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.


  1. Will you come up with a video review as well? I'm not a big fan of video, but just like to know... Acu, write a book!

  2. Gorgeous pictures.....Absolutely gorgeous

  3. ni macam professor bagi lecture

  4. Momad, thank you for the encouragement. Didn't shoot video much with it.

    Soon Ruey, thanks doc. Next time we will go hunting together ok.

    LKM, haiyaa not too technical for you right?

  5. Very well captured Amir. I am glad I have had the chance to tag along you (not too long ago) to witness this "moulting" process. Thanks so much for that.
    It does seem that the twin flash provided a very well illuminated subject, and at the same time still maintaining some sense of depth (3D) via the side lighting. Very well executed, considering your brief encounter with the gears.
    As for the weight and size I think it is a matter of getting used to.

  6. great captures and the writeup is sound like what LKM mention.

  7. wow... a macro point of view. interesting note on the C-AF. ehmm... wondering how's it fairs against Birds in flight.
    overall very informative review on the E5 and also the Orb Spider :D

  8. A great find, great captures and great explanation!

  9. Fantastic photographs, so clear and detailed. I love that you can see the web that the spider is hanging from in a few of the photos.

  10. Great post and photos
    I was lucky to see this process a few times in nature and it's amazing every time.

    I know the feeling, excitement and broken back after an hour of photography session in imposable body posture just to be in the right angle and level with the spider

    Ur welcome to visit old post from my blog to see a set of Peucetia sp while molting

  11. Wonderful images. I have never used AF in macro, much less C-AF.