Behind the Shot with Ellis Vener
Why is it that the simplest looking photos are often the hardest to make? Consider this picture of a common Argiope aurantia or Yellow and Black Garden Spider, also sometimes called Writing Spiders. The idea came easily enough: “Look at that colorful yet scary looking big bug!’ Okay, so a spider isn’t technically an insect, it’s an arachnid. But you get the idea.
AF-S Micro-Nikkor 105mm/f2.8G
The hard part was getting the camera in the right spot down between the two Boxwood shrubs she had located her web between. To do that required using the Really Right Stuff components from my PG-02 Pro Omni-pivot package plus a few others. That’s what I like about Arca-Swiss based quick release components but especially Really Right Stuff gear: they remind me of the Erector Set kit I had as a boy.
I needed a jib to drop the camera down between the two shrubs. For the jib’s main arm I used a CB-10 and CB-18, joined together with a CB-HC1. For the “fore-arm” of the Jib, I used a PG-02 VA. The real trick was attaching the PG-02 VA to the camera bars so that could very precisely control the left to right orientation of the camera (the gimbal in the PG-02 VA was used set the pitch angle) and how close the camera was to the subject. Making the connection between the PG-02 VA and camera bar required an RRS FAS Sliding Clamp holding the Camera bar and a PCL-1 Panning clamp [recently replaced by the PC-PRO clamp]. A short MPR rail served as connector between the PG-02 VA and the PCL-1. By sliding the FAS along the camera bar I could set the camera-to-subject distance and I used the PCl-1 to set the horizontal rotation angle.
Supporting the jib was a large, heavy tripod and head combination, both designed to support really big view cameras. The tripod is the now long discontinued aluminum Gitzo 410C and the head is a panning double tilt Foba ASMIA. On top of the ASMIA’s camera platform I keep a second PCL-1.
Since the camera was going to be in a spot I could not access without disturbing the subject, I used the CamRanger system with an iPad. The Cam Ranger acts as a wireless live view screen with nearly full control over the camera’s settings, along with several other capabilities like HDR exposure bracketing, intervalometer, long exposure timer, focus peaking, and Focus stacking. As with my RRS gear I feel like the Camranger is a gadget that pays for itself every time I use it.
To light the spider, which we’d taken to calling Charlotte after the title character in E.B. White’s book, I used two LumoPro LP180 Quad-sync flashes. To trigger the lights a trio of PocketWizard MultiMAX v2 transceivers was used, one as a transmitter on the camera and one connected to each flash. For fill I rested a stiff white sheet of paper on top of the lens and taped to the PG-02 VA so it wouldn’t get blown in the web. To get a basic light level setting I read the flash output with a Sekonic L-758DR meter.
In the end I shot 27 frames over the course of about an hour. Using the feedback I was seeing on the CamRanger/ iPad combination (while the full resolution raw files stay on the in-camera media, as you shoot the CamRanger downloads JPEG “preview” images to your mobile device or desktop computer) was sending to the iPad, between each frame I’d tweak the prime focus point and exposure settings, and also change the quality of the light by moving the lights and the amount each light was putting out. The goal of deploying all this technology wasn’t to make a technically perfect image, but to make a photograph that I believe expresses Charlotte’s uncannily spooky beauty and evoke the primal fear and fascination we feel when looking at them.