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Capturing Curiosity: How the Tools of Photography Can Help Make the Natural World More Accessible

Recently, I was teaching a nature photography workshop and one of the participants noticed these really unusual spider webs that appeared to have a leaf cluster suspended in the center of each of the intricate structures. We were discussing the best way to try and photograph these webs so that you could share the complex dimensionality in a single image. This is an incredibly difficult subject to photograph and depict the essence of what it is like in real life.



In examining the structure more closely to determine a photographic approach that would help achieve the desired result, I began to wonder more about that 'leaf' cluster in the center. When looking with the naked eye, there was so much visual clutter that it was impossible to fully understand what I was seeing. I could see lots of web and water droplets along with a pellet-shaped cluster of some kind of brown organic material resembling a cocoon or cigar stub or clump of leaves. There was no way to discern what it actually was. Each of the webs occupied approximately a cubic foot of space and combined two distinctly different types of web structure: one organized and neat (ray web), and one chaotic and confusing (cobweb). The ray web coned to a termination at its center, pointing directly at the base of the brown pellet... a leading line to a spot that was likely to reveal something important about the web inhabitant. So I trained the focus of my camera and macro lens on this termination point. I used an aperture that eliminated as much clutter as possible while still showing enough of a depth of focus to capture the detail of what was happening at this point and began recording at 120 frames per second.


As I'd hoped, there was a spider at this location... and they were busy.



Did you know that the viscous nature of water creates such a strong surface tension that when a drop of water accumulates in the joint of a spider's leg (of a certain size) that the spider may be unable to remove it and simultaneously incapable of reaching it in order to drink? Yeah. I didn't either. Do spiders even drink water? I had never considered this particular natural phenomena until I watched it in slow motion on my computer after I had spent all day out observing and photographing dozens of different things. Without my camera I never would have been able to confirm that a spider was there, let alone seen this particular spider's struggle with an annoying drop of water.


I'm still trying to find out what kind of spider was in these unusual webs, and am hoping to find out more about exactly what the central brown part of the web is for. Without my camera I probably wouldn't have continued to investigate, but now I'm on a mission to get some answers.



I am currently taking a naturalist certification class in Point Reyes. Each day that we meet we head out on at least one nature walk and observe what we see along the way. I tend to stay near the back of the group since I don't like being in other people's way with my big ol' camera. I also am mostly deaf in one ear and miss A LOT of what our guide is telling us as we walk. One of the many reasons that I take a lot of pictures is so I can look things up when I get home to learn more about what may have been discussed since I could not really hear much during the 'walk and talk'. Russell (another student and wonderful photographer in our class) was kind enough to point out a few cool things that he was finding along one of these walks. There was a shamrock orb weaver spider in a hemlock (not fennel) plant at about my forehead height followed quickly by a yellow jacket on a thistle. When I was photographing the yellow jacket I couldn't help but notice that it was the most relaxed yellow jacket I had ever seen that was clearly still alive. I told Russell... that was a really chill wasp. Maybe it was because it was wet... everything was damp from morning rain and perhaps that just mellowed our winged friend.



OR... maybe it wasn't a yellow jacket at all! Gee whiz. Surprise. Another moment of observing something in nature, thinking I know what it is, even asking questions OUT LOUD because it's behavior is confusing and I still don't notice that it is in fact something else entirely until I get a chance to review the images that I have taken. This is one of my favorite masters of mimicry, the hoverfly: an aphid eating pollinator who is welcome in my yard anytime. And this was an observation that I would have documented incorrectly had I not captured a close up and detailed image to review.


We saw a huge group of humpback whales, lunge feeding... but wait, that is NOT a humpback.

Just another whale friend (probably a minke) hanging out in the same area that I would have lumped in with the humpbacks if it hadn't been for this picture.


During Capstone presentations, Zoi taught us wonderful things about banana slugs, but I learned about slug mites because of my camera.


These are just a few examples of how a camera can be instrumental for the work of anyone interested in exploring nature more fully. Photographic tools, techniques and technology allow us to understand more without the need to disrupt or destroy what we are observing. Additionally, the resulting images can be shared so much more easily with larger audiences, who might not have the opportunity to experience these natural places and phenomena otherwise. Not only does the camera allow me to share what I find out in nature with a broader audience, but it helps me be more accurate with my observations, and allows me to see with so much more nuance than my eyes are capable of. It creates more time to observe in a much more intimate way while doing so with much less disturbance to the subject being observed. I don't have to pluck a leaf or pick up an insect or try to (poorly) draw the plumage of a dead bird. I can examine more fully from a distance (both space and time) still subjects AND those moving quickly. And then I can share what I see with so many more people. Whether it’s the transparent eyelid of a bird... which I now know is called the nictitating membrane.

Or the multitudes of and interactions between various insects within a single thistle flower... Seriously. Thistles are the place to be for huge populations of varied pollinators!

Or ANTING... yes, anting. Look it up. It is AMAZING.

I've had moments to wonder about the construction and purpose of the scales on a raptors' shin,

and discovered that honeybees have built-in baskets on their legs that they stuff full of pollen to carry back to their hive.


I've learned about mimicry and adaptation, nudibranchs, regeneration, wave washing, crow mobbing, long tailed weasels, bubble net and lunge feeding, coyote scars and hunting techniques, and the exoskeletal structure that allows a praying mantis to bend its neck.

Have you ever slowed down birdsong to catch the nuance of virtually imperceptible utterance between the notes? I have...

I've learned about UV light perception in birds, how a sea urchin walks, slug mites, sawfly larvae and so much more… because of my camera.

The world is full of wonder and scientific inquiry starts because we notice things that spark our curiosity. And with the tools of photography we can notice SOOO much more!


And in case you were still wondering, I did a little research and spiders DO drink water.


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