Mary’s first macro photograph

We went on a spider walk around the house last night. I thought it would be interesting to see what the spiders do after the sun sets — I’ve read that the species I’m most interested in is more active at night — so we put on our head lamps and prowled about the house and garden in the dark, to see what we could see.

It’s a different world. We saw a cicada, and lots of moths (they liked our headlights), and crickets, and mosquitos, and flies, and mosquitos, and mosquitos, and mosquitos, and mosquitos, and mosquitos, and mosquitos. This was a perilous journey if you’re anemic or fear blood loss. We were there for the spiders, though.

Our house is already festooned with theridiidids, and we saw even more. Mary has been noticing an expansion of sheet webs down near the foundation, and had been wondering who was responsible, and they were out, these cute little grass spiders. They hang out in the space underneath our siding, and what we saw at night is that they’d half emerge. They stick out their head and legs from spaces in the wall, but keep their butts hidden away. They were very shy, and when we got close…thwip, they’d instantly dart back into their hidey holes.

Mary wanted to try out the photography thing, and discovered that it’s harder than it looks. You’ve got so little working space in front of the lens, and you’ve got to move the snout of the camera right up next to anything before you see more than a blur, and to focus, you physically move the camera forward and back until you get the little spider right in the plane of focus, and then you have to click the shutter, but on an unfamiliar camera you’ve forgotten where the shutter button is, so you look and find it, and then you have to find the spider again. Repeat until you have it momentarily in view, then click, click, click. She did a serviceable job on this little Parasteatoda, she just needs to practice a little more. Look at that, the hind leg is in perfectly sharp focus!

Photo by Mary Gjerness Myers

More practice and she’ll be as addicted as I am, and then the last voice of sensible restraint in our house will be browsing camera catalogs, and instead of food we’ll have all the lenses I could want, and a couple of new camera bodies, and overpriced image processing software, and…


  1. kenbakermn says

    PZ, I think it’s great and inspiring that at your age (I don’t mean that perjoratively, I’m not far behind) you have found a whole new passion that you dive into head first with all the excitement and enthusiasm of a youngster. Not many oldsters do that, but this is the best time for it. Per T. S. Eliot, “old men ought to be explorers”. Applies to women just as well. My new old guy passion is jazz piano. Every old guy should have something: spiders, jazz, brewing beer, wearing barbed wire and feathers boas, it’s all good.

  2. Hardz says

    Next thing you know you buy an MPE 65 and start making all sorts of weird flash filters… and then you start going crazy…CRAZY!

  3. drmarcushill says

    Oh boy, but macro is harder than it looks. My wife has started to go into stock photography (some of her work is on her Facebook page), specialising in macro shots. It does involve pricey camera, lenses and software, and the focus thing is tough – some of the recent things she’s done involve “focus stacking”, taking several (up to 20 or so!) photos of the same subject (necessarily fairly motionless) then doing some Photoshop wizardry to turn them into a single photo with all of the subject in focus.

  4. Kevin Karplus says

    I’ve not tried focus stacking, as that requires newer (and more expensive) software than I have (which is an old copy of Photoshop Elements that won’t run on newer computers). My macrophotography is limited to non-moving objects that are generally about an inch or two across, so depth of field is my biggest concern.

    I have an old Canon PowerShot G10 camera, which has a macro-photography option on its menu. With that set, I use the longest focal length on the lens, set the aperture to f8, and take long exposures (often as long as a second). With that approach I get adequate depth of field, but the smallest width of image is about 2.5″. I can get more magnification with a wider angle, but lighting gets difficult that close to the lens and the depth of field shrinks a lot.

  5. drmarcushill says

    Some of the photos my wife has (including the photo stacking ones) used a cheap light box – a white plasic cube with one open side around 20cm to a side, with LEDs along one edge of the open side and a curved edge opposite the LEDs at the back, allowing a well lit subject with a smooth white background. With a tripod and delayed or remotely activated shutter, as long as the photo is of a subject on a white background rather than something in situ, you should be able to minimise your aperture with no real care about shutter speed.

    Mind you, she also has a Canon EOS body with a single digit number, a professional 180mm macro lens, a ring flash, a good stable tripod and the whole Photoshop and Lightroom kit, so it does make taking and editing a good photo easier.

  6. stroppy says

    Don’t forget to ask Santa for a set of rails and a step motor for that je ne sais quoi finesse in focus stacking.

    GIMP might be worth looking into. It’s free, however if you want to avoid some of the hassle of wrestling it into order on your machine, I think Amazon sells it on disc for about $8 which lets you install with a few clicks. It ain’t pretty and I believe it’s restricted 8 bit depth images, but it’s stable and has toolz– if you’re feeling geeky, don’t you GNU.

    The whole PhotoShop subscription thing pisses me right off. I’m tinkering with Affinity Photo instead. Good enough me anyway.

    (I’m talking Mac, btw.)

  7. says

    I’ve got GIMP. Kinda hate it. It’s clumsy and there’s a lot of bad basic programming in it, but I make do.

    I have drooled over the MP-E 65. Not going to be able to afford it. Now gazing longingly at the
    Tokina at-X 100mm f/2.8, which is almost in my price range, if I win a lottery.

    A light box is in my price range, and would be fine for work in the lab, but I’m cataloging species in the semi-wild environment, making it a little impractical. Also, spiders don’t hold still.

    Focus stacking would require a tripod, at the very least — a lot of these spiders I’m trying to snap on the fly, in awkward places, and again, they don’t hold still.

    Damn compromises everywhere.

  8. says

    So you focus, find the shutter button, find your spider again, fiocus, and click. But clicking the shutter button moves the camera, ever so slightly, but enough to lose the focus on the spider. So, set the camera to multiple shots with one press; click and hold. You’re more likely to get at least one more or less in focus.

  9. stroppy says

    I’m in a self-imposed spending freeze, so I’m trying not to make myself too crazy over what I’m missing. But now you’ve gone and piqued my curiosity about macro!

    The plus side, limitations force you to be creative. I’ve got an old Sony CyberShot F828 that, thanks to info on the Internet, has been easily tricked into taking reasonably good infrared landscapes without mod. (The internal cut filter can be lifted with a magnet thus bypassing the restrictions of night mode.) UV is more of a struggle, but indications are that it can be pushed to my satisfaction. Still… the cut and pass filters–$$$.

  10. says

    So far, it hasn’t been too expensive. In lieu of one of the big fancy macro lenses, I got these tube extenders for $20 and this $10 diffuser, and they seem to be doing the job well enough. Working distance is really tight, though, as my wife learned, but the main difficulty is that you have to be comfortable with playing with apertures and lighting and exposure times and all that photo wizardry at the same time you’re taking a shot.

  11. stroppy says

    I hear you. As much as possible I try to adjust my settings to what I think the conditions will be before I set out. Also setting bracketing, aperture/shutter priority… anything I think might make it simpler so that I’ll be able to pay more attention to essentials and the subject. But then I’m inclined to shoot first and ask questions later in post-processing… probably not the most professional approach, especially for macro.

    I abandoned GIMP pretty quickly though do I keep a copy around. Generally I take inspiration from the spirit of all those Holga, pin-hole, and other odd-ball experimenters and enthusiasts out there even if what they’re doing isn’t applicable to my needs and interests.

    That aside, I have to say that what you and Mary are doing looks pretty good to me.

  12. says

    In the dark days of non-digital photography I was very keen on macrophotography but many of Australia’s 8 legged beasties can be very aggressive not to mention venomous. I found it much easier to use a moderate length telephoto lens with extension tubes. This gave me a bit more working distance and kept me further away from the bitey bits.

  13. blf says

    many of Australia’s 8 legged beasties can be very aggressive not to mention venomous

    Ozland’s spiders can be very dangerous as well.

  14. drmarcushill says

    PZ, you can get a ring flash for around $30 (so twice the price of the lightbox), that will allow for a quicker exposure at small apertures as it lights closer and brighter than the diffuser, allowing a deeper focal field and reducing shake. Also, if the subject isn’t moving too quickly, setting the shutter on a 3 second delay allows you to focus, press the shutter release and hold the camera steady for the shot.