Thursday, July 21, 2011

Hunting Butterflies

When I was a kid I use to catch butterflies, kill them, and pin them up so as the corps dried they would be in the perfect display position. Back then there were so many butterflies around. You could not go a day without seeing Monarchs, Tiger Swallows, Cecropia Moths, and more. So capturing a couple for display did not seem to be a big deal, until now.

Now that the climate is going through a change (naturally with a little human push) and habitat is shrinking , butterflies seem to be disappearing form the cityscape. So instead of hunting butterflies with a net I pursue them with my camera. And let me tell you it is not easy. But with a little patience and determination you can capture great butterflies for display without taking a single one out of the environment.

First you need to know your insect. And I am not talking about knowing everything from genius name to the lifecycle of it. What you need to know is when is the best time to photograph them. Some butterflies tend to arrive early in the year and some arrive later in the fall. Thistle feeders like Buckeyes, Painted Ladies, and Red Admirals tend to be late summer and early fall feeders. I remember one year we had numerous Painted Ladies flocking to our Cadim which was in bloom at the time. For the bigger butterflies like the Monarch you will see them in Late May early June after their migration from Mexico. These Monarchs tend to be beaten up because of their long journey. You may wish to wait until the next generation come out in order to capture the idea butterfly.

The time of day can also be key to get a great shot. Butterflies can be jumpy and hard to get the perfect set up for the shot. To better your chances for a great shot go out and hunt in the morning. In the cool air the butterflies tend to be sluggish and cannot react as fast . As the day warms up the butterfly becomes more active and harder to photograph. High noon tends to be the worst time to hunt for butterflies. The butterflies are warmed up, really jumpy, and sometime drunk off of the nectar they had been drinking.

What to bring on the hunt? First bring a fast and good lens that can get good close ups. I use my 24-135mm lens. I can capture a good tight photo without being too close and spooking my subject. Macro lens are good and make sure you bring one on a cool morning, but with macro lens you have to be close to your subject and that will spook the butterfly away more often than none. So the longer zoom lens to help bring in the subject but not scare your subject is idea. And not only will it help keep your distance but the lens will help compress the background and blur it out because of the shallow depth of field.

I will also use a tripod on the shoot. It would seem that a tripod would slow you up. But if you keep the head loose enough you can line up your shot and still have a stable enough platform so there is no blurs caused by camera shakes. Anytime you can use a tripod is a good time to use it. For most of the photos you could be shooting around 60th to 250th shutter speed depending on ISO, light available, and f-stop your using. Those shutter speeds seem fast enough but I can tell you I have blown plenty of great shots do to the slights shake of my hand.

There are two types of ways to capture your subject. One is to actively spot and stalk your pray and the other is to sit and wait. Both have their pros and cons. Stalking the pray is the easy way to find and get your photo. You have to move with caution and have your camera preset to take that first shot, cause that maybe the only shot you get. Sometimes it is easier to just wait at a spot that the butterfly is flying around at the time. Eventually one will arrive and until they do you can get your shot set up for that quick shot. The draw back is that you could be waiting for a long time.

The best method is the combination of the two, stalk and wait. I have had more luck with that method. You get yourself set up around an area the butterflies congregate . Then I find an area, wide area where I can set up my exposure that I want. Then when a little beastie lands in the area you can pickup and move quickly to line up a shot. Because the exposure setting is the same around the area I have picked, I don’t have to worry about adjusting my settings. I can get that shot and maybe tweak the exposure for the next shot. Sometimes I can get three or four more photos before the butterfly takes off. And if they to take off, sometimes you can just stay still they may return.

Now that I have been shooting the butterflies for a while I have been trying to frame them in more of an unconventional way. What I mean is that I don’t want to just take the usually shot from above with the wings open. I am pushing myself to frame the butterfly in such away that the environment is as much a part of the subject as the butterfly. The photo below is a good example of what I am after. The butterfly is important so it remained in focus but I added the two other cone flowers and kept the out of focus. That way the two subjects do not compete for your attention. The butterfly is the main draw and the flowers are secondary.

So now it is your turn to try your hand at photographing butterflies. It is not easy but using the stalk and wait approach and a little patience you will be successful over time. If you want to see more of my photos of butterflies stop by my face book page. If you want post a photo or send me a link to your photo. I would like to see other photographers shots.