The Start of the Insect/Spider Macro Season…
28 / 04 / 22
I don't know about you but it felt like a long winter this year. Normally I'd be working in Sweden for most of the winter but for a variety of reasons I wasn't working out there as much as I normally do. So whilst waiting for the insect macro life appearing I made myself busy with various little projects one of which was photographing the human eye which could be a blog in it's self...
But in short I was trying to get stacked images of the human eye and trust me it's much more difficult than I expected!
Usually as the macro insect season starts for me there is definitely a calendar of what I start to see first and this year was no exception. With the zebra jumping spider (Salticus scenicus) being one of the 1st subjects I nearly always photograph. These spiders will have over wintered and come out on the warmer days although I have seen them out at around 10C.
I find that early in the macro season all my photography tends to be handheld macro. This is because I'm reliant on finding the subjects. Only a few of the subjects I photograph have emerged and they tend to be easier to find on warm days therefore they are active. For an example if you find a jumping spider on a wall it's generally going to be moving and hunting. If I tried to use a tripod not only would it be very difficult to position the camera lens to get the correct composition but by the time I'd got one tripod leg to the right height, the spider may have moved so it's just much easier to go handheld. Although that does present it's own challenges especially as you get to higher magnifications like the below portrait at five times magnification with the Canon MP-E 65mm. You are always battling to get enough shutter speed so that you have sharp images.
Below is a video showing the technique I use to photograph these spiders. Taken a couple of years ago and sort of assumes you are already well grounded in macro photograph.
If you want a lot more detail and very well produced video, last year I did some work with a fantastic company called 'The School of Photography' and we collaborated together to produce a macro masterclass course going all the way from the basics to what I do today. There's 49 professional videos in the course and it really is something. If you want to learn more just click HERE. Even if its just to look at the previews etc as that will give you a flavour.
People do ask me how do you get stacked images of jumping spiders as they move so much. One of the things that has helped me is to first observe the spiders. Of course this doesn't help with the first thing which is finding them. Try to find some local areas which have populations of jumping spiders they are extremely well distributed around the world and locally I find that walls and fences in wild areas which catch the sun tend to be very good spots for seeing them. A mistake I used to make was as soon as I'd spotted a jumping spider I'd dive straight in a point a lens very close at it. Firstly in doing this you risk scaring the spider rather then letting it get used to you (a relaxed spider is much easier to photograph rather than a spooked spider). Secondly if you observe the spider you will get to see it has patterns to its movement. You will see it pause and you will see it move basically the more you understand how it moves the more likely you are to be able you are to catch it pausing.
Although one thing to look out for is the spiders predating things. This time of the year the spiders are actively hunting building up their energy after winter. If you are lucky enough to see the predation or find a spider with prey they will be distracted with that and allow you to photograph them. Also it makes for excellent photographic opportunities!
In the below example the spider had predated another spider.
A few days later I found my first green tiger beetle of the season. These fierce ant predators also have a reputation of being exceedingly skittish and hard to approach although with care and staying low it can be done. This was about the earliest in the season that I've found one and it was completely unperturbed by me. It did move but very slowly and it allowed me to get multiple deep (ie a lot of shots) stacks. By the date and it's unwillingness to move I came to the conclusion it must have just emerged. I'll put these into a mini gallery and just click them to see them larger.
Of course at this time of year it's not just about macro photography there are many things to photography. Bluebells have just come into their peak and after this mornings rain that will probably put them at their absolute best. A few weeks ago we had a flurry of snow during the night and a bright morning forecast so I headed to one of the local barn owl sites and I was treated to several fly pasts of the male barn owl in golden light. A fantastic morning.
As I mentioned above walls and fences are good places to find macro subjects and as someone who has been doing this I have a couple of favourite spots. One is about 20 mins drive to the east of me on a section of heath land where theres an old brick wall and a fence about 100m apart and a variety of species can be found there (my best spot for ruby tailed wasps which will emerge in a few weeks). I've spent many hours on this wall as it's probably my best spot for jumping spiders in fact it the one in the video above. So on this trip I was really surprised to find the downy jumping spider (Attulus pubescens) there as I'd not seen them here before. I found 2 females and 2 males too so they must be established. Maybe these first tow photographs show why they are hard to spot though, talk about camouflage!
By siting in the same spot on my trusty little 3 legged stool I managed to spot, firstly a downy jumping spider and then a zebra jumping spider, both had predated flies.
Another great species to look out for at this time of year, well around middle to late April, is the green hairstreak (Callophrys rubi). A very small green butterfly which tends to come out on warm days. The location I find these butterflies is in a big open area covered in bilberry bushes which have small green leaves which is where I tend to find the butterflies perched. They are quite a flighty butterfly and you need to approach slow and low in order to get close to them. But they are exceeding beautiful especially when you get close and you can see their white hairy legs!
There is a company that I do work with who use the green hairstreak as their mascot Greenwings and I'm guiding a macro photography tour with them this June in Bulgaria which is great country for macro photography. A lot of very diverse subjects to be found there such as ladybird spiders, preying mantids as well as numerous spiders and butterflies etc if you want to learn more about macro and prefer a hands on approach this would be a good trip and more details can be found HERE.
You can click on any of the below images to see them larger.
All of the above images have required some travel, not far all within about 30 mins of home, but it's always a delight when you find something in your own garden. I was actually just on the patio having a beer on Saturday afternoon when a small spider caught my eye and when I looked more closely I saw it was male wolf spider doing his courtship dance trying to get the female to allow him to mate. It's a fascinating thing to watch as he taps his legs, shakes his body and moves his pedipalps like semaphore. Over the next few days I realised there where at least 5 pairs on the patio doing courtship behaviour.
In the below video you can see various behaviours as it wasn't uncommon for the males to get bombed by other males.
On the last trip out that I'll include in this blog I was back at my jumping spider site and the first spider I saw was a gravid female downy jumping spider who again showed amazing camoflague hiding in this crack in the wall but as I sat there she came out of the crack and allowed my to get this high magnification stacked portrait (2nd image).
Shortly after I spotted a male downy jumping spider who also posed and allowed me to get a front on portrait. There really is a marked difference between the males and the females.
My last subject was on the same day which was another zebra jumping spider predating a fly but what was unusual about this image was the size of the spiders fangs, they are huge. Also in this image you can see one of the fangs has failed to penetrate the fly and spider venom has leaked onto the fly's eye. You can even see the structure of the fly's eye refracting in the spider venom in the more cropped image. The spider rearranged the fly and then properly injected its venom into the fly as you can see in the 3rd image.
That's the end of the blow. Any questions feel free to let me know in the comments below.
If you want to learn more about this type of photography my macro course with 'The School of Photography' is HERE
Or if you want to do a face to face workshop I'll be with Greewings in Bulgaria and that can be found HERE
Dragonflies and damselflies are emrging now so it's time to get the tripod out and my next blog will be on those.
All the best,
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Been following you on Facebook for a while and have been inspired by your macro photography work trying to perfect my macro photos.
Tim Caselton - 4th May, 2022