How to Photograph a Wolf Spider in a Wheelbarrow

Last week, I spent two days working with local school kids at Griffith Prairie north of Aurora.  On both days, my job was to get the kids excited about insects and spiders, teach them a few things, and let them catch and inspect as many things as they could.  It was a great couple of days, with excellent weather and enthusiastic kids.  Quite a few of the kids had never had any real positive exposure to insects or spiders, so it was rewarding to see them smiling as they held little creatures they would have stepped on or run from the day before.  (By the way, my experience is that kids who say they won’t touch an insect or spider can be often be talked into holding an inchworm, or even a cute little jumping spider.  Once they’ve done that, other species come pretty easily.  In fact, you might say inchworms and jumping spiders are “gateway bugs”…)

Anyway, during lunch on one of the days, Jan Whitney from Prairie Plains Resource Institute found a gigantic wolf spider on the ground, and I scooped it up and put it in a ziplock bag to show the kids.  It was the biggest spider I’ve ever seen in Nebraska, and the kids were duly impressed.  At the end of the day, I took the spider home to get some photos of it before releasing it.

A face-to-face look at the big wolf spider found at Griffith Prairie, north of Aurora, Nebraska. Click on the photo for a bigger image.

This is the part of the blog post where I’m going to risk both ridicule and a fairly substantial loss of credibility by sharing a few of my secret techniques for getting fabulous photos of small creatures.  I’m banking on the fact that most of you have been reading this blog long enough that you’ll put up with a few oddities and gimmicks and keep reading even after you’ve seen how the sausage is made, so to speak.  At the same time, a few of you might actually decide to steal a few of my secrets, and that’s ok too.  Now, before you get the wrong idea, the vast majority of my photos of insects and such are taken in the wild, and the subjects are photographed doing whatever they would have been doing even if I wasn’t peering through my camera at them.  In some cases, however, it’s not possible to get a photo of a particular animal under those circumstances (have you ever tried chasing a wolf spider through tall grass??) and an alternative plan is needed.

So, my first step when I got home with my spider-in-a-bag was to find my wheelbarrow.  Yes, that’s right – after extensive testing, I’ve determined that my old rusty wheelbarrow has all of the characteristics of a perfect backyard photo studio.   Here’s how it works.  First, I fill the bottom of the wheelbarrow with some appropriate looking habitat.  In the case of the wolf spider, I put in some old leaves laying around near our compost pile.  I patted them down into a nice natural-looking layer on the bottom of the wheelbarrow.  Next, I push the wheelbarrow into a place in the yard where the bright sunlight is partially diffused by the leaves of my tall tree.  Not complete shade, and not open sun, but something in-between, where the light is almost bright enough to make shadows.  Once I’ve got my habitat and light arranged, I set up my camera and tripod, and I’m ready to introduce the photo subject.

The wheelbarrow photo studio works best with animals (or plants!) that are not incredibly quick, can’t fly or jump long distances, and that are small enough to fit comfortably into a wheelbarrow.  Spiders, small turtles, lizards, and such work very well.  Sandhill cranes?  Not so much.  In this case, the wolf spider was a good runner, but I was banking on the fact that it’d have to scrabble up and over the metal sides of my old wheelbarrow before escaping, and that my own cat-like reflexes would be sufficient to (gently) nudge it back inside the wheelbarrow before it got away completely.

This is probably a good time to say that while just about any wheelbarrow will probably work for a wildlife photo studio, there are a few specific design characteristics that are worth shopping around for.  The most important of these is sides that are steep enough to slow down a quick spider, but not tall enough to create shadows across the habitat on the floor of the studio.  It turns out that the 50-year-old barrow I inherited from my grandparents has the perfect mix of those characteristics.  No, it’s not for sale.

Ok, anyway, I opened up the ziplock bag and let the big wolf spider run out into its new temporary habitat.  Of course, it immediately shot off toward the edge and leaped out of the wheelbarrow into the yard.  My cat-like reflexes notwithstanding, I managed to recapture it and try again.  This time, I was able to keep it corralled and to turn it back every time it tried to get out, and after about 10 or 15 tries, it finally paused to assess the situation.  This is known among wheelbarrow photographers as “The Moment of Opportunity”.  I grabbed the camera, focused in on the spider, and squeezed off a couple shots before the spider caught its breath and shot off toward the side of the barrow again.

After a certain number (trade secret) of chasing/pausing/photographing sequences, I finally had enough photos that both the spider and I were satisfied with the shoot, and were ready to call it a day.  During the amount of time (trade secret) it took to finish the shoot, however, I gladly took advantage of one of the other great attributes of a wheelbarrow studio, namely its mobility.  Often, when the spider would pause, it would be facing away from the best light direction.  In that case, I just moved the wheelbarrow around so that spider was lit more photographically.  In addition, I had to move the wheelbarrow’s location several times to keep up with the pattern of dappled light that was shifting across my yard as  the sun kept moving.  (Yes, I know it’s the earth that’s actually moving, but that just confuses the story, doesn’t it?)

For those who are thinking about trying this at home, here’s a good tip for successfully photographing wildlife in a wheelbarrow…  It’s often good to get the camera down to the same level as the creature you’re photographing, so you can look the subject right in the eyes when you take its picture.  My wife will read this and snort (attractively) because she frequently has to remind me to do the same thing when I’m photographing our kids.  (My only excuse is that it’s hard enough to keep the kids in the wheelbarrow that I sometimes forget to think about camera angles.)  Anyway, the fact that the wheelbarrow studio is off the ground a couple feet makes it even easier to arrange the tripod in such a way that you can get good face-to-face photographs of spiders, turtles, or other cute little creatures.  That up-close-and-personal perspective usually creates a more interesting photograph than a more “aerial view”.

Moving both the wheelbarrow and my tripod helped me find camera and light angles that made interesting photographs of the spider.

I took this "aerial view" to help identify the spider later by documenting color patterns on its carapace and abdomen. A big thank you to Professor Bill Beachly at Hastings College, who identified it as a big female Rabidosa rabida.

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The use of this universal scale tool helped to document the actual size of the spider.

Well, there you go.  I hope this has given you a peek behind the curtain and that you’re not too unsettled by what you’ve learned.  I also hope the local hardware stores (or antique stores) will be able to handle the run on wheelbarrows over the next week or so as all of you rush out to build your own portable wildlife photography studios!

No spiders or humans were injured during the shooting for this blog post.  Both the spider and human involved experienced some degree of temporary exasperation, but appeared to recover.  The spider was released unharmed.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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14 Responses to How to Photograph a Wolf Spider in a Wheelbarrow

  1. Adrian O says:

    Great pics, Chris. This reminds me of being back home (So. Cal) as a kid and dropping house flies or manipulating the web with a stick to make the spider dart out. Wolf spiders are great little creatures. May I ask what macro lens you used?

  2. Mel says:

    Chris,
    I know a professional photographer who collects spider webs so he can put them against interesting backgrounds and photograph them. He also prints out interesting landscapes as blurred images and uses them as backgrounds for certain subjects by just holding the print behind them. Seems what you did was creatively design a situation where you could portray the aspects of your subject that you think are important for educational purposes.

    From the first images and your description I was expecting a tarantula-sized beast – when you put down the lip balm for comparison my first reaction was “oh, only that big?”. Amazing how close-ups can bias your perception.

  3. Dan Staehr says:

    An awesome spider! and some great tips on capturing them on photos.

  4. Grace says:

    Chris,

    Did you know that wolf spiders are blind as they move (run) across the landscape? I learned this little factoid over the summer while working in the lab of Brian Patrick, an arachnidologist at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, SD. You would enjoy his work, he researches grassland spiders.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Grace – I did NOT know that. That’s very cool. Do they see when they stop but not as they’re moving? I’d love to know more about that.

      • Grace says:

        Supposedly they do, and quite keenly (see). Dr. Patrick stated that he hopes to develop a repository for specimens (not just wolf spiders) from the Great Plains, you might want to contact him. I’m sure he would enjoy hearing about your insect work here in Nebraska! (brpatric@dwu.edu)

  5. James McGee says:

    Chris, Your post reminds me of a recent article I read about top level predators. They claim removing spiders has been shown to decreases available soil nutrients. Without predators, the prey consumes unabated until the ecosystem has been reduce to a less nutrient and less biodiversity rich state.

    http://e360.yale.edu/feature/the_crucial_role_of_predators_a_new_perspective_on_ecology/2442/

    James

  6. James McGee says:

    I re-read the article. I wasn’t lack of spiders, but different hunting strategies that selected for different species resulting in changed nutrient levels.

    James

  7. Useful and humorous bit of blogging, Chris. Maybe it should have a humor tag, along with its other attributes.

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