Macro specialist Thomas Shahan explains how he takes his amazing images of spiders and insects, and invites Oliver Atwell to take a wander around this miniature alien world LOOKING through Thomas Shahan s images of jumping spiders and various insects, you begin to ask why anyone would wart to spend millions of dollars in the quest to find strange and exciting life on other planets. Through Thomas s lens we discover a range of subjects the :ikes of which Would, send both HG Wells and Arthur C Clarke into delirium. Thomas s ability to capture the real character of his spider and insect subjects through vivid colour and confident macro photography borders on breathrtaking. It is rare to see creepy crawlies in such an empathetic light.  JEEPERS CREEPERSInterestingly, Thomas s background isn t in photography at all - he happened upon the medium by accident. In his later years at high school, Thomas began selling guitars online to earn money and simply needed a way to take photographs of his wares. It was simply the case that I needed to produce images to display the guitars, so I bought a Pentax 1st DLr,  says Thomas, from his home in Oklahoma in the USA. I didn t get the whole photography thing right away, but after a playing around for a while I began to get more attached to having a camera in my hands. It was through messsng around that I managed to develop the technique that would enable me to take photographs of spiders. The technique to which Thomas is referring is using a reversing ring on his prime lens and attaching the lens the wrong way around on his camera (To learn more about this affordable way to achieve stunning macro photographs, see Mat Gallagher s article on pages 42-43 of this issue.) One day I detached my 50mm prime lens and held it backwards in front of the camera, just for curiosity s sake,  says Thomas.  What I noticed was that I could shoot at a much higher magnification. That blew my mind because it meant I could take close-up images just using the lens that I had. Once I found that out, I dived straight into it and started testing out all my other lenses. Thomas s curiosity was fired up and he started experimenting with a range of subjects, such as the end of a ballpoint pen and Lincoln s "ace on a dollar bill However, his interest in such static subjects was short - lived. I guess there is no thrill of the chase going after an inanimate object,  says Thomas. There s no reward. But it was then that I began to notice the. urn ping spiders in my garden. I started getting closer to them so I take photographs, which was great. These spiders are so small, yet they have these large colourful eyes Interestingly, they make eye contact with you. Ifs pretty humbling when this strange little form of life looks directly at you But what really grabbed me was that they re incredibly difficult to photograph. Thomas s interest in arthropods built steadily over time. In Thomas s mind, man-made objects had a finite level of detail, yet spiders - his favourite subject - seemed to possess an unlimited amount of variety. The fact that the details Thomas was exploring could not be seen without a macro lens made the image - taking process all the more exciting, Thomas was entering a whole new world - and it was all in his own back garden.


It seems there s one irksome question that Thomas gets asked more than any other: how exactly does he get his subjects to stay so still? I don t exactly roll my eyes when I hear that question, but I tend to get a little frustrated,  says Thomas.  I ve actually had people accuse me of gassing the spiders and freezing them. Others have even gone so far as to say that I pin them and then Photoshop out the pin, if you can believe that I hat angers me because I really care about my subjects. Theymost definitely alive and well. Something Thomas had to learn very early on was that patience when working with these subjects is most definitely a virtue Spiders and insects aren t exactly known for taking stage directions and enjoy nothing more than dashing from one place to another. This requires Thomas to take as many shots as he can in the short time he has. In Thomas s own words., the success of his shots is born from the sheer volume of images that he takes. key for me is to understand how these spiders and insects behave,  he says.  Ibeen working with arthropods for the past five or six years, and with that intensity of exposure you can t fail to pick up on all their little behavioural traits. You ll notice that I donwork with ants. This is because they re a nightmare as they never stop moving. Thomas says he has developed a good understanding of the jumping spiders  tricks and he understands how they think. For example, these spiders feel safe if they have some kind of cover or have a wall they can back up against. When theyout in the open, they get scared and nervous. Thomas adds:  While I understand the spiders, it s very rare that I ll sit down, find a beautiful subject, take a shot and then think, "Wow! That s great." My images come about over the course of a whole afternoon crawling around the ground in the garden or in the woods, taking a ridiculous number of photographs. It sees me getting a bunch of shots that aren t in focus or where the background or surrounding environment isn t complimentary to the subject. Then maybe Icatch the spider in a cup and put it on a leaf, which it then jumps off. I ll have to recapture it or just photograph it on the ground Maybe then Isee that the composition is terrible or therenot enough value contrast, so I ll have to rethink the whole shoot. Itendless. WORKING WITH COLOUR Thomas always uses objects from the immediate environment in his shots. This avoids the introduction of an alien colour or object into the photograph. A lot of his images have quite colourful backgrounds, and often this is because he is aware of something as basic as the seasons. it s autumn, there will be plenty of green leaves but there could also be some bright red leaves,  says Thomas. could be very complimentary to a cooler - coloured spider as it gives a nice colour contrast.’ The way that Thomas discusses the arrangement of his images sounds almost as though he could be talking about designing a set for a portrait. really don t have any background in photography at all,  he says. do have some experience studying art, though. I used to produce a lot of block prints, etchings and engravings, and the restrictions of print making helped me to work with a limited colour palette or even limited tools. These things contributed to the do-it-yourself mentality that affects a lot of my work. Thomas is also concerned with  value contrast’. As his finger hovers over the shutter, he asks himself,  Would this image still look good in monochrome? Yet Thomasconsideration of the colours actually extends beyond just what makes a pleasing image. It also speaks of how images are being seen online. I want the spiders to look good even as thumbnails online,’says Thomas.  As a result, more people will click on those images and begin to appreciate just how fascinating jumping spiders are. I guess I try to make them as marketable as I can. People can t help but click on them and learn more. As much as I d love to take wider shots of the spiders and insects, close crops are what capture the eye. However, these close crops are what serve to essentially anthropomorphise such alien subjects. Just the focus on the eyes is enough to make these strange subjects all the more relatable. It s crucial in Thomas s quest to make these creatures more understood.  Spiders get a bad rap,  says Thomas.  Ihere to show them as these harmless and beautiful animals.’ EQUIPMENT While Thomasequipment tends to vary throughout each shoot, there is a basic set-up that he returns to time and again. His most used kit is a Pentax K - x body that he uses with a set of $5 Chinese extension tubes he found on eBay. I coated the insides of the tubes with some black foam,  says Thomas. helps to dampen the light, which gives the images a bit more contrast and better representation of colour. I also have the reversing ring, which I use with a 1970s Pentax SMC 50mm f/1.7 prime lens. For the lighting, I have an L - shaped off-camera flash bracket. That has a ball head so I can manipulate the flash to the angle I need. The flash is a Vivitar 285 HV with a homemade softbox. This is a rather inexpensive set-up considering the kinds of effects that Thomas is able to achieve. While there are many expensive macro lenses on the market, Thomas has shown what can be done with an old lens and a cheap attachment. If I had nicer equipment, I wouldn t know what to do with it,  says Thomas.  The kit I use is pretty makeshift. It s a $20 lens, a $5 extension tube, a $20 flash and a $30 flash unit. The camera cost a bit of money, but thatto be expected. While my kit can be a little cumbersome, I d rather have that than a big whole in my bank account.’ Thomas has been active in his photography for a few years now, and while he is happy with what he has achieved his goal is a little more humbling. I would like my images to be about more than just an exercise in aesthetics,  he says.  I d like it to assist in the research and preservation of jumping spiders. It could be that I go off with someone to South America, where they re discovering new species all the time. It s an understudied and undervalued animal. If I can help to do my bit for them, then Ibe pretty happy.

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