Underside of an Arrow-shaped Micrathena Spider by Todd Henson

Underside of an Arrow-shaped Micrathena spider. Click on the photo for a larger view.

Arrow-shaped Micrathena (Micrathena sagittata) are a species of orb-weaving spider with an interesting arrow-shaped body and beautiful coloration including a mix of yellow, black and red. They have what appear to be 2 large spikes sticking out the end of their abdomen, with 4 smaller spikes around the middle and front of the abdomen. You can only see 4 of these spikes on the spider pictured here. Apparently in males of the species these spikes are smaller or sometimes missing completely, so I’m guessing this one is a female. The large protrusion in the center of the underside of its abdomen contain its spinnerets, used to extrude the silk that makes up its web.

I found this particular specimen along a trail in a forested park. It was hanging on its web with its underside facing the trail. It can be easy to overlook spiders while hiking, except of course when they build their webs right across the trail. But this one was at the edge of the trail, with a very nice patch of green foliage in the background that turned into a beautiful green blur in the image.

Photographing the Micrathena

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To photograph this Micrathena I used a 105 mm macro lens (Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED). I set the ISO to 1000 because I was photographing in a forest with little sunlight getting through all the leaves. I used an aperture of f/9 to give me a reasonable depth of field with the macro lens. But as you can see, portions of the spider are still out of focus. The shutter speed was 1/25th of a second, which is rather slow but was enough in this case. I used a tripod to keep the camera steady.

Keep your eyes open as you hike through the woods, both to avoid walking right into a spider web across the trail, but also to give you the opportunity to see some of the amazing spiders living just off the trail.

Photographing Orchard Spiders (Orchard Orb-weavers) by Todd Henson

Profile image of an Orchard Spider.

About the Spiders

Hiking through the woods can reveal all manner of creatures if you keep your eyes open. One creature I found and photographed in a nearby park is the Orchard Spider, also called the Orchard Orb-weaver. It seems fairly common in this area, as I found quite a few of them on my hike.

The Orchard Spider is a very colorful spider. Its legs are primarily green. The abdomen has a range of colors, from shades of green, to whites and yellows, along with some darker black patterns. The underside of the abdomen can have a very bright splotch of yellow/orange that almost glows in the right light. I wonder if this is used to attract prey to its web, or perhaps to attract a mate?

Underside of an Orchard Spider showing bright yellow patch.

The yellow/orange patch on the underside of this Orchard Spider really glows.

One of the spiders I found had just begun digesting an insect that was caught in its web. Spiders digest their prey outside their bodies by regurgitating digestive enzymes and wrapping their prey in them. This breaks down the prey turning the majority of it to liquid nourishment that the spider drinks, leaving behind any of the larger, indigestible parts. Think of it like the green smoothies some of us drink.

Orchard Spider with prey.

Another image of an Orchard Spider with prey.

Final image of the Orchard Spider with prey.

Photographing the Spiders

I find photographing spiders in the field a real challenge, especially those on webs. The slightest little breeze can cause the web to move. From a distance it may not look as if the spider is moving much in the breeze, but when zoomed way in with a telephoto lens, or sitting very close with a macro lens, these small movements can actually be very large.

My main strategy for photographing these spiders was to shoot a LOT of photographs. I shot 303 photographs to get the 7 photos included in this post. The downside to shooting so many frames is that it does make it more time consuming and difficult to sift through them and find any that might be acceptable.

Orchard Spider in its web.

I do the best I can to frame the subject in a pleasing manner, and I try to get the focus as close as I can. It helps to wait until the lulls between breezes when the web may settle down before moving again.

I try to use a fast shutter speed, but I also try to stop down the aperture a little to give me more depth of field and more wiggle room. These two things fight each other. As I stop down the aperture I get a slower shutter speed. That can prompt me to raise the ISO to boost the shutter speed back up to something reasonable. It’s all a balance. If there isn’t much wind you may get away with slower shutter speeds. One of the photos here was shot at 1/13th of a second.

Another important consideration in these sorts of photographs is the background. You typically want a nice, clean background, something that doesn’t distract from the subject. This can be easy to achieve if the subject is far enough from the background. Using a macro lens tends to give a very shallow depth of field. This helps keep the background less distracting. If you use a longer telephoto lens this can also help, especially if you open the aperture wider, which also helps blur out the background. But sometimes you can actually include the background to show the subject in its environment. In the photos here I’ve chosen a clean, out of focus background to help the subject stand out.

Gear Used

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All of these photos were shot with a Nikkor 105mm Micro lens. It’s a very sharp lens and great for macro work. I really enjoy using it. It’s compatible with teleconverters, so you can turn it into a 147mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter, a 178mm lens with a 1.7x teleconverter, and a 210mm lens with a 2x teleconverter. You can also use extension tubes to let you get even closer to a subject, though the depth of field falls away fast when you use these.

I hope these tips help you in photographing while out in the woods. They can apply not just to spiders, but also other insects and plants or flowers of any sort. If you’d like more tips try my post, 7 Tips for Photographing Insects and Other Little Crawly Things. Now get out there and practice.

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions feel free to leave a comment below.

Lotus and Water Lilies at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens - 2015 by Todd Henson

Dark pink lotus blossoms just opening

Opening lotus blossom covered in rain drops

It’s that time of year again when lotus and water lilies are in bloom at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C., when they hold their annual Lotus and Water Lily Festival. The day started with rain, leaving us wondering if it was worth the drive if it was going to be a wash out. But the rain was forecast to clear up so we made the trip and it was well worth it. The rain left water droplets on all the flowers, naturally saturated all the colors, and honestly, kept some of the early morning crowds a little lighter than they might have been otherwise, though the crowds did grow as the rain stopped. It’s fascinating all the different people who show up to view these flowers. One day perhaps I’ll photograph some of the people as well as the blooms.

Bumble bee above dark pink lotus blossom. There are several streaks of rain on the left side.

One thing I noticed this year was some of the ponds contained lotus blossoms that were lighter in color, a very pale pink that almost seemed to glow. The overcast day was perfect for photographing these, no harsh light, no hard shadows. Just an evenly lit glowing lotus blossom. Other ponds held lotus blossoms of a much darker, deeper pink. These had beautiful color, but didn't glow quite like the paler blossoms did. I love the variety.

Bumble bee above a lotus blossom

Small green insect on lotus blossom

Six-Spotted Fishing Spider (Dolomedes Triton)

As with last year I found myself looking for insects to add some extra interest to the photos. This year there were very few dragonflies because of the rain, though they did begin coming out after the rain ended. I did manage to capture a couple bumble bees, as well as several other small insects. The most distinctive insect (arachnid, actually) I photographed was a fishing spider. I believe it was a six-spotted fishing spider (Dolomedes Triton), if I've identified it correctly. I found it on a lily pad. When other folks walked closer it dove into the water and disappeared. Fascinating.

Pink water lily and a small insect

The lotus blossoms draw the largest crowds, but if your timing is good you can also view some of the beautiful water lilies in other ponds. Kenilworth has a nice variety of water lilies. Some are very simple white flowers, in fact, my favorite photo of the day is of a white water lily. Some of the water lilies are similar shades of pink to those of the lotus. And some of the water lilies are amazing shades of purple, though I don't have any photos of those in this post.

White water lily, my favorite image of the day

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We usually arrive early in the morning and continue photographing and walking around until we get comfortably tired. But this means we often don't spend a lot of time around the festival events. This year was no different, but we did see the tail end of a presentation by and about Cindy Dyer, an Alexandria-based photographer who was recently honored by the United States Postal Service by having a series of her photographs used on a set of Forever Stamps. She's a very talented photographer and has produced some beautiful images. She is well deserving of the honor.