A black background is better… sometimes

Eriophora ravilla (a tropical orb weaver) | Pinellas Co., Florida

If there is one subject that causes more disagreement among macrophotographers, it is the pitch black background. Granted, black backgrounds are common—almost ubiquitous in macrophotography, since they are easily created by using full flash illumination and ensuring that nothing lies behind the subject close enough to reflect the light from the flash. Detractors, however, claim that it gives subjects an ‘unnatural’ look, as they are rarely seen this way in nature. This may be true, but I still believe that for some subjects the black background simply cannot be beat for its aesthetics, even if the subject is not normally seen in this manner. Take, for example, the Great Plains ladies’-tresses orchid—nothing but a pitch black background could better showcase the delicate, white blossom and its almost crystalline lower lip!

That said, however, there are some subjects for which a pitch black background actually can be considered a ‘normal’ background. This tropical orb weaver spider (Eriophora ravilla) is one example. Unlike many other members of the family Araneidae (orb weavers), species in this genus are strictly nocturnal and not seen hanging on a web during daylight hours. Hiding in a curled leaf during the day, they emerge at night and build a large web (up to 1 meter wide), only to consume it by morning and return to their hiding place until the next evening. My nephew Jack and daughter Madison and I first saw this spider during our nighttime foray into the intertidal mangrove marsh behind my sister-in-law’s condominium in Seminole, Florida last month while discovering rare, endemic beetles and their larvae. Knowing that it would likely build its web in the same place on subsequent evenings, I went out a few nights later with my camera and took a few shots.

Some claim that black backgrounds are undesirable for even nocturnal subjects; that there is nothing ‘natural’ about an artificial, narrow beam of light illuminating a single subject at night since no animal other than a person with a flashlight would see something like this. This contention seems a little strained, as one could take such a stance on illumination of any kind. Technically speaking even colors don’t actually exist, so the rendering of subject images on camera film/sensor, whether by natural or artificial illumination,  is itself biased towards human sensibilities. Regardless, the sight of an eerily glowing spider hanging in the blackness strikes a familiar chord with anyone who has wandered the bush by night. A black background not only recreates that human experience, but also emphasizes the subject’s (in this case strictly) nocturnal nature with stark elegance.

At first I took this spider to represent the very common barn spider, Neosona crucifera—widespread across North America. However, after noting the dark femora and yellow “shoulders” of the abdomen I began to rethink that ID. Fortunately, I took one photo of the ventral side (not shown) that shows well the color pattern diagnostic for the circum-Caribbean species E. ravilla.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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6 Responses to A black background is better… sometimes

  1. This photo is fantastic,truly.

  2. Yes Black worked I can see every last detail lol

  3. Dave says:

    I think your black-background adverse macrophotographers aren’t taking their dogma to its logical conclusion. Macrophotography is usually defined as imaging or at least printing a subject larger than life. What is natural about that? And every macrophotograph does it! How more hackneyed could one get: same old boringly bigged-up bugs (or flowers, etc.) time after time. How about some pictures of fuzzy gnat-sized gnats in the shade for a change. That’s the way we see them (or not) and that’s the way I take them with my flash-challenged point & shoot all the time.

    On-the-other-hand, your arachnophobe viewers might prefer not to see every seta so menacingly clear on that monstrously large Eriophora.

  4. I’m with Dave. Defy the dogmas, and do either what has the most impact, or reveals the most natural history, as the occasion merits.

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