Four tips for better butterfly photography on location
In two previous blogs I described how to prepare your butterfly trip and what equipment to bring. Today, I will share four tips for when you are on location.
Look for butterflies that settled for the night: do you have at least two days at the same location? Then this is the best tip of all. At the end of the day when the sun starts to set, butterflies will look for a place to sleep. Some do this in the forest treetops and you will never find them, but many sleep on plants or flowers. The trick is very simple: follow the butterflies to their bedtime place, memorize the place and return the next morning. You can then walk straight to the right place and start shooting while the butterfly is still warming up
An Adonis Blue (Polyommatus bellargus) in late September afternoon at 17:56, France.
Go to eye-level: if you are a beginner, it pays off to get on your knees and eye-level with plants and flowers. Check them one by one for butterflies resting. A tiring task but usually with good results. Over time I have experienced I have developed an “eye” for spotting butterflies and it takes me much less time than when I started this hobby.
Use the early morning sun: many butterflies, such as Blues, Browns and Skippers, have a habit of sleeping in the grass or perched on branches or flowers. In the first hour or so after sunrise, the sun will light them up like candles, as those living creatures reflect a tiny bit of sunlight. It takes some practice and a trained eye (see previous bullet) but once you know what to look for, it makes butterfly-spotting a breeze. Through years of training and experience, I can now spot a butterfly as small as a Blue from ten meters away.
A Grizzled skipper (Pyrgus malvae) lights up like a candle in the grass. Picture taken in April at 07:39 in The Netherlands.
Put your pants in your socks: yes, you should. And tuck your shirt in your pants too. It is one of the best ways to prevent ticks access to your skin. Preferably, I have only my fore-arms exposed and my head. It decreases the risk of ticks substantially and ticks may carry Lime disease. Agreed, it does look a little odd, but hey, we are in the business of butterfly photography, we are not competing in a fashion show…
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This post is all about Satyrinae, a subfamily of the Nymphalidae (brush-footed butterflies) with brown as a common ground colour. Therefore this subfamily is also known as “browns”. We encountered several members of this subfamily in Hungary such as the very common Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus), Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) and Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina). You can spot these three almost across the European continent.
More interesting to me were three lifers, the first of which as a pretty common sight on the edges of woodland to grassland: the Woodland Grayling (Hipparchia fagi). This particular specimen was warming up on a rock at 07:54. It took us about ten attempts before we came close enough with our big white primes to take a picture.
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM f/5 1/640 ISO 100
At the same rocky hill, the Dryad (Minois dryad) was flying by the dozens. However, abundance does not always guarantee a good picture. It seems these butterflies are among the most alert ones, easily disturbed and seeming to stake you out from miles away. This was the best I could make of it:
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM f/5.6 1/500 ISO 200
On our last day, a rocky path led us to an abandoned quarry near the hamlet of Cseréphalu.
At first, I thought I spotted a regular Grayling (Hipparchia semele) and I took a quick picture as evidence. Upon closer inspection on my screen, the butterfly looked a little odd. We took greater effort in producing a decent photograph, and that was a good decision as it turned out to be a False Grayling (Arethusana arethusa). Small wonder that it looked like the regular grayling. A nice find!
Twelve different species of fritillary in just five days.
In five days in Hungary, we saw twelve different species of fritillaries. It was really “fun with fritillaries” in Hungary. Here are some of the best images from the trip.
On our first day, we spotted this Lesser Spotted Fritillary (Melitaea trivia) basking in the morning sun. A fresh specimen and a nice addition to our trip gallery.
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM f/5 1/640 ISO 100
The next day, we returned to this particular field before sunrise. I found its sibling the Spotted Fritillary (Melitaea didyma) covered in dew drops, its head already lightly lit by the rising sun. The image timestamp says 05:58 (ouch!).
I had left my tripod at the farm and regretted it. There was a very slight breeze, just enough to make the subject go in-and-out of focus. This is about the only sharp image left out of the dozen or so that I took.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM f/5 1/200 ISO 320
There can only be one fritillary that stands symbolic for the abundance of the Hungarian butterfly fauna. That fritillary should be the Silver-Washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia). We saw it everywhere we went and in large numbers. Up tp 50 specimens feeding together was a common spectacle. I am particularly happy that I managed another addition to the black-and-white gallery.
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM f/4 1/640 ISO 400
The last butterfly is the one that I worked hardest for. This Small pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria selene) was pretty warmed-up and flew like a madmen across a grassland. I wanted its picture taken before the stormclouds would gather and rain would start pooring down. It was bloody hot and the humidity was oppressive while I chased it, waiting for it to settle. Everytime I approached it flew away. It was maddening. Then the stormclouds actually helped: the butterfly felt the rain approaching and decided to settle down for good. I had ample opportunity to take a series of pictures with different apertures and with flash. Just before raindrops started to fall in earnest, I was done and made it back to the car just in time.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM f/5 1/160 ISO 400
Hungary is the land of yellows in its endless fields of sunflowers:
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM f/9 1/125 ISO 160
Hungary is also the land of blues. Blue butterflies from the Polyommatinae subfamily to be precise. I counted at least a dozen species some of which were lifers to me, such as this Turquoise Blue (Polyommatus dorylas):
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM f/7.1 1/400 ISO 100
Another frequent flyer was the Chequered Blue (Scolitantides orion):
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM f/5.6 1/640 ISO 100
Mud-puddling in Aggletek NP were the common Silver-studded Blue (Plebejus argus) and another lifer, the Eastern short-tailed Blue (Cupido decoloratus):
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM f/5.6 1/320 ISO 100
Last but not least a specimen that also occurs in The Netherlands, but this is by far the best picture I ever took: the Short-tailed blue (Cupido argiades). Taken in Bükk NP, you can see the sun already alluminating the background while the dew-covered butterfly is still in the shadows. “Like”!
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM f/5.6 1/200 ISO 100