Six legs – macro sketchbook 3
One of the best pieces of photography advice I’ve been given is to step back for a moment before taking a photograph and work out exactly what it is about the scene in front of you that you want to show. David DuChemin sums it up well in his blog post What’s the That? – when you’re taking a photograph, you’re telling the viewer to ‘look at that’, and it needs to be clear what the ‘that’ is without explanation. This kind of thinking was at the front of my mind for the pictures in this macro sketchbook installment for my spider collection.
I came across a spider with a very clear ‘that’ – it only had six legs. Noticing this in real life took me longer than you’d expect, so when I did, I wanted to make an image that would give the viewer a similar experience – initially seeing just a spider, but quickly realising that this spider is different. My decision needed to be how I would show the ‘that’. I took a few different approaches that worked to varying degrees, and also led to some images of eight-legged spiders that I like as sketches.
I started by getting in as close as possible to the two empty leg sockets, but that made for images that were too obvious and slightly unpleasant. Concentrating on the overall shape of the spider seemed a better approach – of the sketches I made in this way, the above image worked best. This image is very similar to one or two of the straightforward spider portraits I showed in my last post, except here I was shooting from a lower angle to exaggerate the length of the front two legs on the left hand side of the image. The idea was to draw attention to the absence of the corresponding legs on the other side. In developing the image, I also darkened the web slightly in the area where the missing legs would have been to emphasise the gap.
An approach that I thought would be more effective was to photograph the spider in silhouette, removing all detail and focusing entirely on the shape of the spider. For the image above, I photographed the spider head on, and used the available light to create the silhouette – just sunlight hitting a fence several metres behind. There was some light on the spider in the original exposure, but adding contrast during developing plunged it into black and also brought out the detail of the web. During developing, I also placed the spider a little further to the right than I might have done normally – my thinking here was to leave a space on the left that is big enough to make the image feel slightly out of balance, just as the spider is, and make the viewer linger on the left-hand side so that they notice the missing legs. I’ve converted to black and white because the background was orange, and colour isn’t important here. My main problem with this image is the depth of field – the whole depth of the spider is not in focus. If it had been, the silhouette would have been flattened and, I think, more effective. It works when viewed small, but doesn’t work so well when viewed big.
This alternative silhouette was possible because the spider was sitting in front of a window – I photographed it at night, looking inside where the lights were on. After making some rough sketch images, I discovered that I could frame the spider in a circle created by an out of focus bulb behind. For this to work as I imagined, I needed to get it in the centre of the circle, which I failed to do before it ran off to hide. However, experimenting in Lightroom with what I did get, I found that cropping in on one of the off-centre images gave the composition above, which I really like. The off-centre placement of the spider balances the black area at the bottom, the curved edge of the circle frames and leads the eye to the spider, and the slight angle of the spider adds some tension in the frame. As for the other image above, the depth of field means the whole spider is not sharp. However, this time, the focus is on the front legs, which I think draws attention to this area and makes the shortage of legs – the real subject of the image – more obvious.
In my experimentation with silhouettes, I photographed a spider with a full complement of legs in a similar way. I was more successful in getting this spider centred in the bokeh behind, leading to the image below – a classic silhouette of a spider. Again, depth of field is not quite what I’d like, but I was limited here by the size of the circle I wanted to create (a smaller aperture created a smaller circle that didn’t surround the spider).
Along the way, I also made one image in which the spider was neither fully surrounded by light nor centred, but this created the image below, in which I love the backlit area of the spider’s back end and part of its web. Technically, this image is all over the place, but (by chance) the backlit area is the part in focus, so naturally becomes the focal point, and I love the way the image looks. It’s not perfect, but it does have an obvious ‘that’, so I still feel it works pretty well.