Initially I was using a Nikon d800 and a 100mm 1:1 macro because that gave me a 36 megapixel image and the 1:1 macro means objects are the same size in real life as they are on the film (aka "sensor) so I'd get the absolute best opportunity for enlargements. The problem with this though was that looking through the eye-level finder it was extremely difficult to focus. Especially if I was holding a light in the other hand. Mounting the light on a stand frees up a hand, but then moving the light even a small amount becomes a chore.
So I tried switching to the Lumix GX7, which is a 16 megapixel micro four thirds camera, and the Leica 45mm f2.8 macro lens, which is also 1:1. The Leica lens has auto-focus which I thought might help, I quickly discovered that the lens just hunts, zooming back and forth before finally settling on some bit of wall two feet away. Even less useful. However, setting the focus manually and using the articulated rear screen to focus by moving the camera forward and backward worked. This is the setup I eventually stayed with.
It doesn't matter what flash you're using as long as you can get it
off the axis of your camera (with a wire, or wirelessly) and that
you can adjust the power of it. Getting an expensive flash won't add
anything to this setup.
One thing about macro photography is that at wide apertures your depth of field is microscopic, which means you may have one eyeball in focus but not two. In order to increase the depth of field (the depth of space that's in focus from the plane of the film) you need to lower your aperture (the control that lets more or less light into the camera) and in order to do that, you need more light. And the easiest way to get more light is to bring your own. So I'm using a flash tethered to the camera's hot-shoe with a cable. You could also use a wireless system if you'd like.
Photographing spiders with a Panasonic Lumix G7 and an off camera flash.
Clickenzee to Embiggen!
I'm also using a second piece of equipment; a flash diffuser. The sharpness of shadows are controlled by two things 1) the size of the illumination source and it's distance from the camera. The larger and closer the source of illumination the softer the shadows will be (on a sunny day, your shadow is razor sharp, when the source of illumination is the sun, which you could cover with your thumb, and on an overcast day you can't even see your shadow because the source of illumination is the clouds which stretch as far as you can see).
You can get all sorts of flash diffusers, from umbrellas to softboxes to beauty dishes, and you can spend a ton of money on them. I'm using a reusable grocery bag from Instacart, I just hold it over the flash and it more or less keeps its shape. The source of illumination is this ball of cloth now and not the very thin bulb of the flash.
Clickenzee to Embiggen the Spideybox!
Example photos and more tutorial [behind this cut because there are spider photos]
Here's a shot with the flash diffuser, I think the soft light makes the spiders look more friendly. There's an even illumination over everything. The softbox cuts down on the flash power, meaning that you have to open up your aperture a bit, so the depth of field is usually shallower than with a direct flash (though you can increase the power of the flash as well). I tend to usually go with wider apertures when I'm using the softbox because the out of focus areas I think also help make everything look friendlier.
Key thing: If the eyes aren't in focus, your photo is going to have less impact (unless your photo is highlighting something else, like spinnerettes) so pay attention to the eyes.
With the spidey softbox, clickenzee to embiggen!
The background in the place Emily & George have set up their web isn't very interesting, it's particle board, blah. It would be nice if it was some green field, but that would up emily's chance of being eaten by a bird and who want's that? One thing you can do do de-emphasize a background is only light your subject. Here I'm doing it with a direct flash
Without spidey softbox, clickenzee to embiggen!
The direct flash hits the spider and the web more than it does the background, giving greater contrast, so use this if you're highlighting webs. It also gives a greater sense of drama. Shadows are also useful for helping to see thing, sometimes sharp shadows across an object give you a much better idea of the texture of that object than a softly lit photo would.
And that's that. Feel free to post your questions or your own bug photos in the comments.
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