one spider, three ways: storytelling with a camera

When you venture out, what are you looking for? You get these incredible closeups and obscure angles and such awesome perspectives... Is it a matter of just trying it out and seeing, or are you looking for something? ~ Alison

This was a great question -- one that I think might momentarily stump anyone. What am I looking for? Good light. A willing subject. Someone who's feeling playful or thoughtful, or just generally open to the camera. You can see that as well as you can see good light, that openness. It's some sort of unspoken permission.

But those things are givens. What does it reduce to, this thing I'm looking for? A story. I don't want to take pictures of things for the sake of taking pictures of things. I want to take pictures of stories.

Earlier this month, I wrote about this lovely girl over at Shutter Sisters. As I settled into capturing her, I thought of Alison's question and decided to answer it by showing rather than telling. And so I did something that felt weird and wrong. I stood in front of her web, bent at the waist, and composed the most basic shot I could directly above her. Here it is.

It turned out just as I figured it would. It's like something you'd see on Wikipedia. It captures the spider accurately, sure, but it makes me yawn because it reads like a Dick and Jane book.


When a shot is functional but uninteresting, my corrective instinct is to crouch. I prefer taking portraits of any creature or thing level to the subject's plane -- not patronizing it from my eye-level or grown-up human stance. Bend your knees and almost always, everything will get more interesting. The light, the subject, its context. For me, crouching is the starting point of compositional intention.

From a lower angle, the light begins to shine through the strands as well as through the spider, hinting at translucence. This is an improvement, but only marginally. It's like when someone's doing the hot-cold schtick to help you find something you want. This photo says warmer... almost...

Finally, I laid down and shot straight across the surface of the web, my lens almost touching it, facing towards the sun. Frames like this one are a good core workout. It's about all I get, trying to be steady while shooting from the grass and hoping I don't end up with baby slugs in my hair. Again.

The web creates a nice mathematical bokeh, I think. And from this vantage point, we get a better sense of the spider's shape. The increased detail and spindliness of her front legs makes it possible for us to imagine her plucking those strands, as she was. You can see it, just there, where she hangs on. She is both industrious and patient.

Of these three, this last shot is the only one that tells a story. It's not a photograph of a spider. It's a photograph of the lethal grace of a spider.

That's what I look for, or try for. The opposite of straightforward. The opposite of physical laziness with the camera. A getting-outside of my own stance and into someone -- or something -- else's. And maybe, if it works, I'll get you out of yours, too.