I often claim to be an eclectic photographer in that I will photograph anything from wildlife to abandoned vehicles. This has never been so true since my long suffering wife, Tricia and I moved to Corfu, a Greek island in the Ionian from our native UK. We now find ourselves living on the side of a mountain with panoramic views over Albania and northern Greece. The seasons are different and the light is brighter. Weather can range from below freezing to over 40°C.
Flora and fauna are, in many cases, different. It is not unusual for us to encounter snakes or tortoises on our land. We are privileged to see quite a different array of birds to that which we encountered in the London suburbs. Buzzards and owls are commonplace. However today, I want to concentrate on something far smaller … butterflies and moths. With the exception of photographing Hummingbird Hawk moths, this post relates mainly to butterflies.
Like most of us, I occasionally frequent Facebook and most of the groups that I belong to relate to Corfu. I became aware of a group called Corfu Butterflies and Other Wildlife which was started by Dr Dan Denahar. It is important to realise that I know nothing about lepidoptery! However, photographing butterflies and moths present the photographer with a number of disciplines to master. I am still attempting to master them but the following represents my observations born out of experience and a little research.
Butterflies and moths tend to be easily disturbed and so, a long lens with a macro facility is a good place to start. That way, you don’t need to get too close. I use a Panasonic 45mm – 200mm zoom lens which being part of my micro four thirds system is the equivalent to a 90mm – 400mm lens on a standard DSLR. Shooting at maximum zoom requires a lot of practice if shooting hand-held.
A dedicated macro lens can produce some amazing shots in the hands of an experienced butterfly photographer. To date, my budget (not to mention my wife 🙂 ) has prevented the purchase of such a lens! Extension tubes and teleconverters may also produce good results. My attempts with add-on close-up lenses have been less than impressive. They are relatively inexpensive. Your experiences may differ.
ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture
When using a long lens, hand-held, it stands to reason that as high a shutter speed as is possible is desirable so as to eliminate camera shake. This has to be balanced against the aperture and ISO settings. As my preferred lens has a very modest maximum aperture, I tend to crank the ISO setting higher than I would normally use so that I can make use of a higher shutter speed. I frequently shoot at 400 – 800 ISO for this reason. Generally I would advocate the fastest possible shutter speed.
If you are trying to isolate the subject from the background, as large an aperture is of course important. I tend to try and balance all three assisted by changing my position and altering the zoom. A little experimentation will certainly pay dividends. A shallow depth of field will produce some stunning images.
RAW or JPEG? Fit to Burst!
I generally shoot both RAW and JPG images as my camera allows me to do so. I always prefer to shoot RAW where possible because of the extra latitude it provides when it comes to post-processing an image. However, photographing butterflies is one instance where I sometimes will shoot in JPG only. The reason is pretty obvious. A lively subject matter can frequently be tamed by shooting in burst mode. Given the large size of RAW files, they take a relatively long time to write to the memory card.
A tripod would certainly help when it comes to taking sharp images but presents its own problems. By their very nature, butterflies are generally lively creatures and don’t stay in the same place long. Positioning a tripod can be difficult as the last thing that butterflies want is shadow. I have heard it said that a tripod with the ball head loosened can be useful but to me this seems to fly in the face of reason! I have never used a tripod when shooting butterflies.
Time of Day
Butterflies tend to become more active as the day warms up. Hence they can be easier to shoot early in the morning where they will often rest with their wings open. As a novice, I found this particularly useful but remember, a true lepidopterist is interested in more than the upper wings. The underwings will frequently be completely different. Much will depend upon the type of image you are seeking to achieve.
Anticipation and Patience
Anticipation plays as big a part as patience. I found that after a while I began to recognise the plants that were attractive to the butterflies I was watching. By watching their movement, it is often possible to anticipate where they are going to alight. I would advocate firing off as many shots as you can. memory cards are cheap and can hold a tremendous amount of data. It must have been hell using a traditional film camera to shoot butterflies!
It is very tempting, when shooting something close to the ground, to do so from above. However, if you can get down closer to the butterfly’s level it will give a greater impression of it’s environment and will frequently produce a sharper image.
And Finally …
I cannot emphasise the importance of learning a little about your subject. For example if you know that a particular butterfly has a restricted diet, it makes sense to search it out where the relevant plant exists. Knowing what they feed on is probably the best place to start. If you want to attract butterflies to your garden, it makes sense to plant accordingly. Some of this becomes obvious in a very short while. For example, I have discovered that in our environment, the Hummingbird Hawkmoth is particularly fond of our blackcurrant sage and plumbago bushes.
In case you are interested in seeing some of my efforts, I have added a gallery of butterflies and moths here.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.