//This article was picked up and published in the Hornbill Magazine (Oct-Dec 2014 edition) produced by Bombay Natural History Society.//
I have been back home in Bangalore for the 2 last months. This can mean a lull in terms of inspiration for a travel photographer. Loud, dusty, traffic congested Bangalore. I will not sit and complain about the city that I once loved with all my heart. Instead let me explain the reason why, I’ve hardly stepped out of home during this time.
A whole new world, or rather a whole new dimension of the world has opened up for me right in my backyard. I am still amazed by how easy it is to be ignorant of this facet of our surroundings. They are all around us. I am talking about insects and more specifically, spiders.
After a few days of being home, I idly pointed my camera in the direction of our backyard garden and then I saw this creature; a striped lynx spider. And this is where is all started.
If you were to ask me how I happened to spot him I just wouldn’t be able to tell you. I had tried my hand at macro photographing the flowers at home a few months ago and hadn’t spotted a single insect!
But come home now and I will be able to give you an up to date layout of which insects are in which part of the garden. Some relocate often while others are creatures of habit and stay in the same place.
Overcoming problem of depth of field and low light.
I happened to start photographing insects during the monsoon in Bangalore. As you can well imagine, getting enough depth of field at such high magnification needs small apertures (large aperture numbers). Now one has to compensate for this either with ISO (ASA) or shutter speeds. In low light this is a compromise in terms of grain in the image and/or stability.
To overcome this problem, I decided to use a flash. It was during this period that I realised just how important the quality of light was. Most insects and definitely spiders, have surfaces that are highly reflective. Having hard light fall on them results in hot spots and very high contrast. It is for this reason that I eventually made a makeshift macro soft box out of thermacol and butter paper. The main criteria I kept in mind as I built this soft box were:
1. The attachment should not hinder accessibility of any camera function. I must also be able to change flash power.
2. The light must be as diffused as possible- this removes highlights from burning out too fast.
3. The light source should be large relative to the insect, so as to reduce contrast.
This is what I came up with
The ‘jugaad’ that I did was effective. Its diffused lighting removed highlights from burning into the image and also reduced contrast by enlarging the light source relative to the spider being photographed. Following this, I began to balance the light of the flash with the ambient light. This is harder than it sounds as almost every frame provides a multitude of leaf and plant surfaces, that either bounces the flash back onto the subject or absorbs light, playing havoc with your exposure.
I have stopped using the attachment ever since the sun has started shining. Not only do I think that good natural light is more beautiful than using a flash, Manuvering between plant stalks is easier without the attachment. Of course, the attachment I made was quite large and can be modified to allow for more movement.
Some insects just don’t care how many times you fire a flash at them, but spiders are quite the opposite. You can see them jump in terror after the ‘phop’ of the flash. A few of the most territorial spiders in the garden actually moved after I started using a flash on them. I felt like I had crossed a line. Taking photographs every day was one thing. But using a flash all the while I did this was unacceptable.
Spiders will now always hold a special place in my heart. Watching a spider set up its web after the sun has set is absolutely fascinating. The meticulousness of the procedure by which a spider makes its web, is absolutely beautiful to watch. One the most interesting moments to watch is the beginning of construction. Many webs span gaps between objects which the spider cannot cross by crawling. So, the spider first produces a fine sticky thread to drift on a faint breeze. When the thread sticks to another surface, the spider feels the change in the vibration. This first strand is reeled in. Then, the spider carefully walks along it and strengthens it with a second thread. This process is repeated until the thread is strong enough to support the rest of the web. Once the rest of the web is done, the spider will sit and wait at the centre of the web. A clump of grass now becomes a booby trap.
Looking through the view finder gives me the feeling that I have the point of view of a flying insect. I imagine myself to be weaving and darting through the blades of grass. The night air is still and cool. Ideal conditions for flying when suddenly it feels like I have hit a steel net! The jolt I can handle but what has happened to my wings? If you watched the spider set up its net, at this point you cannot help but taking sides with the spider. In a flash the spider takes off from its resting place in the centre of the orb and attacks the insect that has fallen prey to its trap. Sometimes it is eaten immediately and sometimes it is wrapped and stored for later. My fear of them has dropped drastically, though those big hairy ones can still send a shiver down my spine.
Spider web architecture is a topic of study on its own and many spiders are classified by the type of webs they weave. Some of the common types of web are Spiral orb webs, Tangle webs or cobwebs, Funnel webs, Tubular webs, Sheet webs. To build these webs several different types of silk may be used. The tensile strength of spider silk is greater than the same weight of steel and has much greater elasticity. Potential applications in industry include bullet-proof vests and artificial tendons. One can actually watch videos online of scientists collecting silk on a tiny spool. It is hypothesized that webs co-evolved with the evolution of winged insects. Some constructions even protect the spider from birds and wasps.
Not all spiders make webs to catch their prey and some do not build webs at all. Spiders use a wide range of strategies to capture prey: trapping it in sticky webs, lassoing it with sticky bolas, mimicking the prey to avoid detection, or running it down. In fact, most of the spiders I happened to photograph did not build webs to forage for food.
Striped Lynx (Oxyopes salticus)
The striped Lynx spider that opened up my world of macro photography is a beautiful and deadly creature. It is one the most beautiful spiders I have seen in person. It has spiny legs and they are used as a sort of weapon to trap flying insects. They are ambush hunters. Hiding under flowers or on plant stalks they wait for the insects to visit these flowers. The marigold flowers at home provide perfect camouflage for them. Most of these spiders are very territorial and can be found in the vicinity of a plant or two. One particular striped lynx female could be found regularly under the same flower during daylight. I would check on her every morning and show her to anyone that would care to see.
The male of this species is also quite a treat on the eyes. Mostly because of his purple pedipalps. Pedipalps are used during mating.
The male spiders make some silk, put sperm onto the silk, and then put their pedipalps into the sperm. The pedipalps then hold the sperm, and the spider can use it to mate with a female (mother spider) by putting them inside of her epigynum.
Lynx spiders are abundant enough to be important in agricultural systems as biological control agents.
Green Lynx (Peucetia)
These commonly are larger, vivid green, and they are active runners and leapers. I was once in a park when we found one female keeping pace with us on the brick lining of the path with me. In general they rely on keen eyesight in stalking, chasing, or ambushing prey, and also in avoiding enemies. Six of their eight eyes are arranged in a hexagon-like pattern and the other two eyes are smaller and generally situated in front and below the other six.
Jumping spiders are the commonest spiders and easy to distinguish, due to the distinctive pattern of their eight eyes. Two eyes are like headlights on an SUV, forward facing and well adapted to three- dimensional vision. This enables jumping spiders to accurately estimate the range, direction and nature of prey and leap into the attack precisely. I imagine that the excellent vision of jumping spiders is what makes them insatiably curious. I discover that photographing them is tiresome. The moment they see their own reflections in the camera lens, they jump at it. Before one has focused, the spider is usually on top of the lens. After several attempts at returning the jumping spider back on the plant, my camera and lens are engulfed by webs, much like a cat entangled in a ball of yarn.
This spider yet again is not the net building type. They use camouflage to catch their prey. Crab spiders slowly change their colour to suit their environment.
Like their name suggests, these spiders are very crab like. Their four front legs just out sideways and are usually a bit longer than the four rear legs. The first two legs are used to reach out and grasp prey. Crab spiders can walk in all directions with complete agility.
Getting down to photographing insects
To do macro photography, a high magnification ratio is required. There are 3 ways to this.
1. Having a dedicated macro lens: This must seem like a dream. I have not used a lens of this type but I assume there is no loss in light since it is the normal arrangement with the camera. Also having the auto focus function does sometimes tempt me. But you don’t need the best, most expensive gear. In fact the most basic DSLR kit will do the job. Also using the next 2 methods you can get ever higher ratios of magnification.
2. Inverting the lens: Holding any lens inverted in front of the camera can get you very high magnification. The greater the mm of the lens the higher the magnification,when held inverted. In fact you can use them in combination as well to enable various effects. This method requires buying a lens reversal ring that has the same diameter as the lens you are using, or one can even use the lens handheld. The problem with this method is that the camera can only focus on objects that are very close to the lens (within macro range only). This is a hindrance while coming into the subject as you cannot view the subject as you gradually get closer to it. Also there is a considerable loss of light because of the high apertures you have to use to actually get sharp images. In addition to that, if the aperture of your lens cannot be mechanically or manually changed, then changing the aperture means turning your lens around, electronically changing the aperture and then inverting it again.
3. Using extension tubes: Extension tubes fascinate me. The first time I saw them they were around a person’s fingers like rings. No glass lens elements. What magic is this! Essentially they are nothing but hollow tubes of different length. A black cardboard tube does the same job that extension tubes do – increases the distance between the lens and the sensor. The greater the length of the tube, the higher the magnification. But this has to be a reasonable length because increasing the length of the tube also results in greater loss of light and loss in depth of field. These days extension tubes with auto focus and aperture control are available making this a more favourable method than inverting lenses. Unfortunately just like in inverting a lens, while using extension tubes one cannot use the lens to focus on far away objects (only those in macro range).
The immortal observer
Insects! I have spotted only a handful of them so far. And now, everywhere I go I see them. The amazement I am filled with to know that these creatures were always around me! This is almost like an alternate universe. Looking at insects makes one feel God like. It’s just that view, from above. You get to see life unravel in front of you every day. With insects, the speed of events is also so great that as an observer you feel immortal.
When spiders disappear from a plant one actually worries, and when they resurface in another plant elsewhere, you are relieved that all is well. Maybe they are continuously moving from plant to plant and I can’t find them anymore but I think most are killed before they can live out their entire life span. A wide variety of creatures eat spiders- like the orchestra of toads that have taken residence in the pond. Once the spiders vanish the resident plant will be a vacant residence for a while . There are replacements of course; really small spiders. They eventually grow in size, moulting, continuously taking up occupancy, and the cycle starts again.
I will soon start travelling again, trying to find stories that are close to my heart. Yet, one does not have to travel far to see the world. It is what you make of it and where better than to learn that lesson than from a few engineers in gossamer silk? Spiders. I am glad I jumped into their world.
Update May 2015 : Spiders are still thriving in the garden. Mummy makes sure their webs aren’t disturbed. Some really awesome signature spider specimens showed up.