Friday, October 26, 2007

Anatomy of a Photo: Garden Spider

It seems like I've always got posts brewing, but by the time I make some time to write a post up, it's a week later than my last post. Oh well, I guess you can expect posts about once a week now :) That being said, I have a few DPC challenge related posts and a ringlight post in various stages of the pipeline, so there's always hope.

This post is another in my Anatomy of a Photo series, which I haven't updated for 4(!) months. Yikes, almost as scary as a spider up close.

First, some background. A few weeks ago I noticed a rather large Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus, also known as a Cross Spider, cool pic here) in a plant right outside my back door. Compared to the normal daddy long legs I see around the house, garden spiders look so cool and she has a nice three-foot web that she maintains daily (I'm not really sure of the sex, so I'll say she in deference to Charlotte's Web). I took photos a few different days, and decided that I wanted to enter a picture of her in a DPC challenge. My opportunity came in the Macro VI challenge. The image I finally settled on was:

And it got a 5.75, good for 100th of 247 images in the contest. At first, I was disappointed (especially when it started the first day around a 5.2) but I'm beginning to understand why it did poorly. For one thing, there were a ton of spiders in the contest, and it didn't get much for originality. It also has some focus issues (mostly due to depth of field, more on that later) and the really cool part of the spider (the head) is really tiny.

What got me really excited about the image was the level of detail I was able to achieve with my lowly reversed Nikkor-H 50mm F/2. I was starting to get a little discouraged with the fuzziness of the images at 100% crops (not horrible, but nothing compared to my other lenses). But these came out really sharp, probably because of the flash. I still think the Nikkor-H has some problems with highlights (they seem to bleed to adjacent pixels more than they should) but that is likely because of the coatings, or lack of them, and the fact that the lens is reversed.

To give you an idea of detail, below is a 100% crop (click to see it full-size). For this image, I did apply USM to sharpen it further, but you get the idea of the quality. Realistically, you can get a super sharp image if you do a 50% crop (downsample by 50%). And seeing a spider at high res is really cool (see the 1024x807 image on Flickr).

Of course, this is an photo anatomy post, so I should describe what went into the image.

First, since I neglected to get a setup shot (oops) but I'll describe it for you. Start with a very large flowering plant (I don't know the type) with the spider's web running north-south oriented vertically. She liked to hide in a dead flower on the north side, but I often caught her in the middle of the web during or after she has caught something to eat. I did shoot the spider when she was hiding, but she has good camoflage and is hard to see, even at a 1:1 macro. So I waited until she was in the middle of the web and the sun was hitting her (around noon, camera to the west of the web, sun at upper camera right).

For some reason, she always walked on the web with her body on the west side of the web and almost always upside down! Not great for photos, especially with the position of the sun. On the day I got the picture, I saw her in the middle of the web and grabbed the camera but the lighting was horrible because her head was in shadow. Back inside to grab the flash and light-stand. I taped a diffuser (scrap of white copy paper) on the business end of my Sunpak 383 and set it up to camera lower right. Since she was always upside down, I quickly dialed in an exposure with the flash as the primary and the sun a few stops darker than the proper exposure, to get the background to drop and just give highlights and separation from the sun. This was about 1/200 seconds, ISO 400, and F/16 on the Nikkor-H (I handheld the camera since the flash stopped motion well).

Here's the result when I was shooting pretty much straight on:

I liked the image, but I couldn't get the back and the head in focus at the same time because my depth of field was less than a millimeter. So I decided to shoot upwards (rather difficult, actually, because I kept bumping the plant trying to get in there) and got something like this:

Again, I like this, although the slow shutter speed caused the ambient exposure to blur, so I kept taking shots until I got the one I liked. I really liked the diagonal tilt in the submitted photo, but I'm not wild about the background colors (darn sky!) and lack of focus on the legs. There's also a really nasty highlight on the back, which I burned a bit, but it still was distracting.

If I could do it again (and I might) I'd use two flashes to crosslight the spider and mix in some ambient too (but smaller levels). I guarantee there's another, more unique view in there too, but the plant makes it difficult to maneuver. Sadly, I don't have the heart to actually take her off her web and put her in a more controlled environment. Sad, but she's been out there at least a month, and I don't feel right about it.

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