait. Kaieteur falls, Guyana.
I am still working on this one. Frankly there isn’t a single scorpion shot that I have ever done that I am happy with and would be proud to display. They are very hard to give personality to. Short of going out with a blacklight and showing their UV fluorescence which is interesting just for the pure novelty of it, I seem incapable of getting good shots. The best I have is of one feeding on a spider. But even this one I’m not entirely pleased with.
- Don’t particularly like the colour reproduction in the green tones here. I like it for the behaviour, but I feel like it could have been displayed to much better effect based on a different angle but it was scuttling away and I just snapped a few shots, all from a similar angle. Manu national park, Peru.
After some time I have found another feeding scorpion which in my opinion I have caught to much better effect. Don’t expect to see this kind of behaviour often in the wild. In about 3 months walking days and nights this is the only one I came across.
- Scorpion feeding on a cockroach. Kanuku mountains, Guyana.
- Scorpion feeding on a cockroach (Full view). Kanuku mountains, Guyana.
I think that one needs to catch the rare pose, and the rare behaviour to really make these shots come alive. Mothers with offspring would be one such photo that would be quite good. I suspect that one would have to get creative with the composition and find one in an unusual position or else on a flower or a macroscape that is different from the tired, old tree stumps you usually find them on. Keep an eye on this category to see if I come up with anything though.
Finally arrived at this after long days and nights of nothing in this category!
- Scorpion courtship behaviour. Lucky to find these during a night hike in the Kanuku mountains, Guyana.
- Scorpions in courtship (full view) taking during a night hike in the Kanuku mountains, Guyana.
After some thought I know of the pose I want to catch next now it is just the matter of accomplishing the task. I’d like to use a relatively slow shutter speed and catch a front on view of the spider as it attempts to sting. Hopefully catching a slight blur of motion in the process. Easier said then done though. I’ll keep you apprised of my progress.
Whip spiders (Amblypygids)
Out of the tropics and into temperate zones not a lot of people have heard of these arachnids. And so for some, any shot of one of these is a good one. But having come across a number of them I beg to differ. They often lie flat against tree trunks or in the hollows of dead trees. They are cricket/grasshopper specialists. They’re exceedingly long and elegant front legs are used as feelers with which they scan their surroundings. These are very difficult to incorporate into a well composed photo, since they are inevitably held at angles which wind up being cut off while cropping or trying to get more detail out of the body. These are incredibly fast insects, akin to scutigera. But, they usually don’t run far, usually just around to the other side of the tree bole. So if you lose sight of it while hunting don’t despair and continue looking around for it because it usually hasn’t travelled far. These subjects make excellent front on portrait shots. Shoot their jaws and faces, do a focus stack or use a small aperture.
- Frontal portrait showing to good effect the amazing claws used to grasp prey. Manu national park, Peru.
Display those characteristics that really make this a frightening predator and use them to good effect in the photo. Here it is the colours, the contrasting blacks and reds along with the long spines and eyes. The posture is such that it anthropomorphizes malignant intent.
- closeup portrait of Amblypygid. Iwokrama rainforest reserve, Guyana.
- Most whip spiders are plain black or dull grey colours. However occasionally you can come across some real gems. Especially 1) right after they moult and 2) In their earlier juvenile stages. Here the ‘tiger’ patterns are present in the juvenile only and fade to a glossy black. Iwokrama forest reserve, Guyana.
- The most colourful whip spider that I’ve ever seen! Juvenile Amblypygid found in Iwokrama rainforest reserve, Guyana.
Other angles I have been less successful with simply because they always hold extremely tightly to the bark and hence composing different angles is quite difficult if not impossible. One is very limited.
I am still working to either transfer one to a leaf or take a shot while it is on the ground. Neither of which is its natural habitat. I have tried in the past, but they don’t like this and make all haste to get back to where they are most comfortable. Here is the one that I shot in the past.
- Amblypygid on the ground in threat display. I had to encourage it to drop from the tree and I’m not satisfied with this picture, but it shows potential. A crop would probably be better. Manu national park, Peru.
You can see that it adopts a different threatening posture from what it usually displays. But it was quick to retreat, so I will update this when I get a shot that I like better.
Finally, it’s not especially common, but if you can find one with prey, these make for great shots. I’ve only seen it a few times but I am quite happy with this shot. You need to choose your angles carefully both to maximize depth of field for both predator and prey but also so that there is no obstruction of key features from one insect to another.
- Amblypygid with cockroach prey. Iwokrama rainforest reserve, Guyana.
Coming soon, when I get more pictures of them!
I find Scutigera quite difficult to shoot well because like harvestmen they have all those bloody legs. So most shots will look something like this:
- This is in my opinion is a very poor photograph. The head isn’t a focal point, it is a very flat image, the many legs aren’t shown to the best effect. Come on Paul, get your act together! But what is a photographer to do with these intriguing, disgusting, bizarre creatures??!
Scutigera really benefit from behaviour shots, and close up portraits. Those multifaceted eyes are really nice for closeups. Their front pair of legs are modified into fangs like in all centipedes and so getting these in focus will also be of importance. One of my best photos of a scutigera is this behaviour scene I stumbled across in Borneo.
- A moulting scutigera. A rare moment, out of the hundreds of scutigera I have seen, this is the only one I have ever caught moulting, but it makes for a wonderful sight! Now the framing isn’t ideal here, I can probably crop the left hand side without losing anything but it is an interesting photo that begs to be looked at more closely. Bako national park, Borneo.
Two feeding shots now. One good, one mediocre.
This first shot is the lesser of the two, it shows a decent angle, and is a good behavioural shot, but it is really missing something to make it interesting. It comes across as pretty flat.
- Full bodied pose of a Scutigera feeding. I think that it is the lack of a focal point which causes this photo to lose a lot of its impact. There’s nothing to really pay a lot of attention to. The prey is shown well, it is wrapped up in several of the legs, the dangling pose is nice. But one is left thinking that this shot doesn’t live up to its potential. Maybe an angle from below would have been better? Somewhere in Borneo.
On to the second shot.
This second shot I quite like. The eyes and face are shown to much better effect and the characteristic dangling pose that these animals adopt is shown better as well. The lighting is what makes this shot though. The strong illumination of the head and the areas of interest with a gradually receding light towards the extremities really highlights the action of the photo. The detail of the closeup is always nice too. So, in summary look for these critters at night standing vertically on tree trunks or sometimes suspended from leaves. Try not to disturb them because they are quick! And unlikely to give you a second chance of shooting them. They will either run around and up/down the tree or else drop to the ground. In either case they do not stop like the Amblypygids to offer you many other chances.