Identification, Images, & Information
For Insects, Spiders & Their Kin
For the United States & Canada
Spider setup

Spider setup
Here's the setup I've been using to photograph identification details on live spiders without harming them. It's an evolution of the palp setup I posted before. It's easy to do and doesn't require anything expensive.

The trick is to safely immobilize the spider. I put it on several layers of tissue paper and cover it wholly or partially with a transparent restraint. For small spiders, I use a microscope slide. The clear half of a CD case works decently for larger ones. I also keep a sheet of flexible plastic, such as a cutting from a bag, directly under the spider. It's smooth so the spider won't get its leg spines caught as it might with only the tissue. See the next three images for more info.

My lighting setup changes often, but right now I'm using a flash from below coupled with a reflector atop the restraint (the cardboard square pictured above). The reflector secondarily blocks excess light that would otherwise wash out the image. There's a small hole in it which I shoot through, positioned over the desired area.

Changing reflector materials will affect how the surface of whatever detail you're photographing appears. For palps I like the cardboard square because it's very weak and doesn't produce any harsh highlights. The back side of photo printing paper works nicely for most epigyna.

The choice of camera and lens isn't really important so long as you get plenty of magnification! I've had luck with reversed lenses on DSLRs. Telephoto lenses with close-up attachments work too. I'm currently using a superzoom (Canon SX40 HS) with an old 50mm prime reversed in front. Depending on the size of spider you're working with, the macro mode on a point and shoot might even do the trick.

Here are some examples of what you might be able to do with the spider in different positions.

On its back, facing belly up, the epigynum is the most obvious thing to go for.

Ventral views of the palps are also best done from here. You may need to straighten the palp with a wire (see here).

The distal palp view is also useful for some spiders. Linyphantes in Linyphiidae, for example. This is very easy to do since in most cases the spider's palps will be pointing straight up when it's on its back anyway.

Lots of times the chelicerae will be in the right position to get a good look at the teeth on the posterior margin.

If you've only restrained the cephalothorax (like this), posterior epigynum shots will also be possible.

Or the anterior cheliceral teeth if at least part of the cephalothorax is free.

With the spider on its side, you can often get retrolateral palp shots without any extra work.

Same with the epigynum.

Also leg details like spines, trichobothria, or tarsal claws.

You can simplify things by using only direct light, such as an on-camera flash. It may take some fiddling to figure out where to position it to avoid reflections from the restraint.

I've run into some special cases that require tweaks to this setup, but not many. I'll add examples and workarounds as time permits.

Images of this individual: tag all
Spider setup Spider setup Spider setup Spider setup Spider setup Spider setup

This is so cool, thanks for sharing, Kyron! I need to get some more magnification out of my camera, and then I'd like to mess around and see if I can try this out. I have some glass microscope slides that came with my compound microscope, and I'd never had any reason to get them out until now... :-)

Actually, even if I can't get the desired magnification out of my camera, I can still use this method for checking to see if the spider is mature or not (I usually do that while they're in a vial and I have to try and check them under the microscope while they're running around and stuff.) If I just put them under a slide like that, it's such a simple solution! (And doesn't kill them!) So glad I saw this!

Hope it works out! :)

If you have any old photo lenses lying around (if not, thrift stores often sell them very cheap), holding one in reverse in front of your camera might get you the needed magnification. The wider the better, something like a 28mm should be enough on a point and shoot with a typical zoom range. It doesn't have to be mounted nicely with an adapter or anything, just keeping it there by hand is fine.

I recently bought a new camera (just another point-n-shoot) and got a lens adapter for attaching other lenses/filters. So now I have a 58mm close-up lens on it, but still trying to be able to get as zoomed in as you have. I just barely got the new camera, only had it a week or so, so I will keep experimenting and look into lenses that I could use reversed. :-) There's also threads on both sides of the close-up lens I have, so maybe I could even stack more lenses on it for extra magnification? I bet the image quality would go down, but maybe I'll try and see...

Congrats on the new camera! I haven't stacked multiple lenses before, but it should work since the diopter powers are additive. Worth trying for sure! I doubt the quality will suffer too much unless there are many lenses put together.

Thanks, Kyron! So far, now that I've had a chance to play with the new camera some more, I'm not too happy with the image quality, hah! Kind of regretting the purchase, but at least it can record HD video, which is one thing I wanted. I got a Canon Powershot G15 and it seems like the image quality of my old camera (a Canon Powershot A540) is way better! Boo. Maybe the close-up lens I got is what is making the shots so grainy; I bought off-brand (not sure if that matters). I wonder if others have noticed the poor image quality with the G15, or if it's just me/user error. I was expecting to get a huge improvement from the A540 (otherwise, I wouldn't have bought it). I should've kept saving for a DSLR! :-P

Mandy, I bought a G15 in Fall 2012, thinking a $500 camera with 12 MP had to do better than my $200 camera with 8 MP (Powershot SD1100 IS). I wanted more detail and sharpness in bug shots. The G15 can focus closer than a smaller camera--1 cm from the subject--so I expected more clarity. And 50% more pixels should give higher resolution, right? Well, it doesn't, not in macro. I think the extra pixels are spread out over a larger sensor. I assumed I'd get a greater density of pixels. And depth of field is worse than before, if anything. Apparently, DoF is inversely related to sensor size. This relation is a matter of optics; it all comes down to math.

I have the Canon filter adapter and a set of Promaster diopter magnifiers, +1, +2, +4, which make only a small difference in quality. They don't cause graininess. The usual side effects of such lenses are an increase in chromatic aberration and a decrease in the amount of light that enters the camera. The latter isn't a problem with the G15 because it does well in low-light situations.

You can experiment with backing off a little and compensating for the distance to the subject by engaging optical zoom. (Digital zoom is worthless.) This may bring more pixels to bear on the central subject, but I'm not sure.

What's needed is a DSLR because it accepts a real macro lens. For DoF, apertures beyond f/8 would help, too. But DSLRs are less portable.

Thanks, that's good to know! I'm glad that I wasn't the only one noticing that. I was looking for the same thing with it: more detail and sharpness; and I also assumed the same exact thing about a greater density of pixels, too! Thank you for the advice about not using the digital zoom, I did notice that it just gets worse when you zoom that extra amount.

I suppose my macro results from the G15 haven't been as poor as I might have made them sound, but I had high expectations I guess. Here's one example: (you should be able to click and zoom even further to see how it looks). That was taken in aperture priority mode (f/8, ISO 250, shutter 1/60). The only thing I set was the aperture, the rest is on auto. I've tried other stuff too (auto, Tv, M) and the best results I could get were in Av mode. Kyron's tip made me realize I should check the ISO, but even when I manually set the ISO lower, it doesn't look any better. The main thing I was a bit disappointed with is how grainy it looks when you zoom in, etc. The fact that my little Powershot A540 takes better/crisper macros was off-putting. I've even just been trying "auto" mode on regular non-macro shots with the G15 and it's not very sharp at all even though I'm barely zoomed in and this deer is about 20 feet from me in broad daylight: I mean, it does look like the camera (or me) probably focused more on the rocks rather than the deer, but even the rocks are kind of grainy and not sharp at all.

I got so disappointed at one point last week that I asked the company about returning it but they wanted to charge a restocking fee that was kind of horrendous, so I'm just going to keep it. I'm surprised because I saw the sample shots online and they looked good, which is why I bought it. I kind of wonder if mine got damaged in shipping or something, because it is so far from looking like the samples. Sometimes when I'm focusing (button half-way pushed down) the LCD screen shows strange green and brown "halos" around the subject for a second. And I'm not a pro photographer or anything but basically know what the settings do, so have made sure nothing weird is set. Even in auto mode where I can't really mess it up somehow, the images aren't very good (like the deer in that shot). The two other older point-n-shoot cameras here took great shots of the deer, so I just don't understand.

Sorry to hear it's causing problems! :( The quality of the close-up lens may cause distortion, loss of sharpness, or other optical issues, but it won't affect the amount of grain/noise. Although I know the old Axxx cameras are really good (I actually have an A650IS), the reviews and samples from the G15 suggest it should be great too. Could the ISO be set way up for some reason? Or maybe one of the creative filters is on (sounds silly, but I accidentally had one on once and panicked 'cause I thought I'd broken the camera somehow)?

Camera help
Kyron, out of curiosity (since it might help me if I can recreate what you do), what are the settings on your shots? Like f-stop, ISO, shutter speed? For example, in this really nice one:

None of my tiny spider shots with the G15 look good, so that's why I wondered about that shot specifically, since it's also a tiny one.

That shot, like most of my recent stuff, was taken with an SX40 HS. For macro work I'm always in manual mode. I use full flash for lighting (diffused, you can see the setup here), which lets me keep my ISO at 100 to minimize image noise. I also use a fast shutter speed of 1/500th to cut out ambient light. My aperture varies, but is usually at f/16 to maximize depth of field (the camera only goes to f/8, but there's a wonderful piece of software called CHDK that lets you, among many other things, override default limits on some camera settings).

The macro example you posted above looks pretty good overall. I don't see much graininess, but I think the sharpness issue is a result of the close-up lens rather than the camera. There is softness and distortion creeping far into the frame, which is a common problem with inexpensive close-up lenses. You could try a vintage standard lens for an SLR. They're cheap, easy to come by, and better than the average close-up. Here's an example from my A650IS with an old 50mm reversed in front:

I started using manual mode and it does actually look a bit better! I figured I'd need to get a ring flash or some additional light source to be able to turn up the shutter speed, but it still works even up at 1/500th (works at even faster speeds, too). Woohoo! I took some at f/8, 1/500th, ISO 80 and all is well. I should have played with that already, before complaining about the quality, haha! I plead photography "noob." :-) But it's still the same as far as the sharpness being a major issue (you're right about the close up lens being the problem there; I need to get a better lens).

I hate to abuse your generosity here (you've already helped a ton!), but I've never used or had an SLR or DSLR, so I'm not sure about lenses.... I noticed that on those types of lenses, they don't list the filter thread diameter on the front of the lens? When they call it a 50mm lens, it means that's the closest focusing distance, right? So that's not the diameter of the front threads. If I wanted an SLR lens with 58mm filter threads, how can I tell which SLR lens has that size? Then I could just buy a 58mm male-male threaded ring to attach the G15's 58mm filter adapter to the SLR lens in reverse?

Awesome, glad that worked!

To say something is a 50mm lens refers to the lens' focal length. It determines the angle of view you'll get for a given sensor size rather than how close you can focus.

On some lenses the filter thread diameter is written on the front of the lens with some variant of a Greek Phi (e.g., here's a Canon 18-55mm zoom where you can see the 58mm thread diameter written off on its own to the right). Others don't want to tell you what their thread diameter is and you've either got to measure or play guessing games with them.

And yes, if you have a filter adapter for the G15 and a lens, a male-to-male ring with the right thread diameters will let you attach the lens to the camera. Also, if you have a ring that isn't the same as the thread diameter of the lens you're reversing, it's possible to get step-up/step-down rings like this 55-58mm to match it with. Technically you don't really need the rings. I got away with just holding the lens to the A650IS manually, being careful to line it up with the camera's lens. You run the risk of dropping the lens though.

I should mention a couple of extra things about reversing lenses. The effect of focal length on magnification is basically reversed as well. So the shorter the focal length of the lens you're reversing, the more magnification you'll get. There's a guide here that might help in understanding what's going on. Also, the wider the maximum aperture on the reversed lens the better. If it's too narrow you might end up with vignetting (in extreme cases, a circular image!). Many SLR/DSLR lenses will try to close their aperture when you use them in reverse. As discussed in the guide above, you want the reversed lens to be at its maximum aperture and there's usually a lever or pin that you can open it up again with.

Thank you!!
I'm learning a lot here, thank you, Kyron!

You're very welcome!

Major improvement
So, in the interim between getting an SLR/DSLR lens, I figured I'd just try a name brand macro filter first (just because it's smaller). I bought a 58mm Canon 250D and the results were way better (that off-brand one I was using was really lowering the quality!). The only problem was that the "working distance" (or whatever it would be called) almost doubled... so I had to hold the camera twice as far away to focus on the spider. I didn't like that because I like to rest my elbows on the table for stability, and having to back off further meant I couldn't do that anymore. So I also got one of those stepdown rings 58-52mm so that I could also attach my old 52mm Opteka 10x macro (that one was always good and was what I used on my old camera all the time).
Now having both of those macro lenses/filters on at the same time, the working distance is perfect and (the best part!) is that it doesn't take as much zoom, so the objects just plain look better. Here's one of the latest examples of an Enoplognatha spiderling that was only about 1.5mm in body length: The tiny spiders with that cheapo macro filter looked really bad (so bad I deleted them all). So this is a major improvement! =D
I still am going to be looking for an SLR lens to try and reverse too, but this will definitely hold me over. :-)

That combo is really working! Plenty of detail, and the lack of color fringing at that magnification is impressive.

Thanks, Kyron!