Photographing Spiders in Singapore: A Night Hike With Photographer Nicky Bay
By Laura Kraft
This post is the 10th and final chapter in the “Travel Bug” series by Laura Kraft, a recent graduate from the University of Georgia, who is chronicling her travels in Asia from an entomological perspective. See all posts from the “Travel Bug” series.
“Here, stand right here and look back there. You can see its eyes. It’s a mouse deer,” the guide says as he steps away. Sure enough, two bright green eyes flash back at me. I am trying to see if I could make out the body when the guide excitedly interjects, “A huntsman spider! Come look!”
I have been in Asia for a while now, but I can say with 100 percent certainty that this was the first time I had ever been on a night hike when my guide had me turn away from a mammal to check out an arthropod, not even a particularly rare one at that. I was thrilled.
The guide in question is professional arthropod photographer Nicky Bay (www.nickybay.com). Although located in Singapore, he still finds lots of interesting insects and spiders in parks on the outskirts of the city, which is where he brought me for a night hike.
Before the days of Facebook and Instagram, Nicky Bay, who went to university as a computer engineer, spent his free time browsing photographs on forums. Then, he bought his first camera, a small point-and-shoot, which he used as a hobbyist. His skills and interest quickly grew, and his wife finally bought him his first SLR camera. He tells me that, after his first day using it, he wanted to buy a macro lens right away.
Bay explains that it was easier to get a camera than to study insects in Singapore. He started off learning photography by joining like-minded individuals on photography outings to meet new friends and improve his work. Nowadays, Bay organizes his own photography workshops and walks, and he is a judge for the Singapore Nature Photographer of the Year competition. He was also an instructor of the popular BugShot course in Belize in 2015, alongside John Abbott and Thomas Shahan. For his latest project, Bay photographed spiders of Borneo for a field guide coming out soon.
Currently, Bay photographs religiously on Friday nights, often inviting friends along. He explains that photographing in a group makes the work much easier, especially with a diverse group of friends who specialize in certain insects. Bay in particular likes spiders and best understands their behavior and habitats, and he knows when a rolled leaf has a spider inside and which bark to peel back from fallen logs.
His photography pack is heavy, involving many pieces of gear to put together. Bay constantly changes his set up to try new ways of taking the high-resolution arthropod photos he is known for. On the night we go out, he brings a CCTV lens, only about two inches in length, looking more like a toy than a lens, which is attached to the camera by a few different large, bulky adapters to add magnification.
The other new change is the four-flash setup that he has created. Displeased by the bright light and shadows caused by a two-flash setup, he added two more flash units and set each at a much lower power. Each flash is attached with rubber bands to four flexible arms around the lens.
When asked about the homemade set up (which includes reflectors paper-clipped together at some parts and a headlamp used as a focusing light strapped to the camera), he explains that units for purchase always have flaws, like having the light source too close to the subject or not fitting the right size—hence the MacGyver-like tricks he has developed. My favorite addition? A small portable fan clipped to his shoulder that helps to keep him cool and defogs his glasses while shooting in the steamy tropical climate.
When out photographing, Bay has a strict rule of ethics that he follows, centered around respecting the arthropod subjects of his photos. While we are out on the night hike, he carefully reaches up to grab a leaf with eggs on it, gently pulling the branch down and capturing the photo while on his tiptoes before gently releasing the leaf again. As he remarks, he could easily have picked the leaf and brought it down somewhere easier to photograph, but he likes to avoid that at all costs, especially when there are eggs involved. We later see a planthopper with beautiful web-like wings above head-height on the tree, and Bay spends a couple minutes carefully tapping the bark in front of the insect to get it to head back down the tree to a lower height, instead of removing it forcefully. In the end, the planthopper jumps off and flies away, and Bay simply shrugs and goes on looking for the next insect. The patience and respect is remarkable, especially when more nature photographers are bending rules and baiting animals to get the perfect shot.
When Bay sees a new insect, either in a particular location or in his life, he immediately takes a couple field guide-type photographs first so he can later identify the subject, typically a frontal and dorsal view. He usually also puts something below to catch the insect if it drops so he can continue to photograph it. Then, if the insect hasn’t run away due to the flash, he starts to branch out to take more creative photos, stepping back to include some of the environment and the host plant whenever possible.
On the hike, I don’t know what to expect at first. Bay points at a spider, which in the path of light from the flashlight looks like a mere white tiny speck, and gives me a scientific name. The spider is maybe a few millimeters in length, hanging at the end of a silk strand. Even as an entomologist, I am a little underwhelmed. He takes a few photos quickly, then pulls back to check the image in the viewfinder. I peer over his shoulder and am wowed by an incredibly beautiful, well-lit, and colorful portrait of a spider, nothing like the tiny speck I was trying to look at before. The magnification on the lens must be huge, though Bay doesn’t worry about those details. Bay is in his element. He pulls the camera back up to his eye and starts photographing again.
Laura Kraft is a recent graduate from the University of Georgia who is taking a year off to travel the world before returning home to start a Ph.D. program at North Carolina State University in the fall of 2017.