Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Tropical Undergrowth World Through E-5

Part 4: Night Macro

Another long delay was inevitable as something unexpected happened to my family.

I have been doing macro both daytime and at night for some years. There are several reasons why night macro is preferred- nocturnal animals go out at night and they are less sensitive to human presence. Some more it is cool, atmosphere wise of course. The not-so-good thing is, of course, the lack of available light. This means focusing will require assistance from a light source such as a torch light. Unless you have a DIY torchlight holder like what my friend Benten has created, you will need the left hand to hold one. This leaves only your right hand to hold the camera.

By holding with one hand we have several issues- weight and stability. E-5 is a heavy camera by Olympus standard, almost double my E-500. For someone like me, I cannot hold it with one hand long especially with a flash unit mounted. Especially the STF twin flash. What saved me was the fabulous ergonomics of the camera and the built-in stabilizer which I supposed helped to compensate hand shake. While we might not be dealing much with image blur due to shake, getting the focus shifted is a major problem.

The great thing about E-5 for night macro is its autofocus system functions very well, both S-AF and C-AF even under low light. Even with the dreaded Zuiko Digital 50mm f2.0. It tracks better with ZD 50/2 compared to E-500 with ZD 35/3.5. This allows great macro opportunity when we are dealing in very tricky situations whereby older cameras tend to cause the lens go hunting.

Due to limited time I only tested the E-5 at night twice. Here are some of the better photos taken when the MyChiaroscuro Olympus-user club had a night macro safari.

Some kind of treehopper only found at night. See how well the highlight was controlled even when obviously flash was used.

A pholcid spider with eggs. Again we see the reflective-prone eggs have sufficient dynamic range while the leaf at the back is well illuminated.

 A very small crab spider (Thomisidae) with rich texture on its body and legs. The textures are well rendered with amazing clarity.

An excellent case study of how the E-5 controls the dynamic range to avoid blown highlights. Even in this low-res 600 pixel photo you can see the hairy texture of this poltys spider's abdomen and legs.

 Some kind of lizard I saw. Not my favourite subject but the scaly skin is a good test for finding excessive moire.

Hersiliid a.k.a. two-tailed spider. Can't say much on this photo but I think people would agree that if a camera can take this kind of photo, it is definitely a really good one.

OK. I find myself boring because I have been doing nothing but praising the E-5 since the beginning. No, the company didn't pay me. All I got from them was a few A4 papers with some marketing points. Frankly I am was very skeptical when the specs of this camera were released as it was the most lackluster model other than the E-450. What impressed me later was the immense improvement of image quality and AF system. Not saying the other models have low IQ, they are all good but this is a huge leap altogether. The AF performance in E-system cameras have been badly ridiculed for ages especially in low light. I hate them when shooting indoor. Now E-5 provided the answer needed.

Bad thing? Haaa... now we get things more interesting. Other than weight, I didn't have much time to find other weaknesses. Probably size is a bit of a problem to me since I cannot reach some of the buttons with my right thumb as easily as I did with E-500. But you see, I am a small person weight 50kg.

For a hobbyist, you cannot go wrong with this camera provided money is not an issue. It allows you access to the exotic Zuiko Digital lenses which are known to provide extremely high resolution and very impressive MTF behaviour. You can use the only two f2.0 zooms in existence with this camera. If your concern is about available lenses, just check out the Olympus website for the line up. Note that the company recently announced that they are not looking at developing new 4/3 lenses at this time so stop hoping for new ones to be released. This disappoints me as it means the planned (since 2007) 100mm macro lens will not see the light of day as of now.

Is this camera good for newbies? If you got the money, yes. It is not so complicated to use and definitely more than capable of producing great photographs. By now there are a lot of E-5 owners sharing their works on the web. Go google up and judge for yourself.

For E-5xx users, this is a very useful upgrade from your dinosaurs. You will love the new features (not really that much) and the excellent AF. The 12.3MP is reasonably high although not the best in the market. Most of the improvements are very helpful in making great photographs easier to take. If your AF tracks better, the image is sharper, the dynamic range higher, then this is pretty much settled. For those who are considering jumping to D300s or 7D, give a shot at E-5 and then only decide. Don't be a sensor size paranoid.

For E-3 and E-30 users, the upgrade is still very substantial. In fact most people I know who ordered the E-5 belong to this group! Ok, financial muscles aside I give the benefit of the doubt that they find the improvement to be worth the upgrade rather than jumping to another boat. I have been using E-30 for the past 1 week, courtesy of my friend Khairul, and would say the AF performance in E-5 is noticeably better. Even the IQ is better although both are using the same sensor.

For potential ship jumpers coming to Olympus, do study the E-system closely before fire selling your gears and buy the E-5. If you do that and still jump, you will appreciate this beast better. You will get to play with Zuikos but will lose great HD video (E-5 runs on 720 HD with noisy AF motor) and 5-figure ISO. I cannot comment much on the usage of other systems but one thing I take note is the colour. You can't beat Olympus' colour.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Tropical Undergrowth World Through E-5

Part 3: Daylight Macro

I apologize for the delay. Just after I published Part 2 I shifted my house to Puncak Jalil, a nice double storey link facing a small hill with a water tank. The property agent said since the front door is facing south, I should get good feng shui. What happened was TM did not reconnect my broadband until almost 2 weeks. I have called them relentlessly after the 5th day we made the request for line transfer and after a lot of BP-rising and saliva-spitting complaints, I am back online. I am waiting to hear what the TM Point GM will say about this, as she told me last week she would.

What makes a good macro machine? There are several attributes which I would put-
1. Good low ISO performance.
2. Lightweight.
3. High megapixel.
4. Low moire.
5. High flash sync.
6. Natural colours.
7. Rugged.

I am not including the obvious ones such as image quality since it is so obvious, we would not be considering something which cannot meet such basic requirement. By the way, I wrote about this earlier and the E-5 got my applaud.

It is obvious that any amount of noise will reduce the quality of a macro image, henceforth we normally shoot at low ISO. So we are more interested in the performance in the range of ISO100-400 rather than peeping the ISO3200. Here the E-5 does exceptionally well where the low ISO range is virtually clean. The weight, on the other hand, is rather on the high side and using it without a support can be draining unless you are used to it. But my concern is the twitching of fatigued muscles while trying to lock focus which induces tremor. The megapixel at 12.3 is adequate for cropping although we hope to see something bigger in the future. Yet we rather have a clean 12.3MP than a noisy 16MP.

Moire is a major bane in macro. It just makes nice photos turn bad. The moire level in E-5 is acceptable even at such high image resolution (these two tend to be proportionate), probably due to the power of the new Truepic V+ engine. They told us it works and from what I see, it did. At 1/250s flash sync, this is very good indeed for some of those high speed macro actions. Well, I can get 1/320s with a 3rd party manual flash on my E-500 but the output is not as consistent. With E-5, the TTL was very accurate.

Getting the right color in macro can be forgiving and tricky at the same time. Since we don't deal with human skin tones, there is no proper benchmark to tell if the color of a particular frog is right or not. You can easily get away most of the time. What makes it tricky is if the hue of the subject is not tally with the background or other minor subject. Even worse if you are doing species identification where accuracy is paramount. The E-5's natural color with just the right hue is a great relief, in fact that is expected since all the previous E-system models have proven to give such natural colors without being too pale nor overly saturated.

The last attribute is sort of a paradox. How could you expect a lightweight DSLR to be rugged at the same time? Either way is good, having both is heavenly (remember the OM-1?) and neither is definitely not appealing. The significant advantage of a camera built like a tank is that it allows you to capture nature's masterpieces which otherwise would require special protection, which i turn is definitely going to be cumbersome. Imagine photographing an adult mosquito emerging from its pupa. The most dramatic angle is to shoot it from almost the same level where part of your lens will be submerged. This also increase the risk of the whole equipment and the photographer himself being submerged by accidental trips. Now imagine doing this with a weathersealed lens and body- the big worry is reduced hence the photographer can have more freedom to exercise his art.

Sorry, I was too engrossed in resuming this review that I went on writing without considering how to link it with photos. OK, back on the ground, I will explain how these photos were taken with the E-5, STF-22, EC-14 and ZD50mm f2.0 on manual mode.

The mantis nymph. 1/160s; F/13; ISO250.
This was taken at a public park with plenty of distraction such as kids playing soccer and adults jogging wearing bright colored shirts. To isolate potential disturbing background, I shot this upwards with the sky behind. The flash gives excellent front fill while keeping the sky blue. Nymph mantis is not the most cooperative subject so I chose this photo out of some 20 frames since it shows the most decent pose.

With the lighter E-500, I can have more freedom to poise the camera in awkward positions to get these things right: mantis head facing forward, no leaves obstructing, sky without clouds and ugly tree silhouettes, flash not blocked, flash direction not creating excessive highlight and most important is to get the focus right (while keeping my breath to reduce body tremor). Yes, I used autofocus with 1 active point at the mantis' eye. But the extra weight of E-5 is a disadvantage, comparatively. But not all is lost since this shot was actually taken without using a tripod or monopod. The image stabilizer is proven to reduce the effect from tremors. Even the advanced autofocus system which locked rapidly allows for a significant shorter period of trying to get the focus right, reducing the compounding effect of body tremor drastically.

Don't you just love the colors? I only raise the curve slightly in CS3 without any other post processing tweak. Nope, nothing else at all.

Female jumping spider (Siler semiglaucus) eating an ant. 1/250s; F/13; ISO100.

The female S. semiglaucus is a very attractive spider and is a darling to any macro photographer. Unfortunately she is rather very small and always on the move. I was lucky to find one with a prey- an unidentified (to me) black ant. S. semiglaucus is one of the few species of jumping spiders which are known to prey on ants. The beautiful pattern on her abdomen is an ingredient for a great photo but the problem is with her white pedipalps. If you are shooting from front, you are bound to get some highlights there. If you are shooting her eating, you cannot run away from doing that.

Peeping at 100%, we can see some details are lost. I admit this photo was a bit overexposed so just imagine how it will be at -0.3 EV. What can you see here? Although some part is blown, the overall details are intact, more than enough for a photo taken around 1:2 magnification. Let's be frank, there is no sense in being so meticulous up to the point we want to see every single hair strand. Drop the EV more and I might get some more texture on the pedipalps but at the expense of the black ant. Here the dynamic range is sufficient, in fact very comparable to anything else in its class. To get significantly more DR, use film.

One thing I like about this shot is that I managed to hide the evidence of using a twin flash. Somehow I hate its reflection on the subject's eyes which looks so unnatural.

If this looks softer at 100% compared to the girl's finger in Part 1, it's probably due to the magnified tremor at macro level and the fact I was using the EC-14 teleconverter.

Lynx spider upside down. 1/250s; F/13; ISO160.

Lynx spiders (Oxyopidae) can be very sensitive. Some species, such as this one, have far visual range and will run away when a photographer approaches. They are so agile than once they run into the foliage, it is extremely difficult to detect them. This female thinks she found a secure hideaway underneath a leave.

I noticed that they respond mainly to movement. Once you are close enough and do not make any obvious movement, you are close to invisible to them. This gave me the opportunity to shoot at various angles.

Almost the entire body is in focus. This is not a flat side profile shot as I want to emphasize on the face a bit hence sacrificing part of the tapered abdomen end. I am not really fond of this leg formation as it looks awkward but this is natural for a wary spider. In a more neutral situation, she will have the body pressed lower to the surface and legs pointing forward. The current position, however, makes photography difficult as you cannot get all the legs in focus.

From here the colors are just great, the details are great, the dynamic range is great, so what else there is to say? You don't see noise at the shadowed area. No visible moire. Very sharp. The only setback is perhaps my artistic taste which may not be everyone's cup of tea. But that is a variable on the photographer and as far as proving what this camera can do, it is of little relevance. If it gets the job done, it's worth it. By the way, quite a number of people did say my taste is ok. To them at least.

I wonder if anyone wonders if I used the swivel live view to take such shots with difficult angles. No, I didn't. I am used to using optical viewfinder and I get better intuition when looking straight with the camera in between me and the subject. But these reasons are due to my lack of familiarity with that feature. I did try using the live view a few times and abandoned it for 2 reasons:

1. It will take me more time to get familiar with it up to the point I can use it comfortably. With the limited time I have, I rather explore other potentials than trying to master a new skill.

2. The dreaded shutter lag is there. I don't know much about the lag of other DSLR but the outdated E-330 seems to score higher points here. When doing macro I cannot afford any lag. Even a slight delay may likely cause a shift in focus when we are in the realm of very shallow depth of field.

But it is too harsh to criticize a feature I haven't fully explored yet, especially a feature that can be so helpful in macro works. My wish is Olympus will explore a more functional live view system, one which has reasonably fast autofocus and release the shutter without significant lag. This alone will propel the usability of this feature in many new applications. In other kind of photography, this is probably not even an issue at all. For example if we take candid photos of people in an event, a swivel-LCD live view of any level of shutter lag is simply a gift from the heavens.

So how do I find the E-5 so far? Good enough to say that I want one. Quite badly.

Next part will be out in a few days.

The top photo of the flies having a good time was taken in daytime but with flash and the background was far away, showing only black. Although it was shot with exactly the same setup, it was there as a lure instead of a case study.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Tropical Undergrowth World Through E-5

Part 2: Moulting Series
One of the more difficult scenes to photograph is the moulting process of a spider. First thing, it requires a lot of luck, patience and scouting skills to witness a moult in process. Spiders are very vulnerable during a moult where even a slight disturbance can disrupt the process which may be fatal. Therefore they tend to moult at times and places other creatures can hardly notice.

Next, an orb-weaver is more difficult to photograph while moulting since they tend to hang by a single thread during the process. Even the slightest breeze will swing it which makes working in a very tight depth of field feels hellish. Even worse if the spider we have is tiny, for obvious reasons.

In the past I have photographed several moults of orb-weavers and usually I will take home about 2-3 good images at best. All are quite sizable, at least 10mm in body length. While looking for a candidate as my glamour macro model, I found a very tiny orb-weaver preparing for a moult. He was so small, some 5mm, which made me think for a while whether this thing is worth the trouble. This thing is small, an orb-weaver and there was gust every now and then. Good combo. It was like some kind of a prank- you get what you want but it won't be that easy.

With me was the E-5, Zuiko Digital 50mm f2.0, EC14 teleconverter and the STF-22 twin flash. I cut some used Styrofoam padding to diffuse the flash heads, tied with rubber bands. The settings are nothing amazing- manual mode with 1/200s, f13, ISO100 and the flash on auto TTL. This is my standard default setting with the E-5 with some parameter adjustment if the need arise. The setting was good enough for this situation but something else was bothering me- the wind gust.

The moult was happening at the outer part of a shrub, easy enough for me to poke my gears at it. But this also makes it susceptible to air movement. The tiny spider was rotating slowly and at times swings between sides. It was almost impossible to lock focus manually, especially with my left hand holding a torch light. I switched to continuous AF and used a single AF point to lock it.

Each of the 11 AF point of the E-5 has twin cross sensors, something like 4 sensors in each point. This makes it very sensitive and very accurate. The C-AF managed to track the constantly moving spider and fired away a burst of shots, retarded only by the recycling of the STF-22. I missed quite a bunch since it was REALLY NOT EASY to track down such a rotating tiny thing through a viewfinder over such a shallow depth of field. But the shots that made through were simply astounding.

Don't you just love when it rotates? Grrrr...

From this case study of shooting a moult with the E-5, let us look at how much helpful it was. The trickiest thing about this was to take the shots while not disturbing the spider. I will need to be at a comfortable distance from it, not touching any leaves that would stir the thread it was hanging to, get a good angle with a pleasing perspective and acceptable background, hold my stance firm and track the instantaneous position of the spider (yeah, thank you so much Mr. Wind). Oh, and don't forget I had the hunt-prone 50mm f2 mounted with EC14. At this point, worrying about the camera setting was insignificant as this should have been sorted out earlier. The E-5 tackled these issues like a professional camera it is meant to be.

Firstly the C-AF was very reliable even at such precise focusing distance, such low light and such lens. If I were to do the same with my E-500, the success rate would drop significantly. I will still get some good shots but not as many and will have to work harder. In fact I doubt that the 50mm f2 can pull such task with the E-500, which was why the 35mm was my primary macro lens.

Secondly, the 12.3MP means there are plenty of room to crop. For typical macro shooters, you don't need further explanation. As for the rest, it is simple to figure out why.
Thirdly, the ergonomics of the camera was very good. It balances well and the grip was solid. Unlike other entry level 4/3 DSLRs, the E-5 comes with a larger optical viewfinder which is a blessing when taking such photos. I did not use the live view since I am not used to it and the fact that there is some shutter delay involved. Just how conservative I am.

I have to give some credit to the STF-22 which made my life easier. Shooting between the leaves have always been painful for my DIY flash bouncer and the twin flash just made this so easy. The flexibility on controlling the power ratio and flash angle was instrumental in making the above shots becoming like what they are. It also resulted with less weird shooting stance.

Now let's talk about the weight factor. Holding the whole setup hand held was quite a challenge, specially for me who is spoilt by the marvel of E-500 (435g) with ZD 35mm (165g) and Cybertik MZ-45 flash (270g without batteries). But frankly, it was worth the extra calories burnt. The set back was that I cannot hold it steady as long as the lighter setup due to increasing tremors as my muscle experiencing fatigue faster. I suppose a bit of dumb bell workout and breathing exercise should mitigate that to certain extent.

Every part of a camera review needs a conclusion and the verdict is simple. I find the combo of E-5 with STF-22 is well worth the extra weight due to its vastly improved functionality which makes life simpler. Well that's the whole point of spending money on new gears, other than to impress girls. I am not even talking about image quality here, which is obviously superb, but just to point out how much the new AF being helpful, compared to ummm... the E-500. Of course there are other systems which have similar or even more advanced AF capability but sometimes I wonder why many of their users rather use manual focus when doing macro.

I will write about image quality in the next part with more photos as case study materials.

Note: The spider is a male orb-weaver of family Araneidae. The gender identification is from the swollen pedipalp. He completed the moult successfully in about 10 minutes after which he went off deep into the shrubs.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Tropical Undergrowth World Through E-5

Part 1: A quick look at E-5 and the Zuiko Digital 50mm f2.

In September 2005 Olympus launched one of its most successful DSLR- the phenomenal E-500. It was cheap, packed with unimaginable features and produced amazing colors through the Kodak KAF-8300CE sensor. I was considering to get my first digital camera and after evaluating several possible choices, I eventually picked the E-500. The choice was based on the value for money and I was simply amazed by the Four Third vision which was bold enough to develop an entire system from scratch, optimistically speaking. See, with the Four Thirds system I will get 1-stop deeper depth of field than any APS-C camera, which is a good news for macro photographers. The E-500 was Olympus' third DSLR.

5 years later Olympus announced the E-5 which came quite late by today's standard. Since a couple of years back, camera manufacturers came to get the habit of producing too many DSLR models too frequently. Sometimes the newer model just cannot be justified properly- they take an existing model, thrash out some minor features and there you go- the latest entry level DSLR. So how is E-5 different from their previous professional camera, E-3, or even the last one out, E-600? I can't tell you much since I don't have either. But I can tell you how E-5 responds when I took it out on some macro shootings.

Shot with E-500 on ZD35/3.5

Olympus Malaysia offered me a unit for testing together with the STF-22 twin flash unit and some other goodies. Naturally whenever someone loan me a camera for a week for testing purpose, it must be that we want to see how the beast can fare when we attach a macro lens to it. Anyone can take macro shots but the number drops when we talk about nature macro. Unlike still life, living critters in the wild hardly pose for you hence a good set for nature macro kit needs to be more than just capable of taking nice photos. Things get more complicated if you intend to haul the gears deep into the tropical rain forest.

I have both Zuiko Digital macro lenses. Most of the time I use the 35mm f3.5 for macro works because although the 50mm f2.0 is significantly sharper, it suffers badly from erratic autofocus when used in low light. Furthermore, it can yield a magnification of only 1:2, which is half of what the el cheapo 35mm produces. Nevertheless it serves as a perfect portrait lens since the sweet spot is somewhere close to the widest aperture and even open wide, its resolution is significantly higher than all other 50mm. So for this review, I will put the Zuiko Digital 50mm f2.0 to test.

Due to time restriction, I only have enough time to do a few tests. This is the test to see how the 50/2 performs on E-5 compared to E-500. OK, I know it sounds like a bad joke but that antique is the only thing I got.

1. In a test done by a famous website, they concluded that the ZD 50/2 out resolves the E-3 sensor. That means this lens still has some untapped potential. On the E-5, the images taken with the 50/2 show much higher detail which correlates to higher resolution. In layman terms- photos will look sharper and crispier with the E-5.

2. The hunting syndrome commonly associated with the 50/2 is well managed by the E-5. The auto focus locks faster and hunts less on low light. It even behaves quite well with the EX-25 attached! Now this is something I never have expected. I taught the chronic low light hunting syndrome suffered by 50/2 is incurable and was simply amazed beyond words when I can easily lock focus with C-AF under the shades of the forest canopy. The focusing speed feels faster as well but that might just caused by some stray endorphin after realizing my favourite lens is cured from night blindness.

Ok, time for sample photos.

This is a portrait shot taken with the ZD50/2 on the E-5 with available light. The details (if you can see the high resolution copy) are mind blowing. I can't compare with other recent DSLRs but against my little sidekick the E-500, the difference is like heaven and earth. Below is the 100% view straight from the camera without any editing (except probably auto-resizing by blogspot). The setting was "Natural" mode and no adjustment to contrast nor sharpness. As bare as it can be.

By now I can hear someone complaining- "Dude, we hate your boring portrait shots. Bring out the spiders!" Since it is not so frequent that I got the chance to test a pro camera before it hits the store, why not we indulge on something else first. In fact macro and portrait share a lot in common since I shoot both using the same lens. Next is a macro shot, taken with the STF-22 on a partially random setting. Personally for me, I have no complaint in regards to the image quality, at all. The image is so refine with rich details and virtually no annoying noise. Good enough for my standard and beyond.

In terms of color reproduction, I am very pleased to note that the E-5 maintains the signature of Olympus on producing very pleasant and natural colors. Coupled with the 50/2, there isn't much you need to (or can) tweak at post processing unless you got the white balance screwed up. The colors are just nice and I find them to be richer than other MOS-based DSLR from Olympus. Oh, a note on the auto white balance. It is fairly accurate and much better than the E-500 although most of the time during the test I use either the preset or manual (Kelvin) settings. This habit was the by product of using the E-500 for so long. At other times, the auto white balance is very reliable.

Now let's get a bit serious. I was wondering if E-5 is a better choice for macro photography compared to my current gear. One distinct advantage the E-500 has is its light weight- a very significant advantage for hand held macro shooters like me. E-5 needs to do more than just giving higher resolution in order to seriously compete with E-500 in the realm of macro. This old work horse has helped me to gain several international recognitions and to date I found no other DSLR model which is suitable to replace it. This, we will look deeper in the next part.

To end the first part of this review, I have 2 conclusions. First, the ZD 50/2 which has already received a legendary status, becomes a super lens with even higher details and much improved auto focus. Secondly, the E-5 is a major improvement in terms of image quality than E-500 or even the E-520 (I had the chance to play with one for 3 weeks). I am saying this as a hardcore E-500 fanboy who has been resisting any sort of gear change for years.

Thank you for reading this entry which has nothing to do with spider. But I need to write something, somewhere.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Visitors from abroad

A few months back I received word from someone I knew through Flickr as Myrmician. He resides in Perth, doing postgrad in something related to ants and spiders, very much into macro photography and travels in adventure style. He said he will be coming to Malaysia and asked if I can suggest some nice places to shoot macro.

At first I planned for a trip to Ulu Dong where we can camp for a night deep in the forest. Alas some family matters came up and I had to cancel that. So I suggested him to check out Fraser's Hill and Taman Negara Endau-Rompin, which he did. At the end of his stay in KL we had the chance to meet up. Apparently he was travelling with 2 friends- Jason, also from Perth, and Art who is a zoologist in USA (he told me he's actually from some Central Asian country, if I'm not mistaken).

Jason, Art and Farhan.

We spent some time talking about nature, macro and conservation. I know Art has been travelling around the world since he has one of the best job ever. From him I came to know that there are no leeches in the Amazon but becareful of the fly whose larvae would dig into human skin. There are over 7,000 photos in his flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/artour_a

I don't know much about Jason other than he is crazy about grapefruit. You can see his works here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/giiviak

Myrmician, or his real name Farhan, is a very capable macro photographer as well. I can write just about everything here but his photos will do the talking better: http://www.flickr.com/photos/myrmician

Years ago it would be very difficult for people with similar interest to connect but with so many social networking platforms today, most of the barriers have been broken. The four of us share a common interest and although we are a world apart, we manage to share our thoughts and knowledge. I was very pleased to welcome them to Malaysia and hopefully in their next visit I can spend more quality time to share knowledge and experience on the field.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hunting Spot: Bukit Kiara Arboretum

Not far from Taman Tun Dr. Ismail, lies a nice patch of green called the Bukit Kiara Arboretum. On second thought, it might actually considered inside TTDI. How to get there is very easy, even if you are not well verse with the TTDI intricate road networks. It is a huge place to hunt macro subjects and also well known to mountain bike enthusiasts.

Coming from any direction of LDP, take the turn into the VADS building (previously known as the IBM tower). It is the tallest building in that area so if you somehow manage to miss it, forget about finding spiders. As you pass with the building on your right side, go straight until you see a traffic light. The go straight again up to a T-junction and turn left. The road ends at the entrance to the arboretum and you can park your vehicle by the roadside.

The entrance has a guard post and starts with a rather steep climb. Please keep to the left as there are plenty of joggers whom might get annoyed if you are obstructing their run. The tarmac road will curve to the left and after about 200m from the entrance you will notice a trail entrance on your left. You may want to start here but alternatively there are plenty other trails branching off along the road. Please be careful in these trails as they are also used by mountain bikers. If you see them coming, do give way.

This arboretum is mainly made of old rubber estate. Actually you might stumble into rubber tapers there although I am quite curious about their legitimacy, professionally speaking. You know what it means- when there are rubber trees, there are mosquitoes. So wrap yourself up and bring along some insect repellant. You all know how difficult it is to get an accurate focus in macro and having mozzies swarming your ears certainly won’t help. Another thing to be cautious is snake as I have seen rat snakes several times among the undergrowth. In one trip I also noticed a whip snake between low reaching branches and an unidentified green snake among the grass.

Cyclosa sp.

Nevertheless this place is a good place for spider hunting or other sort of macro photography due to its diversity. I have seen the jewel spider Gasteracantha kuhli a few times just by the tarmac road which is, fortunately, not so infested by mosquitoes. Related to G. kuhli, Cyclosa spiders can be found almost everywhere here. There are 2 common physical appearences of Cyclosa sp.- long cyclindrical abdomen like C. bifida and almost flat colourful abdomen like C. insulana. You may want to take a peek between the shrubs to find weird looking theriidids like Chrysso and the social spider Theridula caudata.

Myrmarachne sp. guarding her nest.

Male Viciria praemandibularis.

Inside the trail you may find interesting looking jumping spider such as the colourful Viciria praemandibularis and Phintella vittata. Deeper into the trail I have seen and photographed ant mimic spider Myrmarachne guarding her nest. A lot of spiders do perform their motherhood duty by tendering the eggs and youngs, at least the first instar. Female lycosid carries the spiderlings on her back and if that is not enough, some araneid mothers stop eating and guard their egg sacs until they die out of starvation. This is very interesting to elaborate but I think it’s better to write the details of spider upbringing in another entry.

Leucauge decorata.

Opadometa fastigata.

As the trail goes further, it will curl by the edge of a cliff on your left side. There are ferns and low shrubs on your right and it would be a good idea to check these out. Among the tall grasses and ferns, it is likely that you can find some small tetragnathids such as Leucauge and Opadometa. As far as I can tell they both look more or less the same except for the colours and the latter has pronounced curve hairs at the fourth femur called trichobothria. You can easily find them as they both weave orb webs of up to 2 feet in diameter. The webs are usually almost horizontal and the spiders are always hanging upside down at the hub. Photography can be tricky if your lens has a very close working distance. Of course you would not want to disturb the spider or its web, henceforth getting the right angle can require some yoga posture.

The beautiful female Herennia ornatissima.

Another orb weaver which is common here is the ornate orb weaver, Herennia ornatissima. Just like most spiders, the female of this species is many times bigger than the male. You can find their webs at the tree trunks inside the forest although most of them build their web a bit higher than our reach. An interesting thing about H. ornatissima is the habit of the male to plug the female’s genital with his pedipalps just after copulation. It is believed that this will ensure that the female can only get pregnant with that particular male’s sperm hence ensuring his genetic code to be passed on to the next generation. Seems like chastity belt is not yet out of fashion.

Linyphia urbasae, female.

Deeper inside you might encounter some interesting linyphiid including the attractive Linyphia urbasae. The female has a bright yellow abdomen with black markings while the smaller male is plain orange and four black spots on the dorsal side. Spiders from this genus weave a complex web between the sides of a large leaf and hides upside down. Males can sometimes be seen courting a mature female in her web, often waiting at the edge for an opportunity to mate.

The arboretum is definitely large and I have never completed a total coverage in one day. There are plenty of trails and a good variety of species to be found. On a lucky day you might even find a giraffe weevil at the shrubs along the tarmac road. I hope the arboretum will remain there as it is for a long period of time and survive the rampage of housing development around it.

Hazards: Plenty of mosquitoes. Trails are slippery after rain and beware of cyclists going down the slopes. Snakes have been spotted in several locations.

Families encountered: Theridiidae, Linyphiidae, Oxyopidae, Tetragnathidae, Salticidae, Araneidae, Scytodiidae, Lycosidae, Pholcidae, Thomisidae, Clubionidae.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Gunung Angsi survey

Looming between Seremban and Kuala Pilah is the famous Gunung Angsi which stands at 825m. Height wise, it can be considered among the shorter mountains but it is popular for one-day trips. Generally it takes 3-4 hours from Ulu Bendol Recreation Park to reach the summit, which makes it a good mountain for trainings.

Actually there is another trail starting from Bukit Putus but I have never been through that. The more popular trail is the one from Ulu Bendol which runs along a stream until Jeram Kak Lang where hikers need to make the last cross. From there the trail goes up with several places require the use of ropes due to vertical climbs. The climb is long and moderately steep but the trail was made in such a way that it resembles a staircase interlaced with roots. The summit itself is quite spacious and can fit maybe 40 people but lacks shade. Unlike some higher mountains which are covered with mist, Gunung Angsi has a clear atmosphere meaning that daytime is usually hot.

I have been to the summit twice; the first one was 5 years ago. Nothing much changed and the hike is still very dehydrating. Hikers are advised to bring enough water supply and bear in mind that after the last water point in Jeram Kak Lang, every drop can be precious. The air is warm and hikers tend to sweat a lot. Although to me it is no where as difficult as Gunung Nuang, here dehydration is the main challenge, apart from the rope climb if you are clumsy. The open sky at several stretches will make matter worse if you already have water crisis.

To my understanding, it is not permitted to camp at the summit. There are several spots allowed for camping notably at the recreational park. Alas the place is not very conducive for camping due to its close proximity to the car park and the fact that the surrounding area is bustling with picnickers. I tend to dislike the general Malaysian picnickers as they are the biggest culprit in littering the nature. Ill-behaved picnickers often ditch their rubbish everywhere as long as it is to their own convenience, often resulting nature recreation areas to be infested with styrofoam containers and plastic bags. I personally believe that greater enforcement should be executed to put this to stop as well as a better program to educate the mass population on the devastating impact of such behaviour.

For the recent trip I brought along 2 friends who have never done mountain climbing before. Now this constrains my survey activity a bit as I was responsible to be their guide and coach. Most of the time I had my camera inside my bag therefore species survey was done only occasionally. Perhaps my luck was not so good that I did not manage to come across a lot of species during this trip but there were a few pleasant encounters.

Arachnura sp.

One of it is a female Arachnura sp. which was guarding her egg sacs at summit. I seldom come across this genus and this is the first time I saw one with egg sacs and hatchlings. The egg sacs were lined up within the web and hatchlings stick together at the upper portion of the web. The mother was seen to actively respond to snared insects while doing her maternal duty. Although arachnura belongs to the large family of araneidae orb-weaver, its shape is so slender that it looks out of place among other cousins.

Argiope sp.

Leucauge sp.

Beneath the dedicated mother and still in the same shrub was a small argiope. Usually adult or sub-adult argiopes with rather larger size weave stabilimentum (the thick cross silk line) but this little fella has a very pronounce one which is unusual for its size. On top of both was a small spider resembling a leucauge but with a rather unusual web for such genus. Leucauge is a common genus with beautifully symmetric orb webs but this one looks rather incomplete. Perhaps the strong wind on the mountain prevented a complete orb web.

Polyboea sp.

Not far from the shrubs I saw a polyboea in its 3-dimensional web. A very small cyclosa was nearby and it looks like one with a metallic abdomen. I hoped to find some spiders on the tree barks but did not manage to spot any. But mostly I was too tired to do any serious surveying. Actually I ran the morning before and my calves were still hurting.

Descending from the summit was much easier and even with many pit stops we reached the base in 3 hours. We ran out of water about a quarter way down so I left whatever water I had to my companions and ran down to the last water point to bring back a bottle for them. So remember- make sure you have enough water supplies when attempting this mountain.

Phoroncidia lygeana

I imagine the lower trail along the stream should have a much higher density of critters. Perhaps on another day I might just spend more time at the base for a proper survey of this area. I did found a very interesting spider- a Phoroncidia lygeana which has an extraordinary looks. This spider has 6 spikes protruding from its body and its web snare is a single vertical thread between two leaves.

Families encountered: Salticidae, Lycosidae, Pisauridae, Sparassidae, Tetragnathidae, Araneidae, Theridiidae, Psechridae.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The book has arrived

A couple of years ago, an editor from Bearport Publishing in New York contacted me about using one of the photos in my Flickr site (www.flickr.com/labah-labah) for their next book. It was one of my earliest photos of a giant trapdoor spider, therefore the photo was not really that nice. I seriously think that it was close to reject quality but I published it on my Flickr for sentimental sake. But it was also special as it showed the spider bolting out from the burrow, although I did not do a good jood at capturing it in an artistic manner. As I said, it was one of my earlierst encounter with such magnificent creature.

Beaport Publishing makes children books. For several reasons I did not ask for monetary payment and allowed them to use the photo for that book. This was under the impression that the book will help to educate the young generations on appreciating nature and dispel the myth of spiders being evil creatures as depicted in some popular folklore. They agreed to send me some complementary copies once the book is published. Unfortunately there was some delay in the process and I just received them last week.

Now here how the front page looks like.

This is where the give credits.

The photo is in page 11, showing an example of a trapdoor spider with silk threads radiating from the burrow.

Coincidentally I will be visiting the very site of where I took the photo very soon. I don’t know if it makes any sense for me to bring the book there and show the celebrity spider that her face is registered in the Library of Congress and distributed worldwide. It is exciting to imagine if she understands all those but on second thought I believe what she really appreciate is a quite life away from human intrusion.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Pale Spitting Spider, Scytodes pallida.

Of the 69 families of spider found in South East Asia, several of them possess very interesting characteristics such as the ability to catch fish, mimic other animals or blend so well with the surrounding. Yet one of the most remarkable ability belongs to the Scytodidae family which is range attack.

Known as the spitting spider, scytodid is quite common in Malaysia. The can be found in primary and secondary forests and even near human dwellings. A few weeks ago I had one individual crawling next to my PC keyboard before vanishing between the junks on my table. But the best place to find one is probably secondary forests where I had most encounters. It is pretty common in Bukit Kiara arboretum near Kuala Lumpur and I found quite a number in Hutan Lipur Soga Perdana in Batu Pahat.

Now a bit about the anatomy of the spitting spider. While most spiders have 8 eyes, the scytodid has only 6. There are less than 10 families of spider with 6 eyes which also include the common daddy long legs (Pholcidae). Generally 6-eyed spiders are nocturnal and hunt at night but I have seen several individuals which hunt during the day.

In one occasion I was blessed with the opportunity to witness a spitter attacking a jumping spider. It crawled slowly to the prey and fired several jet of glue until the jumping spider was immobilized. Then it moved slowly behind the prey to deliver a bite at the limbs. This is a series of photos I took of the action. Since I just happened to stumbled upon this scene, there was no time to do proper camera setup and to record everything. I wish I captured the glue trail flying from the spitter’s fangs to the prey but that may be too much to wish for.

The first attack is by glueing the enemy.

Then the bite at a more secured part of the enemy's body.

OK, not I'm sure what's the intention here, perhaps injecting digestive enzymes.

Some species of spitting spiders tend to make human house as habitat. They prey on moths, silverfish and other small insects in the house. This can be beneficial and perhaps welcomed in homes. As pest predator, spiders are very effective and most of the time avoid being visible to human. Several houses in a village I visited in fact welcomed spiders and the villagers did not even clean the webs at the ceiling of their houses. I also noticed that while there were mosquitoes outside the house, the interior was virtually free from blood suckers and cockroaches. Seems like both human and the spider have established a symbiotic relationship.

Are they dangerous to human? I suppose a single cockroach is a lot more hazardous in many ways- eating our food and leave their droppings everywhere. Spiders keep this kind of house pest at bay and they have no business with our food or sucking our blood like mites. The fact that they are hunters means that the spitting spiders do not weave any web except as a retreat, usually when nesting. At the cost of making our house looks unkempt, they are the free pest control agents who hunt relentlessly.

Retreat is made by curling the tip of a leaf. Somehow they like that kind of leaf.

Another interesting behaviour of S. pallida is the mother carries the eggs with her jaw. She would build a retreat by curling a leaf and stay there until the eggs hatch. Maternal care of the eggs is crucial to avoid mould infection on the eggs as well as protecting it from predators. But by being encumbered, the mother herself is vulnerable and consequently becomes the prime target for predators such as the jumping spider Portia labiata which prefers to attack spiders with eggs. To offset this advantage, S. pallida has a remarkable anti-predator mechanism where upon sensing the presence of P. labiata (by the chemical cues from its drag line), a mother S. pallida can shorten the embryonic period of the eggs and make them hatch faster. While this may cause higher mortality rate among the hatchlings, the mother will then be free to protect herself and the surviving spiderlings with her defensive spitting.

A mother will carry and protect the eggs at the cost of her life.

The Pale Spitting Spider has a wide distribution across the South East Asia with records in Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and up to Papua New Guinea.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Batik Orb-weaver Nephila antipodiana

With a leg span of up to 6 inches and body length up to 1.5 inches, this is one of the largest orb-weavers in the world. The sight of such huge spider with a web of 1 meter in diameter can be intimidating for some people but otherwise would simply instill awe and admiration. Because of their large size and the fact that they live in even larger webs, meeting one of them is not really that difficult. The Nephila antipodiana is in fact a rather common spider in places of moderately high altitude and cool temperature.

Newly hatched N. antipodiana spiderlings. The nest is in between branches near the web.

A juvenile female.

A Nephila antipodiana following a successful moult.

This is a really big momma. I say that because the size of the female is much larger than the male. It is like comparing a goat and a full grown elephant, and I am not referring to the imported boer. In some webs the males can be seen lurking at the edges, feeding on smaller insects that got trapped but ignored by the female. He might have to compete with the cunning argyrodes, commonly known as dewdrop spiders, which also make a female nephila web as their dining hall.

The smaller male is trying to mate with the female below. Mating can take quite a while.

These little dewdrop spiders are easiest to be found in webs of larger spiders. Several argyrodes species have been found to make a living from looting a nephila’s web. Such behaviour is known as kleptoparatism and studies have indicated that a web with too many argyrodes can severely retard the growth of a nephila. The host sometimes chases them away but most of the time they got to the prey faster and cut part of the web silk away to mask the prey’s vibration. Although argyrodes is of similar size and can be of similar colours to the male nephila, both can be easily distinguished from the body shape where the latter has a flatter abdomen.

A matured male waiting at the edge of a female's web.

There are 2 other nephila species I have found in Malaysia- N. pilipes and N. kuhlii. The webs are almost similar except that N. antipodiana usually has a second or third screen web of slightly different mesh pattern and sort of curved away from the main web where the spider resides. Sometimes several nephila webs area attached together creating a complex of mega webs like a massive fortress. I have heard accounts of small forest birds being snared in such formidable structures.

The range of this spider is wide with records ranging from China to New Zealand. They make webs almost anywhere possible- between branches, telephone cables, open ceilings and fences. Because they are huge and look menacing, I imagine it can easily cause discomfort to most people whenever a nephila is seen nearby human habitat. The natural tendency of most human behaviour is to expel the spider or kill it. This is unnecessary as orb weavers are generally gentle spiders and does not attack human, however gruesome they may look. A population of nephila in any neighborhood will reduce several kinds of pest insects which have been shown in several studies related to biological control of crop pest. Their huge webs and the tendency to cluster create a formidable defense against medium and large flying insects. For the smaller flyers, the males and argyrodes will take care of them.

A female coming out from a moult.

Some time recently a group of people in Madagascar made a fabric out of the silk of a nephila species local to that region. It took 4 years to collect and weave an 11’ x 4’ textile from the extraction of a million spiders. By weight, spider silk is stronger than steel and can stretch up to 40% of its length without breaking. It is interesting to know the extent of spider silk in science and industry which scientist believe can lead to revolutionary materials. But unlike silk worms they cannot be raised in captivity without them cannibalizing one another.